Friday, February 27, 2015

The Spectre of Suicide Swamp by E. K. Jarvis and It’s Magic You Dope by Jack Sharkey

This Armchair Fiction double novel reprint pairs The Spectre of Suicide Swamp by E. K. Jarvis with It’s Magic, You Dope by Jack Sharkey. That makes for a breezy combination. Both books are easy to read and often nonsensical, but altogether enjoyable. The Spectre of Suicide Swamp is about a washed up Hollywood actor named Duke Harley who gets cast with washed up starlet named Kathie Dawn in grade-B thriller called, naturally, The Spectre of Suicide Swamp. They both take the job because both are out of work and need the money. Once on the backlot, a quirk of fate switches their bodies with two real-life swamp people, Tom Lewit and Ginny Hays. After some initial confusion, both couples take to their new lives with Duke and Kathie caught up in a real swamp mystery about a menacing robot with gleaming eyes; and Tom and Ginny embrace their lives as Hollywood actors working in a bad movie about an event they experienced first hand. The plot falls apart at the end, but it’s as fun as a drive-in movie, and equally as cheesy. The second novel, It’s Magic, You Dope, is much better. Bored librarian Albert Hicks finds himself on a world called Drendon where the familiar is unfamiliar. His prim and proper girlfriend, Susan is suddenly a hot little number named Lorn, and she’s a woodnymph. How did he get here? And what can Hicks do about? This is the thrust of It’s Magic, You Dope. Drendon is an odd place, described as a “mythophile’s dream,” there are werewolves, wyverns, beasts and dangers all about. The plot gets a bit complicated and you’ll need a scorecard to keep track of everything. Both It’s Magic, You Dope and The Spectre of Suicide Swamp date from the early 1950s. I liked both stories but I have to give a stronger nod to It’s Magic, You Dope. I’ve purchased several of these Armchair Fiction paperbacks and my buying choices fall into two categories: One: I’m familiar with the author, or Two: I like the cover. In this case, E. K. Jarvis was a pseudonym used by multiple authors working for Ziff-Davis Publishing and the actual author of The Spectre of Suicide Swamp is unknown; and I know very little about Jack Sharkey. These are typical early 50s fantasy schlock, fun to read, drive-in movie style literature all the way. And I do like the covers.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock’s books have been a part of my home library since the early 70s when I first read the DAW paperback edition of Stormbringer. Here was something vibrant and new, alive with highly charged images, wild characters and strange worlds. Stormbringer still represents the best of the so-called New Wave of fantasy novels that helped revitalize the fantasy genre. I went on to read many other novels featuring Elric, and I enjoyed such other characters as Corum, Hawkmoon, Count Brass and more.
In 1978 I bought the Harper & Row American edition of The Eternal Champion and read it in one long day, and loved it. Moorcock dedicated the book to Douglas Fairbanks, “the greatest hero of them all.” His statement didn’t require any explanation for me. During the course of my own travels I have encountered several (and sadly, now departed) writers who cited such films as The Thief of Bagdad as an influence. Forest J. Ackerman and Philip Jose Farmer both specifically cite The Thief of Bagdad as a seminal influence, alongside Metropolis. Fairbanks had created something special with that film, and his other films added to his legend. Fairbanks caught lightning in a bottle and the visuals he created have never been equaled. That Moorcock was a fan of Fairbanks, too, and publicly acknowledged it went far in endearing him to me. Even better, Moorcock’s books have that same magical quality that we find in great films.
I saw The Whispering Swarm on the shelf at Barnes & Noble and bought it without having heard any advance publicity. I rarely spend money on hardcovers, but this was Michael Moorcock, for Chrissakes, so I spent the twenty-six dollars and tax. I’m glad I did because The Whispering Swarm is wonderful. This is a book that any avid reader will enjoy. The first of a trilogy called “The Sanctuary of the White Friars,” The Whispering Swarm blends autobiography with fantasy in a story that appears to be written from the heart, bringing into play all of those elements that have served Moorcock so well all these years.
Essentially, a tale of a young writer working on the now legendary Fleet Street after World War II, the early chapters are loaded with references to such writers as W. Howard “Bob” Baker, Mervyn Peake, T. H. White, John Wyndham and many others. I don’t know how much of this is fictionalized, and because I adamantly refuse to follow or participate in fan forums (for any celebrity) where such things are discussed ad nauseam, I’m guessing this is all fairly accurate autobiographical material. As a fan of not only Moorcock but many of the writers he befriended or encountered during this period, I was fascinated by all of this and couldn’t put the book down. In fact, I briefly forgot that I was reading a work of fiction.
The story takes a dramatic turn when young Michael enters a heretofore unknown sanctuary in London called Alsacia. This is a magical, timeless place and Michael begins a series of adventures and encounters as the years press on. Drawn to Alsacia, he begins to suffer from a condition he refers to as “the whispering swarm,” a mental affliction that only subsides when he’s safely inside Alsacia. Inside Alsacia he meets such legendary heroes as Dick Turpin, Buffalo Bill Cody, Kit Carson, Captain Jack Sheppard, and Dick Langley. Also present are the Musketeers from the Dumas novels, all favoring a tavern called The Swan With Two Necks. It is here that Michael begins his affair with the lovely Moll Midnight, a dashing damsel who inspires in him a series of popular fictions.
Alternating between two worlds – his life as a writer in London and his forays into the timeless sanctuary – I felt that Moorcock had created a metaphor about lost worlds; that of his highly-charged, creative youth and the imaginative world of pulp adventure stories. Of course I don’t really know if Alsacia is intended as a metaphor, but I do know that his story is compelling, brilliantly realized, and a pleasure to read. Michael begins to question the logic of his own actions, only to be told that his questions about Alsacia will be answered in due time. How and if this all ties into Moorcock’s “Multiverse” and “eternal champion” concept remains to be seen. The Whispering Swarm is a fascinating book, a roman √† clef and well on its way to becoming a magnum opus. There is much left unsaid in this first volume, and I’m eager to read the next installment.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

It’s Bedtime, Baby! By Hank Janson

Happy Valentine’s Day!
This month I’m celebrating fifty shades of sexy pulp
and retro paperback action!

This 1964 Gold Star paperback can’t be ignored. Not when you’re a red-blooded male with a few bucks to spend and a taste for beautiful women and Scotch whiskey. By the time It’s Bedtime, Baby! was published the original “Hank Janson” author, Stephen Frances, had moved on. This one is attributed on the copyright page as being co-written by G. Gold and D. Warburton. The Hank Janson paperbacks are part of that forever distant past that so many of us recall with fondness. Those were the days when a spinning rack of paperbacks or comic books offered up treasures beyond comprehension. It was the era of five and dime stores and Route 66 and the Sinclair green dinosaur outside of gas stations. Hank Janson originated in England. The set-up being he’s a Chicago reporter and these books are his first-person account of his adventures. There are always beautiful women, usually in dire straits, and Janson, being a man that knows what he likes, decides to get involved. He’s in like Flynn, in the grandest of male traditions, and as hardboiled as an egg but a lot tougher. In It’s Bedtime, Baby! eleven college women get caught up in a weird sorority called The Virgin Club, and Janson discovers one of these gals is behind a string of brutal kidnappings. In order to unravel the mystery, Janson needs to get close to these ladies, real close. Hot and saucy action ensues, along with murder, punctuated by droll he-man dialogue. It’s fun to read, and the pages flip past rather quickly. I enjoyed revisiting this one, from those youthful days when spinning a paperback rack could get your blood boiling. Thanks to Steve Holland, I learned the cover is by Harry L. Barton.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Road Show by Kevin North

Celebrating a month of Love and Lust!
Road Show is part of Neva Paperback’s Playtime series which were adult paperbacks featuring sexual plotlines. Not to be confused with straight pornographic sex paperbacks, although the Playtime books could be explicit depending on the author. Road Show is less explicit than some. Road Show is credited to Kevin North who wrote several Playtime titles. I don’t know if Kevin North is a pseudonym or if that was his real name. As for Road Show itself, it’s not bad. Written in the first person, the prose is masculine and doesn’t waste any time. Ex-rodeo cowboy Ross Hilton encounters a dish taking a bath in a creek near Yuma City. Her name is Coena Madison and she’s the sister of one of Hilton’s old rodeo and movie stuntmen pals. Coena has a hard-luck story and Hilton falls for her. Their new found friendship is consummated right there in chapter one: “When I touched her with my lips, she made a guttural sound deep in her throat, and pushed her young body tighter into my embrace. And at last we made love – in the awkward way lovers find necessary in a car.” Of course there are far more explicit descriptions but that gives you the flavor. What surprised me about the book was the plot’s complexity. Coincidences and old connections come into play here as they stage a rodeo show featuring half-naked girls on horseback. With billboards announcing “Coena Madison’s All-Girl Extravaganza” and a punchline of “Sex on Horseback” the profit margin should be high. Hilton tells Coena “You jiggle at a trot, it’s maddening.” And Coena replies “And you men all love it!” Basically, it’s a burlesque nudie show on horseback. Things get murderously complicated when a goon named Sol Benedict begins harassing them. His interference leads to murder and degradation. There are some wild scenes here in a cock-pit (yep!) where the roosters are let loose in the pit with a dancing naked woman, all orchestrated by Sol Benedict. I thought the conclusion was flat, lacking a satisfactory comeuppance; which struck me as funny as I typed that sentence. Road Show was published in 1963 and Playtime paperbacks are not terribly difficult to find although prices vary dramatically. The cover art is probably by Robert Bonfils.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Julia by Margot Bland

Celebrating a month of love and lust just in time for Valentine's Day!

This 1954 Popular Library Eagle Books edition entices with its saucy painted cover. I’m not certain who the artist was, but this was the heyday for Popular Library paperbacks with eye-catching covers. I also don’t know if Margot Bland was a pseudonym or the author’s real name. I do know that Julia is a heart-breaker; a husband stealing vixen with an itch that needs to be scratched again and again. Oh boy, Julia is that type of book about that type of dame.  Imagine finishing up a plate of eggs and a cup of java at a five and dime like Woolworth’s and spinning the rack on the way out. This is the paperback you choose because the cover makes you want to pull that sheet down. Julia has you hooked with one kittenish glance. Bram Hughes gets hooked swiftly by Julia, no matter that he’s married. Their sordid affair begins with a quick tryst and she might have been forgotten – just another barfly he picked up one night, except Julia shows up again and becomes close with Bram, his wife Sally and their friends. Bram, of course, can’t get her scent off his clothes. Obsessed with lust, crippled by desire, Bram begins spending more time wrapped up with Julia. Bram’s friend Bob becomes infatuated with Julia as well, but Bram can’t stand the idea of Julia in another man’s arms. Naturally his home life with Sally begins to suffer. Julia is a soap opera with steamy scenes, erratic and obsessive characters, and nobody much to like at all. If it was a movie they’d call it a melodrama. The ending is abrupt and appropriate, but I won’t reveal the outcome. Julia is easy to find on ebay for under ten bucks.