Friday, July 31, 2015

Mahars of Pellucidar by John Eric Holmes

I bought this 1976 paperback because I liked the naked woman on the cover being attacked by a giant squid. Somehow it may have vaguely registered with me that Pellucidar was the world Edgar Rice Burroughs created in his novels At The Earth's Core and its sequel, Pellucidar. The Conan style male wielding the axe was certainly reminiscent of Robert E. Howard’s famous sword and sorcery character. In other words, here was a piece of paperback cover artwork that appealed to my red-blooded gee-whiz sensibilities. Who cares if the novel was a pastiche of Burroughs and the cover was a hybrid of pulp fiction artwork from the 1930s? That chick was awesome. Mahars of Pellucidar by John Eric Holmes was, of course, an officially licensed continuation of the Pellucidar world and published by Ace Books with cover artwork by Boris Vallejo. Fantasy paperback collectors are quite familiar with this book. Holmes wrote a good novel. I wouldn’t rate it as good as Burroughs himself, but it captured the style and imaginative qualities that make Edgar Rice Burroughs so fun to read even today. Mahars of Pellucidar bears no connection to the characters from the Burroughs novels other than the name “Pellucidar” and storytelling style. Perhaps that’s why the Burroughs estate never authorized another book from Holmes. In this story, Christopher West creates a teleportation beam that transports him to another age. He carries with him a red pocket knife for which he becomes known as Red Axe. His adventures are on par with the Burroughs style of testosterone laced action. Many, many writers have attempted to match the flavor of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Sometimes those writers succeed and sometimes they don’t. Burroughs was one of a kind.  Mahars of Pellucidar covers familiar territory. Wild creatures, savages, and rugged terrain all put Christopher West to a test of endurance. I enjoyed it without being too impressed, and I still love the cover.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

West of Guam: The Complete Cases of Jo Gar by Raoul Whitfield

This outstanding collection from Altus Press includes all of the short stories featuring the Philippines Detective Jo Gar originally published in Black Mask between 1930 and 1933. As it is, you get 535 pages of noir pulp suspense. I purchased this over a year ago and began picking my way through the stories off and on until I finished it. There are 26 stories here, and all of them are good. Jo Gar is introduced in the first tale, “West of Guam,” as a small brown man who “looked rather old” although he’s not. Unlike other oriental characters such as Fu Manchu (a villain) or Charlie Chan (a stereotype), Whitfield casts Jo Gar as cool and calculating, intelligent and resourceful. In all of the stories Jo Gar’s deductive reasoning comes into play. He’s nobody’s fool. He a crafty detective and the stories involve him outsmarting equally crafty murderers or thieves. Whitfield writes in the classic hardboiled pulp style with strong images and brisk plotting. The stories are dripping with moodiness. The characters that occupy space here are killers, con-men, harlots, policemen, corrupt businessmen, jilted lovers and various mentally unstable kooks. The stories are all set in Manila with the exception of one or two where he travels to San Francisco. Whitfield had been to Manila and was writing from experience, so we have a pulp writer’s historic view of a lost culture, one that was at once barbaric but struggling with the encroaching modern world. I enjoyed this collection. I’ve mentioned before that Altus Press books are expensive paperbacks, and West of Guam: The Complete Cases of Jo Gar retails at a whopping $29.95. Buy it anyway or watch Amazon for sales. This is great American pulp fiction.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Yellow House by Dave Etter

I prepared this review of Dave Etter’s final book shortly before his death. I’m posting it now as a tribute. As I’m sitting here re-reading this I’m grateful to Dave for his friendship, and honored to celebrate his life with this post. Thank you Dave.

I have been reading and collecting Dave Etter’s poetry books for forty years. I knew Dave personally and considered him both a friend and one of America’s greatest living poets. His influence on my life has been entirely positive. He was a man of letters, a jazzman, a prose stylist, a poet. None of those things do him justice because he was all of that and more. His latest book of poems, The Yellow House, is published by Red Dragonfly Press and available on Amazon. Dave was a Midwestern writer, an Illinois writer. He loved the cornfields and the small towns (he lived in a small town – Lanark, Illinois, population 1200) and the lonely whine of a freight train scuttling across the midnight prairie. You will find such things in each and every one of Dave’s books. The Yellow House confirms that Dave’s keen eye and creative abilities had not diminished. He was writing as a man in his eighties but that spark has never left him. Dave Etter was still looking at the world with a sense of wonder, sadness and joy, all co-mingling into these powerful, short poems. In a poem titled “Pencils” he writes: “Morning sun comes into the kitchen/like a sleepy lover looking for her shoes./But there is no lover, no warm body/that curls up nights next to mine.” The characters that populate Dave’s poems are cut from the cloth of the American experience. They are lonely, frustrated, odd, happy, thoughtful and wonderful all at the same time. Dave describes the sexual awakening of a young man with the line: “I was toting a taut bag of hot coins between my legs...” and he describes a flaxen-haired girl as having “cornflower blue eyes/hands quiet as sleeping birds.” Dave Etter’s poems are about the unique people that comprise our national landscape, in small towns across the nation. It is here in Etter’s often lonely world that you’ll learn how “The humid, sweat-soaked heat of a late-August day/quickens the beat of a tumbledown heart.” The Yellow House is a collection that reminds us how great poetry sounds when written by a master.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Remembering Dave Etter: Poet of the Prairie

 Remembering Dave Etter: Poet of the Prairie (1928-2015)
Thomas McNulty

My friend the poet Dave Etter passed away on Friday July 10th. Dave was a great writer and friend to all who met him. He had a profound, positive effect on my life from the time I first met him in the mid-1970s. I have slightly revised this article I wrote about Dave and I’m posting it here a tribute to not only a friend, but an American original.

For over forty years Dave Etter was creating poetry that belongs intrinsically to Illinois. His poems are inhabited with characters from the cross-section of the State's population: blue-collar laborers, housewives suffering the blues, angst-ridden teens, and struggling farmers. He claimed he never wrote about real people, but like many writers, his creations were pieced together with a generous sprinkling of reality tempered by a dash of imagination. Etter’s first book, Go Read the River was published in 1966 by the University of Nebraska Press to instant acclaim. His poems were noted for their sharp images and singular eloquence that captured the spirit of life on the Great Plains. Etter wrote about the common people struggling to find their places in the grand scheme of things. Widely anthologized, “"The Hometown Hero Comes Home,” touched on a soldier's alienation:

The Jewish woman who sits next to me
Sheds tears for a son, dead in Vietnam.
Her full lips are the color of crushed plums.
I want to go off with her to some lost
Fishing village on the Mississippi
And be quiet among stones and small boats.

Dave and Peggy Etter at their home in Lanark, Illinois

Two years later he published The Last Train to Prophetstown and never looked back. A succession of volumes followed, some of the titles reflecting a sampling of life in Illinois and the surrounding Midwest: Crabtree's Woman, Bright Mississippi, Riding the Rock Island through Kansas, Cornfields, West of Chicago, Boondocks, Home State, and Midlanders. He published in every conceivable magazine that accepts poetry, and contributed to over 100 anthologies and textbooks. By the early 1970s Etter was known for his readings. He won a half dozen awards, including the Carl Sandburg and Society of Midland Authors poetry prizes. Born in California in 1928, Etter graduated from the University of Iowa and began traveling across the country after a stint in the army. He explored America's backroads in those pre-Beat Generation days before the bohemian subculture became part of the mainstream literati. Several visits to Chicago convinced him that Illinois was the place to settle. “I write mostly about people.” Etter told me, “But fortunately I’m very much a Midwestern writer. That’s why I moved here more than forty years ago. When I first started writing, I can’t tell you how happy I was just to write the word 'cornfields,' and to get into the names of rivers and all that kind of thing.”


His best known book, Alliance, Illinois, was based in part on his experiences living for many years in his adopted hometown of Elburn, Illinois. Each poem is told by a resident of the fictitious town of Alliance in Sunflower County. A three line poem told by “Kermit Olmsted” and titled “Roots” sums up Etter's feelings for the Land of Lincoln:

“We’re staying right here the rest of our lives,” I said.
“In Illinois?” she said.
“That’s where we are, isn’t it?” I said.

In all of his work, Etter is a writer with an ear for sound, an eye for color, and a love of place and time. In a poem titled “In the Middle of the Middle West” he describes his companions and friends as “The roads, the farms, the good folks who live on those islands in the corn…” At his poetry readings, he was composed and straightforward. There was nothing of the flamboyant performance poetry so common today with the coffee-shop crowd. “Well, first of all, I write syllabic poetry.” He continued. “I believe that every poem of mine should be measured in some way. Sound and rhythm are very important to me and I fiddle with these until I get what I want. The subject matter of the poem dictates my word choice, the pattern of the lines and stanzas – if any – the prevailing mood, the attitude of the speaker or speakers, and so forth. I try to use the relaxed, laid-back approach to writing poetry. I like to give the impression that my lines come easily and effortlessly. No tortured syntax, no trumped-up obscurity, no five dollar foreign words, no hokey sentimentality. No pain, no strain. Of Course the real truth is that I must labor hard and, often, long before I am satisfied. I want my poems to sound like Eric Clapton’s music, especially his earlier songs. Listen to his “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” or “Wonderful Tonight” and you will hear what I strive for.” 

The River waters my dusty eyes.
Stray-dog sunlight tongues a pale petal
That is shaped like a gambler’s hand.
Thunder booms in the west
And all the sailing clouds come home.
  — from “Up the Illinois River"


“I want the poem to sound good when I read it.” He said. “I want the sounds and rhythms to be right. It really helped when I first started reading poems because I’d read a poem and if a certain line didn’t sound just right or didn't seem to fit, I’d make a mental note to fix it or at least look at it.” How High the Moon thematically follows the course he tracked in Go Read the River. Spoon River Poetry Press recently published The Essential Dave Etter in paperback, compiling a sampling of his best work in one accessible volume. In 2004 he published Looking for Sheena Easton and The Liontamer's Daughter: Poems of Humor and Satire followed in 2008. 

“A lot of the writing comes from not doing anything. I remember a writer telling his wife when he was just sitting around and she asked ‘What are you doing?’ And he said ‘I'm working.’ And she laughed. She didn’t believe him so he had to explain it to her. People don’t get that; they don’t realize that thinking is so important to the arts. You have to think to paint, to write music and so on. Think it out first or otherwise you don't know where it’s going. I generally start out with one line and think it through. When Dylan Thomas was in a bar he might hear somebody say something interesting, and he’d take out a matchbook or a napkin and write on it. I write on slips of paper all the time, or in little notebooks when I'm on the road.”


Etter’s books are prized by his many admirers and those of us fortunate enough to encounter his poems carry with us the fond remembrance of that first discovery. I recall with clarity the cold winter in 1973 I stumbled upon a copy of a chapbook titled Crabtree's Woman in the local library. I opened the book and read the first four lines of a poem titled “The Prairie River” and held my breath: 

The prairie river possesses a nice piece of the summer sky.
It has always been that way.
The river pulls the sky down and holds on passionately,
one proud lover joining another proud lover.
At sunset, the sky sings out of a ruby red throat.

Dave Etter lived for many years in Lanark, Illinois, population 1,200. This is Etter country; a town of two-lane streets with storefronts dating from the 1800s. Lanark is an oasis amongst the flowing dunes of corn and wheat. A pharmacy, a bank, a grocery, and two taverns with motorcycles parked beneath a blue neon beer sign. This is the type of town where the local library is packed with books in a space smaller than some taverns, and where you just might find one of Dave’s books waiting to be discovered on a shelf.

Rest in peace old friend. I’ll see you again at sunset on the prairie.

Photographs and text copyright © 2001/2015 by Thomas McNulty