Friday, March 01, 2024

Bêlit: Shipwrecked - V. Castro


BÊLIT: SHIPWRECKED is the latest entry in the series of Robert E. Howard pastiches published as e-books by Titan Books. Not surprisingly, it’s a prequel to Howard’s story “Queen on the Black Coast” and takes place before Conan meets the pirate Bêlit and becomes part of her crew sailing on the ship Tigress. In SHIPWRECKED, Bêlit is already a fierce, well-known pirate, but not even she can turn aside a terrible storm that damages her ship and casts it, her, and her crew ashore on what appears at first to be a rather idyllic island.

But of course, dangers lurk in the jungles and behind the waterfalls of this scenic location, and not everyone will get off the island alive.

I’d never heard of the author of this story, who’s credited as V. Castro, but according to the note at the end, she’s written several well-regarded horror novels. SHIPWRECKED has some strong horror overtones as well. The writing is good all the way through this story, and Bêlit is a strong protagonist, but for some reason this tale never really connected with me. Bêlit is a little too unsympathetic for my taste. I kept reminding myself that she’s a pirate; she’s not necessarily supposed to be sympathetic. But it didn’t quite work, and neither did the somewhat graphic sex, which seemed out of place in a Howard pastiche. Howard’s stories sometimes had plenty of sex implied in them, but when you were writing for the pulp market, most such things had to be implied and there was a limit to what you could put on the page. I realize this isn’t the pulp era anymore, but my approach to pastiches is that they should be written as if you writing for the same markets as the original author. Does that make sense?

But as always, that’s just me. Despite my complaints, I found SHIPWRECKED to be entertaining for the most part and I’m glad Titan is doing this series even though some of the stories don’t quite hit the mark for me.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Neither Beg Nor Yield - Jason M. Waltz, ed. (Part 3)


Today we’re moving on to my thoughts on the next four stories in NEITHER BEG NOR YIELD, the big new sword and sorcery anthology from Rogue Blades Entertainment. The previous posts in this series can be found here and here.

Author Phil Emery and his character Corlagh are both new to me, although in his afterword to this story, editor Jason M. Waltz mentions that the character first appeared in Emery’s stories all the way back in the Seventies. “Golden Devils of the Crypt” is a post-apocalyptic yarn, set on Earth after a nuclear war wiped out much of humanity and gave rise to many different types of mutations and monsters. In the void left by science, sorcery has arisen to rule much of the world. It’s an interesting setup and certainly works as a setting for sword and sorcery stories. Barbarian Corlagh and thief Norad team up with an “astromancer” to battle an even worse threat. It’s a story packed with color and action. However, I have to say it’s also the first one in this volume that wasn’t really to my taste. Emery’s style reminds me of Clark Ashton Smith and C.L. Moore, two writers whose work I enjoy but only in small doses. Your mileage, as they say, may vary, and I suspect it would for many of you. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t dislike “Golden Devils of the Crypt”, I’m just not as enthusiastic about it as I have been the other stories so far.

Now, I have to pause and wallow in nostalgia for a few lines, so if you just want to read my comments on the next story, David C. Smith’s “The Undead of Sul-Atet”, feel free to skip on down and do so. As for me, I’m going back in my memory to the first time I attended the annual Robert E. Howard Days get-together in Cross Plains, almost thirty years ago. One of the other Howard fans there that day was David C. Smith. I immediately recognized his name as the co-author, with Richard C. Tierney, of several REH pastiche novels I’d read and enjoyed. We hit it off right away and had a long, enjoyable conversation that afternoon.

Jump ahead more than two decades to the year David C. Smith was the guest of honor at Howard Days, and when we started talking we picked up the conversation as if only a few weeks had passed rather than many years. He’s a great guy and a superb writer, and I was very glad to see that his character Engor (the protagonist of his novel ENGOR’S SWORD ARM) returns in “The Undead of Sul-Atet”. In this story, Engor unwillingly helps an old friend and comrade-in-arms make a deal with a demon, then leads his friend’s army into battle against a rival. The tale is told with a fine mixture of brooding intensity and bloody action, and Smith’s prose displays the sure-handed touch of a longtime master of the genre. This is just an absolutely terrific story, one of my favorites so far in this volume.

I’m a little confused about Frederick Tor. I think that’s a joint pseudonym under which several writers spin yarns about a thief and mercenary named Kaimer, who operates in a vast and sinister city known as Skovolis. In “The Shades of Nacross Hill”, Kaimer and two companions are in a huge cemetery bent on robbing some tombs when they discover that there are more things lurking there than the dead. As one of the characters puts it, the cemetery guards are there not to keep people out but to keep things in. I wasn’t sure about this one—it’s another tale that’s not exactly to my taste—but it won me over for the most part and I wound up thinking it was well-written and enjoyable.

Time for more nostalgia. Joe R. Lansdale is my oldest friend in the writing business, other than my wife. I started corresponding with him in the Seventies after seeing his address on a letter in a fanzine devoted to hardboiled fiction, THE NOT SO PRIVATE EYE. That was the same way I met Bill Crider and Tom Johnson, both sadly no longer with us. Joe and I have met in person many, many times, and there’s no more entertaining conversationalist in the world. So I’m biased about Joe’s work, and his story in this anthology, “The Organ Grinder’s Monkey”, is a wonderful tall tale about mechanic Greasy Bob, his weapon of choice, a wrench called Ajax, his sidekick Olo, and the car in which they can travel between dimensions/alternate universes/other realms/whatever you want to call them. It’s fast and funny, and if you squint your eyes and hold your mouth just right, it’s almost sword and sorcery. But you’ll have a good time reading it, that’s for sure.

So out of this set of four stories, we have one that’s pure, classic sword and sorcery and three that are varying degrees of offbeat. But they’re all good, and NEITHER BEG NOR YIELD maintains its momentum as a top-notch anthology.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Movies I've Missed (Until Now): The Outriders (1950)


I usually check to see what old Western movie the digital TV channel GRIT is running on Saturday nights. GRIT shows old Western movies all the time, of course, but for some reason when they run one on Saturday night that I haven’t seen before, I try to watch it. Most recently, it was THE OUTRIDERS, a Joel McCrea film from 1950 that not only had I never seen, I don’t remember ever even hearing of it before. So I had to check it out, of course.

The movie opens late in the Civil War. McCrea, Barry Sullivan, and James Whitmore are three Confederate soldiers who escape from a Union prison camp in Missouri. They throw in with a gang of irregulars led by Jeff Corey and are sent all the way to Santa Fe, where they’re supposed to infiltrate a wagon train taking several loads of hides back to St. Louis. Hidden under those hides, however, is a million dollars in gold headed for the Union treasury. Corey plans to steal it and take it to Richmond to prop up the Confederacy, but in order to do that, McCrea, Sullivan, and Whitmore have to lead the wagon train into an ambush.

Tensions develop among the three men, of course, and are made worse when a beautiful young woman played by Arlene Dahl joins the wagon train. There are Indian attacks, a flooded river, a tragic death, some fisticuffs, and finally an epic showdown. Western movie fans will have a pretty good idea what’s coming, all the way through.

Along the way, however, there’s some spectacular scenery (besides Arlene Dahl), excellent photography, and a lot of action. McCrea is his usual stalwart self and Corey hams it up effectively as the epitome of wide-eyed evil. There are a couple of lapses of logic in the plot that could have been explained away easily with a line or two, but mostly things hang together all right. THE OUTRIDERS is worth watching for Western fans, as long as your expectations aren’t set too high.

While watching this, I was struck by the fact that when it comes to Westerns, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott are practically interchangeable. I think McCrea had considerably more range and could play effectively in different kinds of films. For example, I can’t imagine Scott in DEAD END or SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS. But the characters they played in Westerns were almost identical. THE OUTRIDERS would have been the same movie with Scott in McCrea’s part. So it’s kind of fitting that they’re both in RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, with Scott playing a little against type for a change. And that’s a movie that I ought to watch again, one of these days.

Monday, February 26, 2024

The Floods of Fear - John and Ward Hawkins


As this novel opens, disastrous flooding from spring rains and snowmelt has spread over a large region, and a group of convict laborers under the command of one guard are stacking sandbags along a dike, trying to keep it from collapsing. But they’re doomed to fail, and when the dike gives way it’s a catastrophe that leaves only three men alive: Donavan, a murderer; Peebles, an armed robber; and Tom Sharkey, the guard who was in charge of the work detail. It’s no surprise that the three of them wind up together, trying to survive. Then, a short time later, they come across Elizabeth Matthews, a pretty young college girl who’s also been stranded by the terrible flood. Peebles wants the girl for himself, Sharkey wants to get the two convicts back behind bars, and Donavan, well, Donavan has his own agenda, and it includes murder and revenge.

Once that set-up is in place—and it really doesn’t take long—THE FLOODS OF FEAR becomes a pure, white-knuckled, man vs. nature/man vs. man suspense novel, with a little bit of a Gold Medal hardboiled crime angle as well. This wasn’t a Gold Medal book, but it certainly could have been. Instead, THE FLOODS OF FEAR by the writing team of brothers John and Ward Hawkins was serialized in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST in 1956, published in hardback by Dodd, Mead that same year, reprinted in 1957 by Popular Library under the title A GIRL, A MAN, AND A RIVER, and finally reprinted recently by Black Gat Books, the edition I read.

This is an excellent novel, well written and very much character-driven but also with plenty of action. Donavan, especially, is an intriguing and compelling character. Not everything turns out the way you’d expect at first, although along the way it becomes apparent what the authors are building toward. And the big finale doesn’t disappoint, either. I really enjoyed THE FLOODS OF FEAR and give it a high recommendation for readers who want an intelligent, fast-moving novel of suspense. It’s available in e-book and paperback editions on Amazon and from the publisher.



Sunday, February 25, 2024

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Detective Novels Magazine, February 1939


That looks like a Richard Lyons cover to me, but I could certainly be wrong about that. This issue of DETECTIVE NOVELS MAGAZINE has stories by some fine authors in it. The lead novella is by the always entertaining E. Hoffmann Price, and there's also a novella by Norman A. Daniels, who's almost as dependable as Price. Three short stories round out the issue. The three authors responsible for those are Donald Bayne Hobart (with an entry from his long-running series about private eye Mugs Kelly); a pulpster I haven't heard of, Avin H. Johnston, who wrote more than two dozen detective, Western, and adventure yarns for various pulps; and John L. Benton, a Thrilling Group house-name who was probably Daniels in this case but might have been Hobart. I don't own a copy of this pulp, but it looks like it would be enjoyable reading if I did.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Double Action Western, September 1953


This is a pulp that I own and read recently. That’s my copy in the scan. The cover is another by A. Leslie Ross, even though it’s not credited as such. The distinctive hats make me confident that it’s Ross’s work, as does the sketchiness of the background which was common on his pulp covers from this era.

I don’t recall if I’ve read anything by Richard Brister before (and I’m too lazy to look it up), but I’m impressed by his lead novelette in this issue. “Death Rides for Doom Ranch” (I’m betting editor Robert W. Lowndes came up with that title) has an unusual protagonist: a doctor sent to prison for the mercy killing of his best friend who had cancer. After escaping, the doctor heads west, where a disastrous train derailment gets him involved with a rancher and the rancher’s beautiful daughter. At this point, I was expecting a save-the-ranch story, albeit with an offbeat protagonist, but that’s not what Brister has in mind. Instead he introduces the local sheriff, who’s in love with the rancher’s beautiful daughter, and what we get is a story that mixes psychological suspense and soap opera, with very little action. What’s surprising to me is how much I enjoyed it anyway as Brister kept me flipping the pages to find out what was going to happen. That takes some skillful writing. I’m going to have to delve deeper into Brister’s work.

As we all know from the Internet, Leo Tolstoy has taught us that there are only three plots in fiction: A man goes on a journey. A stranger comes to town. Godzilla versus Megashark. (I’m sorry. I just really like that meme.) Barney Stuart’s short story “He Just Walked Away” takes place entirely in the small town of Tall Timber, Montana, so it doesn’t really fit the first category, and there are no monsters in it, so this must be a “stranger comes to town” story. The stranger is a bad guy, too, and it looks like he’s going to cause considerable trouble until one of the locals takes action against him in an unusual manner. There’s a sort of twist ending that’s not very surprising, but it is effective. This is Barney Stuart’s only credit in the Fictionmags Index. A pseudonym? Who knows? But it’s a decent little yarn.

“Command Performance” is by David James, a fairly prolific pulpster whose work appeared only in pulps from Columbia Publications, which always makes me suspect a house-name. Be that as it may, this story has an interesting protagonist, too: a former New York City police detective who has to move west for his health and winds up becoming the sheriff of a mining town. A famous female opera singer comes to town for the opening of its new opera house. The sheriff has a crush on the opera singer and gives everybody he arrests the choice of sitting in jail or buying a ticket for the opening night performance. That results in a packed house, but cowboys and miners being what they are, chaos ensues. This is a decent setup and the story is mildly amusing, but in the end it doesn’t amount to much and seems like it needed another plot angle or two to make it interesting.

C.C. Staples wrote about 50 Western and adventure stories for various pulps between the late Thirties and the early Fifties. His story in this issue, “Golden Boy”, is about an Arizona Ranger on the trail of a horse thief turned murderer and kidnapper. It’s not bad, plenty of action and fairly well written. I’m not going to rush out and look for more stories by Staples, but I enjoyed this one.

Robert Sidney Bowen is probably best remembered for his air war stories, but he wrote quite a few Western and detective yarns, too. “Gambler’s Pot” in this issue is a rare Western pulp story in that it’s written in first person, by a crooked gambler who has a plan to bilk a successful rancher. Naturally, things don’t work as he expects. There’s really not much to this story, but Bowen was a good enough storyteller to make it readable, if not memorable.

Norman Ober wrote a lot for the Columbia pulps, mostly sports stories but some Westerns, too. His story in this issue, “Election in Creek Bottom”, is a comedy about a crooked saloon owner running his own candidate in the election for sheriff, only to have the scheme backfire on him. It’s a fairly amusing yarn and could have made a good movie starring, say, Don Knotts.

“Drygulch Range” by E.E. Clement uses the save-the-ranch plot that I thought I was going to get in Richard Brister’s story, only this novelette doesn’t have an offbeat protagonist. Instead, our hero is the usual drifting cowpoke, in this case stalwart Texan Steve Crane who is on his way to the Black Hills of South Dakota to start a horse ranch there. A reference to the Spanish-American War places the time period of this one around the turn of the century. Crane encounters a pint-size rustler hunter and then the little boy’s beautiful older sister shows up and mistakes Crane for a rustler, too, at least at first. A little bit later, a bushwhacker tries to ventilate him. Yep, our boy Steve shore is ridin’ into trouble.

While the plot of this one may not be anything new, Lowndes does an excellent job of spinning an entertaining yarn. He gives us a tough, likable protagonist, plenty of action, and a few humorous touches. Some of the “yuh mangy polecat” dialogue is so over the top, I’m convinced his tongue was firmly in his cheek as he wrote this, but if he’s making a little fun of the genre’s conventions, he’s doing it in a very affectionate way. I enjoyed this one a lot, and I’m going to have to go through my stack of Columbia Western pulps looking for more E.E. Clement stories.

There are also several fact-based features by Lauran Paine, Lee Floren (writing as Lee Thomas), and A. Hyatt Verrill, but as usual I just skimmed these. I don’t actually read features in a Western pulp unless they’re about some historical subject in which I’m particularly interested.

This is a pretty solid issue of DOUBLE ACTION WESTERN, another good example of how Lowndes, as an editor, could make something out of almost nothing (the magazine’s tiny budget). There are no truly outstanding stories, although the Brister and the Clement novelettes come close, but they’re all readable and entertaining.

Friday, February 23, 2024

A Rough Edges Rerun: Odds Against Linda - Steve Ward (Norman Rosenthal)


(This post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on January 16, 2009.)

Steve Ward’s ODDS AGAINST LINDA seems to be the only book Ward ever published, at least under that name. The writing is good enough, and the name so generic, that I have to wonder if Ward is a pseudonym.

The narrator of this novel is Peter Conrad, a Korean War vet who lost a leg in that conflict. Following the war, he moved to Mexico to make a living as a commercial artist, but as the book opens, he’s returning to San Francisco with his new wife Linda. Before he even gets out of the airport, though, he gets knocked out, kidnapped, and Linda disappears. From there on, Things Get Worse. Soon enough, Pete’s on the run, charged with a murder he didn’t commit, and as he himself notes, a guy with one leg can’t do much running.

This is a short novel (107 pages), but the author packs in a lot of stuff: a piano-playing dwarf, beautiful strippers, double identities, gunplay, brutal fistfights, torture, truth serum . . . You get the idea. Halfway through, there are two big twists, one of which you’ll see coming. But the other you might not. I didn’t. The whole plot is familiar enough that you’ll probably have a pretty good idea where the author is going, but he throws in enough oddball notes along the way and the writing is smooth enough so that I found reading the novel a fast, very entertaining experience. Highly recommended if you run across a copy of it.

But I’d still like to know if Steve Ward was really somebody else.

(In the comments on the original post, Bill Crider clued me in that Steve Ward was really Norman Rosenthal, who wrote another Ace Double novel, SILENCED WITNESS, under his own name. Below is more information about him that I got from an email exchange with his son.)

 “I found your blog, posted January, 2009, about the ACE paperback book title, "Odds Against Linda." I was very pleased to read what you had to say. Steve Ward was a pseudonym for Norman Rosenthal, who also wrote "Silenced Witness." They are the same person and that I know because it is my dad. He loved to write and wrote on the side while holding down a regular job. Unfortunately he had no other books published. He was working on several, but died before any could be completed.”

“If you would like, here's some biographical information on my father. During WWII my dad was a bombardier on a B-24. He flew out of Italy and while on a mission over Vienna was shot down and became a POW. He spent his time in the famous Stalag Luft III until General Patton liberated the camp at the end of the war.

In 1947, he graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. He and my mother lived in California for almost 20 years where he worked as a general manager for an established newspaper publisher. While in California he belonged to the Northern California Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America and at one time held an officers position in the chapter. Such people as Lenore Glen Offord and Anthony Boucher also belonged at that time.

My parents then moved to Ohio where he became Advertising and Marketing Director for Jacobs, Visconsi & Jacobs, a shopping center developer. (Yes, the same Jacobs that owned the Cleveland Indians, but not until several years after my dad retired).

My dad not only loved to write, but to read and listen to music. He had a very extensive library and record collection. Writing was a passion of his, but it's hard to support a family on writing alone. "Silenced Witness" was published in 1955. He then wrote "Odds Against Linda" under the name of Steve Ward which was published in 1960. Both were written while living in California. Over the years he had worked on several novels but because of work, was never ever able to finish any of them to his satisfaction. However, after his retirement, he did have two short stories published in the Sunday magazine section of the "Cleveland Plain Dealer." He retired in the late 1980s and really started to delve into his writing. Unfortunately shortly afterwards he became ill with Alzheimer's and it progressed rather rapidly before he could finish any other books. He died in November, 1998.”

(Thanks to Norman Rosenthal's son for this information. I'm glad I was able to pull it all together into one post. I have a copy of Rosenthal's other novel SILENCED WITNESS somewhere, but I've never read it.)

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The Belen Breakout - Orrin Russell


The protagonist of this short Western novel is a young man named Balum. I assume that’s his first name; we don’t ever get another. He’s an orphan, and I get the feeling his parents died of some illness. But that’s another assumption because the author doesn’t fill in that detail, either. What we know is that he’s 16 years old, he’s alone in the world except for a horse, the bank has taken the family ranch in West Texas, and he’s heading into Mexico to start a new life.

Things do not go well for Balum.

For a while, it looks like things may work out all right. He gets a job as a vaquero on a ranch and does well at it. But he runs afoul of the foreman and makes things worse by falling in love with the ranch owner’s beautiful granddaughter. Not surprisingly, Balum winds up in trouble and is taken to Mexico City where he’s thrown into a notorious prison known as Belen. That begins a years-long ordeal of violence and survival, an ordeal that Balum might not survive without the help of a fellow prisoner, an old Irish prizefighter.

Finally, Balum receives some news that makes him realize he has to get out of Belen—and the only way to do that is to break out. Hence the title of this novel.

I don’t know much about the author. Orrin Russell sounds like a pseudonym to me, but it may not be. That may be the author’s real name. He’s written and self-published several Western series, including ten more books about Balum. THE BELEN BREAKOUT is a prequel to that series, and as far as I can tell, it’s only available (for free) by signing up for the author’s mailing list on his website.

I’m glad that I did so because I have to say, THE BELEN BREAKOUT took me completely by surprise. While the plot may be pretty traditional, this book is very well-written and reads more like the work of a seasoned author, one who’s turned out hundreds of Westerns. It reminded me very much of the sort of paperback Western series published in the Seventies such as Lassiter, Fargo, and Sundance, with a Piccadilly Cowboys influence as well. In fact, there were several times when I suspected that Orrin Russell might actually be British. The action is very well done, especially Balum’s spectacular escape from Belen Prison.

If you’re a fan of gritty Westerns with a tough, hardboiled protagonist, I give THE BELEN BREAKOUT a high recommendation. It’s not a book you’re likely to run across by accident, but I think it’s well worth seeking out.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Neither Beg Nor Yield - Jason M. Waltz, ed. (Part 2)


Last week, I reviewed the first four stories in NEITHER BEG NOR YIELD, the massive new sword and sorcery anthology from Rogue Blades Entertainment. This week I’m moving on to the next four stories.

I’ve read and enjoyed Steve Dilks’ Gunthar stories. His novella in this volume features one of his series characters I hadn’t encountered before, Bohun, a giant black warrior from a world that seems to be very loosely based on our own. “Harvest for the Blood-King” is set in an alternate version of Britain, which is ruled by a Rome-like empire called Valentia. Bohun and a Valentian soldier named Tibeirus are dispatched to rescue the son of a Valentian politician who has been kidnapped by barbarians that bear a resemblance to the Scots. Dilks doesn’t belabor the background or the world-building, though, a quality I’ve noticed in his work that I really like. He’s more about character and action, and he does a great job with both in this yarn. He’s written other stories about Bohun and I have to seek them out, because this one is excellent.

I’ve been a fan of Chuck Dixon’s work going all the way back to his great runs on THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN, THE PUNISHER, BATMAN, NIGHTWING, and AIRBOY. In recent years he’s become a bestselling novelist with his Levon Cade series (Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture, as they say). His story in this volume, “The Stone From the Stars”, features a new pair of heroes, Hagen and Pilsner, a couple of mercenaries who find themselves on the wrong side of a war and have to strike out on their own. They wind up trying to save a wizard and his beautiful redheaded daughter from a monster summoned up by an evil necromancer. This story has some great action scenes and really races along, and Hagen and Pilsner wind up being very likable protagonists. I thought at first they might be a bit of an homage to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but they’re actually very different from those characters and stand just fine on their own. This is a thoroughly enjoyable yarn.

John R. Fultz’s “Evil World” features a series character I hadn’t encountered before, an indomitable warrior named Gnori. This story begins when Gnori is a child and follows him as he becomes that fierce battler, giving the reader just the right amount of world-building as the story moves along but never sacrificing the pace and scope that give it an epic feel. This is the darkest story in the anthology so far, but it works very well considering the story that Fultz is telling. Another excellent tale.

Keith J. Taylor has been writing sword and sorcery tales even longer than Chuck Dixon. His series character Nasach the Firbolg, a reiver and mercenary in and around medieval Ireland, has been the protagonist of stories since the 1970s. In “Reckoning”, Nasach and some companions of his find themselves throwing in with a motley crew of pirates. The captain is married to a woman who may or may not be a mermaid, and he's convinced she can find a sunken treasure for them. Unfortunately for him, even though he doesn’t recognize Nasach, the Firbolg has an old grudge against him, and when the time is right, Nasach intends to settle that score. This is a wonderful story full of action and humor and color, and it’s very well-written. I haven’t read any of Taylor’s Nasach stories until now. I hope at some point there’ll be a complete collection of them.

Four more stories into the book now, and NEITHER BEG NOR YIELD hasn’t taken its foot off the gas. It’s picking up speed and getting even better. So far, this is a terrific anthology and I give it a very high recommendation. You can find the e-book edition on Amazon while the print editions are still in the works.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Adventure, January 1946


This is a pulp that I own and read recently. That’s my copy in the scan. The cover art is by Robert Stanley. I’m so used to seeing his work on mystery and Western pulps and paperbacks, I’m not sure I would have recognized it in a pure adventure setting like this. But it’s a good cover and I like it.

If you’re like me, you saw “One For France and One For Me” by Georges Surdez and thought, “Ah, a French Foreign Legion yarn!” Surdez was famous for them. But no, this novella (and it’s almost long enough to be an actual novel) takes place entirely in France. Captain Norman Kenton, an American pilot who was shot down over France during the war, returns several months after V-E Day to look up the members of the Resistance who helped him avoid capture by the Nazis. It’s not just gratitude that motivates Kenton. One of those Resistance members was a beautiful young woman.

But he runs into more trouble than he expects and finds himself involved in black marketeering, a vengeance quest against people who collaborated with the Germans, murder, espionage, and tragedy. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Well, it’s actually just okay, because the plot pokes along at an exasperating pace, and a lengthy flashback in the middle of the story derails things even farther. I generally like Surdez’s work, and the final scene of this one, which takes place in a courtroom, is pretty good, but things just take too long to get there. Good plot, good characters, not so good execution.

The next story, “Un-Reversible Error” by Wallis Reef, also involves a court case, as you might guess from the title. It’s a contemporary (for the time the pulp was published) Western mystery with the protagonist being an old sheriff. The tone is a little light without the story being an actual comedy. The plot involves a hoodlum who looks like he’s going to get away with murder until the sheriff comes up with a surprise. Not an outstanding yarn, but fairly entertaining.

Stuart Cloete’s name is familiar to me. I think I may even own a few of his novels set in Africa. His short story in this issue, “A Death in the Family”, is a grim tale about two twin brothers discussing a family tragedy that took place in the trenches of World War I. The whole thing is a little slow and bland until Cloete springs a wry, triple-twist ending that took me by surprise and redeems the story for the most part.

“The Peacekeeper” by Hugh Fullerton is a short bit of folklore/tall tale about Finn McCool. Or something. I can’t be more precise than that because I didn’t read much of the story before saying, “Nope, not for me.” Something about Fullerton’s style just grated on me.

“Blood and Guts” by William Langer is much better. It’s a well-written, character-driven story about an Army medic seeing his first action during an assault on a Japanese-held island in the Pacific.

“You Ain’t Gonna Believe This” is a Runyonesque tale about a prizefighter with four arms. Lawton Ford’s story evokes a few smiles, but no outright chuckles.

“The Shadow of a Mountain” by William Arthur Breyfogle is set in an unnamed Central American country where the German general who’s in command of the army stirs up a war with a neighboring country. There’s also a volcano that’s about to erupt. This starts out like it’s going to be a comedy but turns pretty grim before it’s over. Not a bad story, but decidedly odd.

It's not surprising that my favorite story in the issue is by Day Keene, who had a good career in the pulps before becoming one of the top paperback authors of the Fifties and Sixties. “In the Halls of Montezuma” is a crime yarn that also has a military angle, as a prizefighter-turned-gangster sets out getting his revenge on the guy who caused his fall from grace. The big twist at the end is completely predictable, but Keene was such a good storyteller that it doesn’t matter.

The final story in the issue, “The Mule That Loined Brooklyn” by Nick Boddie Williams, is similar in one way to Surdez’s “One For France and One For Me”. It’s about a downed pilot trying to escape from the enemy in World War II, only Williams’ story is set in Burma, the enemies are the Japanese, and the story is more of a farce than anything else. It’s okay, but lightweight enough to float off.

With that lineup of stories, this issue never rises above the merely okay level and flirts with below average. Day Keene’s story is good but definitely a minor entry in his body of work, and it’s the highlight. Langer’s story about the Army medic is also worth reading. There are some good issues of ADVENTURE from this era, but this one is pretty forgettable.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Famous Western, March 1939


This issue of FAMOUS WESTERN has a good cover, but I'm afraid I don't know the artist. The only guess I can venture is A. Leslie Ross, and I'm not convinced of that at all. There are some good writers inside this issue, with the best-known being Harry Sinclair Drago with a novella called, "The Gun Notch That Didn't Count", a great title. There's also a story by Abner J. Sundell under his "Cliff Campbell" pseudonym that later became a house name when other authors besides Sundell began using it. Another house name, James Rourke, also has a story in this issue, plus yarns by some apparently real but completely forgotten writers: Wilcey Earle, Brian Loomis, Gratton Boone, and Thomas Tyler Jackson. I don't know anything about Gratton Boone, but it would be a great name for an evil gunman character. I don't own this issue of FAMOUS WESTERN. The scan and the author information come from the Fictionmags Index. 

Friday, February 16, 2024

A Rough Edges Rerun: Dwellers in the Mirage - A. Merritt


(This post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on January 9, 2009. I've been pretty swamped lately and haven't had much time to work on the blog, but I figure some of you won't have read a review from 15 years ago. There'll be new posts coming soon, but probably more reruns, too.)

A. Merritt was one of the big names in fantasy fiction from the Twenties and Thirties, when his novels and stories were first published in the pulps, through the Seventies, when his books were still readily available in paperback reprints, mostly from Avon. However, while I’ve been aware of his work for years, I’ve actually read very little of it. I recall reading his novel THE SHIP OF ISHTAR many years ago, and I think I liked it, although at this late date I’m not sure anymore. A few years ago I read the original pulp version of the novelette “The Moon Pool” (Merritt had a habit of revising his stuff as it went through later editions) and liked it as well.

Now I’ve read his novel DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE, and I can see why his books were popular for so long. There’s a lot to like here: a modern hero who’s the unknowing reincarnation of an ancient warrior-king; a lost civilization located in an isolated mountain valley in Alaska, which due to volcanic heating is actually tropical; a couple of beautiful women, one good, one evil, who have a habit of running around in few, if any, clothes (I told you the weather was tropical); a couple of evil high priests; a tentacled, otherworldly horror from a different dimension; castles, strongholds, and epic battles. Just my kind of book, in other words.


What sets Merritt apart from most other heroic fantasy authors, especially the ones from the pulp era, is his leisurely, highly descriptive style. It takes a little getting used to, but I found myself being drawn into the prose. Merritt comes up with some really striking images in this novel. The drawback to this is that despite all the conflict going on, there’s really not much action. The few battle scenes are very well-done, though, and the big showdown at the end between the hero and one of the villains is a great, bloody, hand-to-hand fight.

I enjoyed DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE quite a bit. Merritt’s no Robert E. Howard, mind you – Howard would have compressed the plot of this novel into a novella, probably to great effect – but I definitely plan to read more of Merritt’s work. I’ve already picked up a copy of his novel THE METAL MONSTER, and I also have a reprint of the pulp versions of “The Moon Pool” and “Conquest of the Moon Pool”, which were combined into the novel THE MOON POOL. With any luck, I’ll get to them soon.

(As you probably guessed, I did not get to those other books by Merritt that I mentioned. I did read his novel SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN a few years ago. Maybe I'll read more by him one of these days . . . !)

Monday, February 12, 2024

Neither Beg Nor Yield: Stories With S&S Attitude - Jason M. Waltz, ed. (Part 1)


At almost 500 pages and more than 180,000 words, NEITHER BEG NOR YIELD: STORIES WITH S&S ATTITUDE, from Rogue Blades Entertainment, is the biggest Sword and Sorcery anthology ever published. I’ll be going through it for the next few weeks, a few stories at a time, because with my age-diminished attention span, that’s the best way for me to tackle a big book like this.

First of all, I like the cover by M.D. Jackson, and the interior illustrations he provides are really top-notch. I like them a lot. The same can be said for “It’s Not Gentle”, the introduction by editor and publisher Jason M. Waltz, which does as good a job of nailing down the appeal of Sword and Sorcery as I’ve ever come across.

The first story is “Hunters and Prey” by C.L. Werner, which is set in feudal Japan. Now, I don’t mind admitting that I’m not fond of stories set in Japan, so I might have been inclined not to care much for this one. But Werner is an excellent writer and I enjoyed this yarn quite a bit. I mean, you’ve got an outlaw samurai (Shintaro Oba, one of Werner’s series characters), a disgraced samurai turned bounty hunter, and a spider-demon that lives in the caves inside a mountain. Put those three elements together and of course it’s going to be a good story! I haven’t read much by Werner and I need to read more. His work is very good.

Several years ago I read a collection of Kormak novellas by William King and really enjoyed it. I planned to read more, but somehow (remember that attention span I mentioned above?), that good intention slipped away from me. So I was happy to see a Kormak story in this book, and it's a special one indeed, an origin story of sorts that looks back over Kormak’s life and career as a Guardian, charged with seeking out evil and destroying it. “Prince of Dragons” has a nice elegiac feel to it, along with some good action and a strong protagonist. Once again I say I have to read more of Kormak’s adventures. Maybe this time I’ll actually do it.

“Suspension in Silver” by Eric Turowski features another series character I hadn’t encountered before, the giant, monster-hunting biker known as Irons. “Wait a minute,” you say. “The hero of a sword and sorcery story is a biker? Is he transported to some other realm or what?” Well, you may not have said that, but I thought it when I started reading this one. I’m sort of a purist when it comes to sword and sorcery, and I just wasn’t sure about a story set in what’s basically our world, although it does have werewolves roaming around in Fargo, North Dakota. But again, the excellent, action-packed writing won me over. If sword and sorcery is largely a matter of attitude, the position this anthology takes, then “Suspension in Silver” does indeed qualify. I’m still on the fence about that, to be honest, but is this a good story? Absolutely. I enjoyed it and would gladly read more about Irons.

John C. Hocking is one of my all-time favorite sword and sorcery authors. In “Soldier, Seeker, Slayer”, he introduces a new character, a mutilated former soldier named Creon whose right hand has been replaced by a mystical weapon. Hocking drops us down in the middle of things with very little world-building or explanations of what’s going on, but that’s all right. It becomes obvious pretty quickly that Creon doesn’t really know what’s going on, either. His mind is a jumble of memories—perhaps false—and uncertainty, but he knows he has a job to do and he’s going to do it. Hocking gradually gives us, and Creon, enough information to figure things out on the way to a very satisfying ending. This is an excellent story all the way around, as you’d expect from Hocking.

With these four stories, NEITHER BEG NOR YIELD gets off to a very strong start. I’ll be back in due time with reviews of the next few entries. The e-book edition is available now on Amazon, with print editions in the works.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Street & Smith's Complete Stories, March 15, 1933


Okay, correct me if I'm wrong, but this H.W. Scott cover features a Mexican vaquero shaking hands with a chimpanzee, right? And what's that in his other hand, a candlestick or some sort of little idol? I don't know what story this illustrates, but I want to read it! Unfortunately, I don't own a copy, but this issue of STREET & SMITH'S COMPLETE STORIES looks like a good one. Authors inside include the great Frederick Nebel, the also great Frederick C. Davis (ghosting a White Wolf story under the name of the series' creator Hal Dunning), Forbes Parkhill, Harry Harrison Kroll, and forgotten pulpsters James Clarke, William Bruner, and Jack Hulick. I'm going to have to see if I can come up with a way to work a vaquero and a chimpanzee into one of my books . . .

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Texas Rangers, October 1951


This is a pulp that I own and read recently. That’s my copy in the scan. The cover is by Sam Cherry, who did nearly all of them for TEXAS RANGERS during this era.

The Jim Hatfield novel in this issue, “Riders of the Storm”, is attributed to Tom Curry in the Fictionmags Index, the final Curry novel in the series. However, having read it, there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that it’s actually by A. Leslie Scott. It’s Scott’s work, through and through. I was tipped off to this by my friend Anders Nilsson, who told me that the story was rewritten into a Walt Slade paperback called TRIGGER TALK that was published by Pyramid Books five years later under the Bradford Scott pseudonym.

I was baffled as to how a Hatfield novel by Tom Curry wound up being rewritten into a Walt Slade paperback, so I went to my shelves to see if I had a copy of the pulp version. Sure enough, I did, so I pulled it down and read it. I knew within a few pages that Scott was the actual author, not Curry, which explained why he felt free to cannibalize it for that paperback.


The story itself is an excellent entry in the Hatfield series. It opens with Hatfield and a fellow Ranger discovering a ship perched atop a bluff about twenty miles inland from Galveston. Hatfield theorizes that it was carried there by a tidal wave generated by a gigantic hurricane. That seems pretty far-fetched, but hey, it’s a pulp yarn so as I always say, sure, why not. Unfortunately for the new recruit riding with Hatfield, a gang of outlaws are unloading something from the ship and open fire on the two Rangers. The new fellow is killed, and Hatfield is wounded and knocked unconscious. When he comes to and finds his friend dead, he sets out on the owlhoots’ trail, which leads him to Galveston, which has indeed suffered tremendous damage from a hurricane. (The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900? It’s possible. The Hatfield novels weren’t very consistent with their time period, taking place anywhere from the mid-1870s to the late 1890s, depending on the author.)

The plot involves smuggling guns to Mexican revolutionaries and takes Hatfield from Galveston to the Big Thicket in East Texas and finally to Brownsville, down at the tip of Texas on the Rio Grande. It’s a little unusual in that it involves several action scenes on ships. Scott seems to have been trying to break away from his usual formula in the early Fifties, but it didn’t do him any good. His final Walt Slade novella in THRILLING WESTERN appeared earlier in 1951, and the next Hatfield novel in TEXAS RANGERS after this one, “Trail of Hunted Men”, was Scott’s last. But as I’ve mentioned before, he moved right on to paperbacks and probably made more money in the long run. “Riders of the Storm” is a very good story and I’m glad I was prompted to read it. There are also some good interior illustrations by H.L. Parkhurst in this novel.

Next up in this issue is Ralph Yergen’s short story “Vengeance on the Hoof”. It’s written mostly from the point of a view of a horse, a technique I don’t usually care for, and it’s a little hard to read because there’s quite a bit of animal abuse in it. However, Yergen won me over with this story about an outlaw’s horse, and it comes to a satisfying conclusion. Definitely better than I expected it to be.

“The Horsehair Noose” by Leslie Ernenwein is a reprint from the November 1945 issue of THE RIO KID WESTERN. It’s something of a rarity for a Western pulp because it’s a dying message mystery story. In order to prevent a range war, a sheriff has to figure out who murdered a local cattleman, based on a name scrawled in the dirt by the dying man and a few other clues. It’s not a particularly good dying message story, mind you, but I like Ernenwein’s style and I enjoyed this yarn.

“Buffalo Men” is by another veteran, dependable pulpster, J. Allan Dunn. It's a novelette reprinted from the September 1940 issue of THRILLING ADVENTURES. Set in the buffalo hunting era, it’s about the founding of Adobe Walls in the Texas Panhandle and the epic battle there between a few dozen buffalo hunters and a force of a thousand Indians led by the legendary Comanche chief Quanah Parker. In the first half of the story, Dunn sticks pretty close to the historical facts other than inventing a couple of fictional protagonists to be on hand for the battle, along with a renegade hunter to serve as a minor villain. He even has Bat Masterson on hand, which he was in one of his early exploits. In the battle itself, Dunn strays pretty far from history, having one of his fictional characters make the famous long-distance shot that was actually made by Billy Dixon, and changing the outcome of that shot, as well. Despite that, it’s a very well-written story and captures the feeling of the time and place quite well.

The short story “Payoff in Lead” is another reprint, this time from the October 1946 issue of THE RIO KID WESTERN. The author is Joseph Chadwick, one of the most dependable authors of hardboiled Western tales, and it’s a good one. An embittered ex-Confederate heads west on the trail of the carpetbagger who stole his land and his fiancée after the war. The protagonist finds the man he’s looking for, but things turn out much differently than he expected. A gritty, very satisfying story.

This issue wraps up with a new short story, “A Man’s Job” by Caddo Cameron, whose real name was Charles Richard Beeler. It’s about a young cowboy holding down a line camp by himself for the first time and his encounter with some outlaws. Another good one, with some nice action and a very likable protagonist.

Overall, this is a very solid issue of TEXAS RANGERS with stories ranging from good to excellent and not a really weak one in the bunch. I’m glad the question of who actually wrote the Hatfield novel caused me to pull it off the shelves and read it.

Friday, February 09, 2024

Guns of Tascosa - Ryan Fowler


Bounty hunters Frank Nolan and Ed Cole find themselves pinning on tin stars for the first time in their adventurous lives as they agree to be the co-marshals of Tascosa, a wild new town in the Texas Panhandle. The respectable citizens are living in fear of outlaw Brett Harding and his gang, and they turn to Nolan and Cole to deliver some law and order and make Tascosa a decent place to live. The new lawmen try to rally the town behind them, but there may be more hidden dangers in Tascosa than the two long-time trail partners are aware of.

GUNS OF TASCOSA is a traditional Western in the very best sense of the term, with stalwart heroes, despicable villains, a little humor and romance, and plenty of well-written action. Author Ryan Fowler, a prolific writer under his own and other names, spins his yarn with a breakneck pace and well-developed characterization.

And then, part of the way through the book, he springs a plot twist that I didn’t see coming at all. This is always a huge bonus as far as I’m concerned because I love it when a book surprises me. Fowler also brings a sense of gritty authenticity to this tale. It’s easy to see that he knows and loves the Texas Panhandle. This is excellent reading for fans of classic Westerns, and I give it a high recommendation. It's available for pre-order on Amazon.

Thursday, February 08, 2024

Freakshow Fallout


Last week I reviewed FREAKSHOW, the novel by Jacquin Sanders recently reprinted by Black Gat Books. As I sometimes do when I remember, I copied the review over onto Amazon and submitted it. It didn’t show up on FREAKSHOW’s page, which came as no surprise. About half the time when I submit a review to Amazon, it never appears, as if I had sent it into a black hole.

However, this time I actually got a response from Amazon, saying that they couldn’t publish my review because it didn’t meet their guidelines for one or more of these reasons:

Profanity

Harassment

Hate speech

Sexual content

Illegal activity

Private information

Of course, they didn’t tell me which of those things they found in the review. Personally, I don’t think the review contains any of those things, but you can read it for yourself, if you haven’t already, and see what you think.

Amazon also invited me to edit my review and resubmit it. I don’t think I’ll be doing that. If you’d like to pick up a copy of FREAKSHOW (it’s a very good novel), you can buy it directly from the good folks at Stark House Press/Black Gat Books.

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

The Fifth Key - George Harmon Coxe


Kent Murdock, ace crime photographer for the Boston Courier, is the protagonist of George Harmon Coxe’s longest-running mystery series. Actually, he doesn’t stay a crime photographer throughout the series. By the time THE FIFTH KEY takes place (1945), Murdock is the head of the Courier’s photography department, but he still takes on some assignments himself, like the one in this novel that takes him to New York City to shoot some publicity photos for a radio drama called Sob Sister. The series’ creator (the beautiful Sheila Vincent) and its director Owen Faulkner are both former newspaper people who Murdock knew when they worked for the Courier.

The series is on the verge of getting a big deal with a sponsor, which means that agents and advertising men are also involved, as are a washed-up Hollywood leading man who plays one of the major roles on the show and an up-and-coming actress who plays the lead. It’s a group of brittle personalities who drink a bunch and verbally snipe at each other, and no one who’s ever read many mystery novels will be surprised that one of them winds up dead fairly early in the book. However, some unfortunate circumstances make Murdock the one most likely to take the fall for the killing, unless he can untangle all the strands of hate and avarice and turn up the real murderer.


George Harmon Coxe was an old pulpster who really knew how to keep a yarn racing along. Although Kent Murdock isn’t as hardboiled as Coxe’s other major series character, Flashgun Casey, he can throw a punch, dodge a bullet, and get knocked out, all of which he does in this book. The plot is complicated, involving false identities, fugitives from the law, the question of who really created and wrote the radio series (an element that always comes up in mysteries that have any sort of creative media background), a shady private eye, blackmail, and more murder and attempted murder. It’s not quite Erle Stanley Gardner-level complicated, but almost. Of course, Coxe makes everything fit together neatly in the end, after a nice suspenseful scene in which Murdock confronts the killer.

I’ve mentioned before that Coxe had one stylistic quirk that bothers me: he sometimes summarizes conversations instead of quoting the actual dialogue between the characters. A little of that is all right, but I think he overdoes it. And it’s not because he can’t write dialogue, because his snappy patter is great. It’s not enough to keep me from reading his books because the hardboiled tone, the plots, and the characters are all top-notch. But if you haven’t read his work before, it can be a little jarring.


You should also know that Coxe doesn’t always play fair with the reader. Murdock will read an important document or notice an important clue, but Coxe sometimes doesn’t let us in on what Murdock finds out until later. If you know that going in and it doesn’t bother you, that’s fine. I’m okay with it, but that, along with the way he handles dialogue, keep him from being one of my all-time favorites. I still read his books, though, because their strong qualities outweigh the minor annoyances.

When I was a kid, every public library had a couple of dozen George Harmon Coxe books in their mystery section, and deservedly so. He was a major writer in the hardboiled mystery field for a long time, and don’t let my quibbling scare you off from his books, many of which are still available as e-books, like THE FIFTH KEY. There’s a paperback edition available from Wildside Press, as well. I had a good time reading this one, and if you’re reading this blog, you’d probably enjoy it, too.



Monday, February 05, 2024

Conan: The Shadow of Vengeance - Scott Oden


I’ve been looking forward to this one, and I’ll say right up front that Scott Oden’s THE SHADOW OF VENGEANCE, the latest entry in the new series of Robert E. Howard-related short fiction, did not disappoint. At all.

This novella is a direct sequel to Howard’s story “The Devil in Iron”, so, figuring my memory might need some refreshing, I took this opportunity to reread that yarn for the first time in a while. I wouldn’t put it in the very top rank of Conan stories, but it’s a really solid tale and ends with one of my favorite lines from a Howard story (or anybody’s story, for that matter): Conan says to Octavia, the beautiful blonde he’s rescued from the evil Jehungir Agha’s seraglio, "I'll burn Khawarizm for a torch to light your way to my tent."

THE SHADOW OF VENGEANCE opens three months later in Khawarizm, where an advisor to the late Jehungir Agha makes a deal with a group of mystical assassins to kill Conan and avenge the ruler slain by Conan. Unknown to him, Conan is making plans to carry out the promise he made at the end of the previous story and conquer the city. To do that, he plans to broker a truce between the Kozaks, the wild raiders of the steppes he currently leads, and the Red Brotherhood, his piratical former allies who sail the Vilayet Sea. (It occurs to me that if you’re not familiar with Howard’s work, you don’t have the foggiest idea what I’m talking about.)

These elements come together in what is the most Howardian Conan pastiche I’ve ever read. Oden captures the deft blend of deception and double-crosses that Howard often made use of in his stories. He nails not only Conan’s character but his physical description as well. One of the previous authors in this series described Conan as “hulking”. Well, no. Howard usually compares him to a wolf and emphasizes his speed and cunning as much as his strength. And Oden’s prose really reads like it could have been published in WEIRD TALES or some other pulp in the Thirties. It’s full of action and color and flows beautifully.

THE SHADOW OF VENGEANCE joins John Hocking’s BLACK STARLIGHT as the real highlights of this new series. I’d love to see both Oden and Hocking writing full-length Conan novels on a regular basis. I don’t know if that will ever come about, but if it does, I’ll be a regular customer, I can tell you that. In the meantime, if you’re a Howard fan I give my highest recommendation to THE SHADOW OF VENGEANCE. It’s just flat-out great.  

Sunday, February 04, 2024

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Spy Stories, August 1935


I associate A. Leslie Ross with Western pulp and paperback covers, of course, since he did so many great ones, but he did other sorts of covers, too, such as the one on this issue of the straight-forwardly named SPY STORIES. There are some fine authors inside this issue, too, including E. Hoffmann Price, Major George Fielding Eliot, Frederick C. Painton, Harold F. Cruickshank (not a fan of his work, personally, but he was both prolific and popular), Alexis Rossoff, and Dana R. Marsh, a name unfamiliar to me. SPY STORIES was published by A.A. Wyn, who put out five issues in 1929, took a six-year hiatus, and then published five more issues in 1935. This was the next to last issue. The scan and information are courtesy of the invaluable Fictionmags Index.

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Star Western, June 1934


This issue of STAR WESTERN sports a great cover by Emmett Watson, and look at that line-up of authors: Max Brand, Walt Coburn, E.B. Mann, Ray Nafziger, Cliff Farrell, Robert E. Mahaffey, Jay Lucas, and Malcolm Reiss. I don't own this issue. The scan and the information come from the Fictionmags Index. But I'm sure it's a great issue and I'd read it if I had a copy, you can bet a hat on that.

Friday, February 02, 2024

Freakshow - Jacquin Sanders


I like carny books, so I was predisposed to enjoy FREAKSHOW, a novel by Jacquin Sanders that was published in hardback in 1954 by Little, Brown, reprinted in paperback by Popular Library in 1956 under the title STRIP THE HEART, and has just been reprinted again by Black Gat Books with an introduction by Jeff Vorzimmer, the edition that I read.

Bat Fidler is a young drifter who can’t seem to fit in anywhere, but when he goes to work as a wrestler for a carnival, it looks like he may have finally found a place where he can feel like he belongs. He begins an on-again, off-again romance with a slutty young dancer, but the one he’s really drawn to is the Fish Girl, a beautiful young woman born with underdeveloped arms who’s married to the carnival’s owner, a man with a similar condition who’s billed as the Fish Boy. Naturally, drama develops, and as it does, Sanders gives the reader plenty of colorful scenes and inside dope featuring the carnival’s eccentric inhabitants.

It becomes obvious pretty quickly that the performers in the freakshow aren’t the only freaks in this novel. In fact, even though Bat isn’t the most likable protagonist, the reader can’t help but root for him because he’s surrounded by an even more unsympathetic cast of characters. The only one in this book who isn’t a pretty sorry specimen of humanity is the Fish Girl.

There’s a murder and a trial, but FREAKSHOW isn’t really a crime novel or a legal thriller, although it does manage to generate quite a bit of suspense in its later stages. It’s more of a mainstream novel with a noirish tone and reminds me a little of Orrie Hitt’s work, full of characters who get a variety of raw deals but still try desperately to grab on to some sliver of happiness. Sanders makes things so rough on his characters that I wasn’t sure he would be able to pull it all together in any sort of satisfying ending, but that’s what he does. With its small town Texas and midwestern settings, it also reminds me of William Inge and Larry McMurtry.

Overall, FREAKSHOW is compelling reading from beginning to end. It’s deliberately paced, but I read it quickly anyway because of the fine writing and the intriguing characters. As usual, the folks at Black Gat Books deserve our thanks for bringing back an excellent novel that deserves to be read. It's available in paperback and e-book editions. Highly recommended.



Monday, January 29, 2024

Sexton Blake: The Man I Killed - Rex Hardinge


Continuing to read my way through the anthology SEXTON BLAKE WINS, the next story is the novella “The Man I Killed” by Rex Hardinge. That’s a familiar name to Blake fans, but it’s the first thing I’ve read by Hardinge and I really liked it.

Originally published in the July 8, 1933 issue of DETECTIVE WEEKLY, “The Man I Killed” is the first Blake story I’ve encountered that’s written in first person. It’s certainly the first one I’ve read from the point of view of the killer! So this is, of necessity, an inverted mystery where the reader knows the identity of the murderer all along, and the appeal lies in watching how Sexton Blake figures it out.

But after Hardinge shows us how sports journalist Matt King murders a wealthy toymaker named Brandt and then sets up an alibi using his old friend Sexton Blake himself, the story takes some unexpected twists. In fact, considerably more is going on than Hardinge reveals to us at first. As the story races on with several excellent action scenes and plenty of suspense, more and more layers of the plot are peeled away until the final outcome was satisfyingly different from what I thought it might be.

A couple of minor quibbles: At one point, a character impersonates Sexton Blake with a degree of success that’s much too great to be believed. And some of the late twists, while effective, come from pretty far out in left field. However, without them the story’s impact would be lessened, and hey, miraculous disguises are accepted plot devices in popular fiction, right?

Neither of those things keep “The Man I Killed” from being the best story I’ve read so far in this anthology, as well as one of the best Sexton Blake stories I’ve read, period. I’ll definitely read more by Hardinge.

Note: The scan above is from Mark Hodder's invaluable website Blakiana. If you're a Sexton Blake fan and haven't checked it out, you need to immediately. But be prepared to be immersed there for hours because it's compulsive reading.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Thrilling Mystery, Fall 1944


I don’t own a copy of this pulp, but I recently read the e-book version of it published by Radio Archives. I don’t know who painted the cover. Rudolph Belarski did a lot of covers for THRILLING MYSTERY during this era, but I don’t know Belarski’s work well enough to say one way or the other. THRILLING MYSTERY was long past its Weird Menace days by 1944, but this cover looks like it could have graced a Weird Menace pulp.

Instead, by this time THRILLING MYSTERY was more of a regular detective pulp. The lead novella in this issue, “Monarchs of Murder” by C.K.M. Scanlon, is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. The protagonist is Rex Parker, ace crime reporter for the New York Comet, who is also known as an amateur sleuth. It just so happens that Rex Parker was also the star of the lead novels in the pulp THE MASKED DETECTIVE, which ran from Fall 1940 through Spring 1943 for a total of twelve quarterly issues. Parker was also known as the Masked Detective in those stories, a secret identity known only to his girlfriend, fellow reporter Winnie Bligh, and his police contact, Detective Sergeant Gleason. Years ago, I read several of those Masked Detective stories that were reprinted by Tom Johnson’s Fading Shadows imprint and enjoyed all of them. I’m convinced “Monarchs of Murder” was written as a Masked Detective story, got orphaned when that pulp was canceled, and was rewritten to remove all the references to Rex Parker’s alter ego, which leads to one particularly goofy scene in which Parker dons a pair of goggles to conceal his identity, when he normally would have been wearing his mask in the original series.

The second thing I find interesting about “Monarchs of Murder” is that its authorship has been attributed to my old editor and mentor Sam Merwin Jr., who wrote at least three of the Masked Detective stories in that magazine’s run. (The main author was Norman Daniels, who wrote at least five of the original novels and probably created the character. The others were split up among Merwin, Robert Sidney Bowen, Laurence Donovan, and G.T. Fleming-Roberts.) Merwin was a consistently good writer, although he’s probably best remembered these days for his stints as the editor of various science fiction and mystery magazines. “Monarchs of Murder” finds Rex Parker battling a gang of Fifth Columnist saboteurs targeting the oil and gas industry, but the more Parker investigates, the more it appears something else may be going on. There’s plenty of action as Parker and Winnie are captured by the bad guys several different times and have to escape almost certain death. The plot moves along nicely, the clues are planted in a fair manner, and overall, this is an entertaining and satisfying wartime mystery yarn.

Next up is a novelette by an author I’ve long admired, Robert Bloch. At first glance, “Death is a Vampire” seems like it could have appeared in a Weird Menace pulp. The narrator/protagonist is a reporter, Dave Kirby, and the plot revolves around a spooky-looking house, a sinister guy with a vaguely European name (Igor Petroff), some art treasures, a beautiful blonde, a lawyer and a doctor who may be up to no good, and a supposed vampire running around killing people. But by the time the narrator makes a reference to the movie The Cat and the Canary, it’s pretty obvious that this is a prose version of a Bob Hope movie, with the wisecracking, somewhat cowardly reporter being written by Bloch with Hope in mind. It’s also a very entertaining story, a minor entry in Bloch’s career but a heck of a lot of fun. It was reprinted in the anthology TOUGH GUYS & DANGEROUS DAMES, used copies of which can be found pretty easily and inexpensively.

I think of Donald Bayne Hobart as a Western pulpster, but he wrote a lot of detective fiction, too, including nearly two dozen stories featuring private eye Mugs Kelly that ran in various Thrilling Group detective pulps. “Murder After Lunch” is a Mugs Kelly short story published in this issue, and it’s about first-person narrator Mugs returning to his office after lunch one day to find a dead guy sitting in his chair. Moments later, another guy appears to accuse him of the murder. The cops arrive, Mugs explains (in a pretty bland fashion) who really killed the victim, the end. This story went down easily enough due to Hobart’s veteran storytelling skills, but it sure wasn’t very filling.

“The Killer Was Careful” is a short-short by a forgotten pulpster named John X. Brown, who did only a few detective and air-war stories. It’s about a mild-mannered accountant who uncharacteristically murders a client and steals a bundle of cash and then has to worry about being caught. It’s the kind of twist ending “biter bit” story that would be popular in ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE a couple of decades later. I’m not a big fan of those unless they’re really well-done, and this one is just okay.

The issue wraps up with “The Spell of Death”, narrated by insurance investigator Dick Ames, who is on the trail of an embezzler when murder literally falls in his lap. It’s not a bad yarn, with what should have been an obvious clue to the murderer’s identity, but I overlooked it anyway. The author is A. Boyd Correll, a forgotten pulpster who wrote a couple of dozen detective stories for various pulps.

I enjoyed this issue. The stories by Merwin and Bloch are the stand-outs, with the others being okay but forgettable, but overall, it’s a nice, easy, entertaining read, just the sort of thing I need sometimes.