Wednesday, June 29, 2016

MEG: A Novel of Deep Terror by Steve Alten

MEG was originally published in 1997 and became a best-seller. The new edition shown here is a revised and expanded version. Not having read the original, I can’t compare them, but this version is good enough. After Peter Benchley’s Jaws (1974), and the subsequent world famous motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg, any shark story is subject to intense scrutiny and automatically leaves itself open to criticism. To his credit, author Steve Alten has created a unique premise that is a cross between Jaws and Jurassic Park. In fact, one criticism I saw for MEG referred to the book as Jurassic Shark. I think MEG is a little better than such a reviewer intended us to believe, but make no mistake about this, MEG is New Pulp Fiction all the way. MEG is short for Carcharodon Megalodon, a 70-foot and 1,000 pound prehistoric cousin of the Great White Shark, and now it wants to rise up from its hidden home in the ocean’s depths. Naturally, it’s hungry. MEG may not be a classic, but neither was Benchley’s Jaws. MEG is the perfect – go ahead and laugh – beach book. The characters go through their motions in the expected fashion, and there are no surprises. Remember how it was when you wanted to see a good horror film because the gory parts were cheesy and fun, well, this book is like that. You live for those moments when this giant damn shark goes into attack mode, which is quite often. The “science” in the book is a skillful blend of Alten’s imagination, phrases perhaps lifted from textbooks, and pulp fiction mumbo jumbo. Dang, if it doesn’t all flow fairly well. I expected to dislike this book, and I bought it on a whim. I liked it the way I liked Count Yorga, Vampire when I saw it at the drive-in theater in 1970. It did what it was supposed to do, although it could have used a little more blood and sex. Steve Alten has written several sequels, including The Trench, Primal Waters, Hell’s Aquarium and a few more. I expect to read these sooner than later.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Skeleton Cave by Cora Cheney

This January 1965 Scholastic Books edition reprints Nora Cheney’s 1954 juvenile thriller for a generation that was about to tune in, turn on and walk on the wild side. Another of the many paperbacks from the mid-1960s that inspired my lifelong interest in reading and book collecting, Skeleton Cave also featured a topic of great interest to me. As a child I loved caves and I visited such landmarks as Cave of the Mounds and Crystal Cave in Wisconsin or Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico during those cross-country trips I took with my family. I was also an avid rock and gemstone collector. I was always looking for secret caves to explore and any book with caves and a mystery to solve was right up my alley. In Skeleton Cave ten year old Davy is exploring a nearby cave after three days of rain and discovers that the poor weather has washed out some dirt revealing a human skeleton in the cave. Intrigued, Davy wants to uncover the secret of that skeleton (for surely there is always some type of discoverable secret in such plots) but his grandfather can’t assist him due to his health. There’s a slight Christian theme underlying this one as Davy’s grandfather tells him “Did you ever hear of reading the Bible to solve your troubles, son?” Davy sets out to have a box of Indian relics entered into a university sponsored relic contest and after consulting with a college professor Davy learns that the skeleton and the relics he uncovered are quite valuable. Davy wants money to buy his grandpa a new wheelchair, and dang it if those Indian relics might be the answer. Such heartwarming fantasy dramas might be a thing of the past, but this simplistic story was popular enough that I still occasionally encounter old timers that recall reading it.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Barbary Slave by Kevin Matthews

This thin 1955 paperback from Popular Library is only 143 pages long but offers an unstoppable and exciting adventure. The first sentence sets the tone for the swashbuckling fun to come: “The late afternoon sun made a white splendor of the city that lay sprawled across the low, sloping sands of the African coast.” You’ll be drawn in to an exciting world of pirates, harem beauties, sword fights and ships at sea. The great Gardner Fox wrote Barbary Slave under the Kevin Matthews pseudonym. I am not an expert on Gardner Fox, best known to me as the mid-1960s scribe on the Flash and Hawkman comic book series. I have read a few of his novels and enjoyed them, except for his “Lady of Lust” paperback series in the 70s (under the pseudonym Rod Gray). Those didn’t click with me because they felt rushed. Still, when I see old paperbacks with his name on them I always buy them. I am certain to have read others published under a pseudonym without knowing it was his. Barbary Slave is fun. After being captured by pirates, Stephen Fletcher is enslaved and given the daunting task of protecting the queen and the other girls in the harem. But the queen, Marlani Chamiprak, lusts after Fletcher. She taunts him, forces him to watch her and the other harem girls bathing, fanning the flames of his manly desire. Meanwhile, Fletcher plots his escape after learning there may be American frigates off the coast of Tripoli. Knowing that cavorting with Marlani or any of the girls will mean certain death, Fletcher is careful to keep his boiling passion in check. But then an enslaved American girl named Eve Doremus is brought into the harem and Fletcher falls for her voluptuous charms. Intent on securing freedom for them both, Fletcher plans carefully for the day he can strike back and win their freedom. With enough action to counter-balance the sinewy romance and harem intrigue, the plot boils over at times before gasping toward its conclusion. This was a great old paperback to read, and it lives up to its cover blurb: “Passion and Plunder Rule a Pagan Land!”

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Air-Conditioned Nightmare by Henry Miller

Quite often the time and place we encounter a great book is equally as important as the book itself. I encountered Henry Miller’s oeuvre when I was a bearded, long-haired leprechaun wearing a Levi jacket and jeans. My rucksack was fat with fantastic literature as I consumed ideas with mad passion. The books of my life are as varied as I wished to make them, and I loved them all: Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell, The Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen, On the Road by Jack Kerouac, The Bhagavad Gita, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Areopagitica by John Milton, Beam Ends by Errol Flynn, The King James Bible, The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, to name a few. My bohemian groove quite naturally included rubbing elbows with writers like Allan Ginsberg, Dave Etter and Lucien Stryk, all while reading Henry Miller.

Miller is one of several writers mentioned above who is unfairly vilified in our increasingly dysfunctional, semi-literate culture. If the name Henry Miller only elicits for you the word “sex” then you haven’t truly read and comprehended Henry Miller. Conversely, if the word “poetry” only associates for you the word “flower” then you have never comprehended the vast, wonderful world of great British and American poetry. I mourn for you. Meanwhile, let us consider The Air-Conditioned Nightmare by Henry Miller.

The Air-Conditioned Nightmare is not Miller’s best book, but I find it irresistible all the same. After leaving Paris for Greece in 1939, Miller returned to the United States and shortly commenced on the cross-country journey that resulted in this book. Such cross-country musings are now quite popular, but the difference is that Miller refused to paint the American landscape as a flower garden. This is a brutal, acerbic condemnation of the American scene, just as relevant today as it was in 1945. Miller makes his point early on: “Topographically the country is magnificent – and terrifying. Why terrifying? Because nowhere else in the world is the divorce between man and nature so complete. Nowhere have I encountered such a dull, monotonous fabric of life as here in America.” Miller’s observations range from astute to humorous to angry. He holds nothing back.

Miller’s assessment isn’t simply discontentment with the blatant mechanization and urbanization of the landscape, but also includes a discontentment with our American character. Miller writes: “I had the misfortune to be nourished by the dreams and visions of great Americans – the poets and seers. Some other breed of man has won out.” Miller views us as a nation of people who have “degraded the life which we sought to establish on this continent. The most productive nation in the world, yet unable to properly feed, clothe and shelter over a third of its population.”

As Miller travels the county, he offers a diverse portrait of the people and places, often resulting in a treatise turned rant about friendship, loyalty, compassion, love, sex, wealth, and any other topic that strikes his fancy. Miller attempts a friendship with an ex-convict, only recently released from prison; he travels to a beautiful southern plantation, a dismal park in Jacksonville, Florida, and all the way to Arizona and California. His contempt for Boston and New York fairly jumps off the page.

Miller is at his best when the writing is full-force spontaneous emotion, and the ideas and themes fly from his fingertips. His compassion for humanity, his devotion to the creative arts, and his fondness for Paris and the bohemian scene that he had only recently left, are all vividly expressed. There is also a feeling here that Miller is nostalgic for the bohemian life he experienced in Paris because it was irrevocably destroyed by Nazi Germany. So too did Hemingway look back with fondness at a Paris that could never be recreated.

For Miller, the United States is an increasingly complex beast. He revels in praising, (and sometimes vilifying), the various people he meets on his journey, but through it all Miller is in love with the idea on mankind’s potential. He never shies away from the belief that we can make this county a better place. His visit to the Grand Canyon of Arizona elicits a fascinating character portrait of an old prospector, and the resulting chapter offers his usual astute contemplations. Why, for example, would anyone be interested in viewing an amateur painting of the Grand Canyon when nature’s majesty is but a few steps away? Why, also, would we bother with the newspaper’s Sunday comics? Upon seeing a discarded newspaper at the canyon’s rim, Miller intones: “What can possibly appear more futile, sterile and insignificant in the presence of such a vast and mysterious spectacle as the Grand Canyon than the Sunday comic sheet?”

In another book, and one of his best, The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), Miller declared himself a “citizen of the world” and dedicated to the recovery of “the divinity of man.” Henry Miller comes across as a man of contradictions, perhaps slightly eccentric, but passionate about life and immensely creative. I think all such writers share this complexity of spirit, and through his books he continues to fascinate and enlighten us, as all great writers do.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Swordsman of Lost Terra by Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson wrote so many fantastic science fiction novels that it’s nearly impossible to pick just one as a favorite. So when I saw that Armchair Fiction had Swordsman of Lost Terra in their catalogue as a double novel paired with Planet of Ghosts by David V. Reed I logged onto Amazon and ordered it. I had read Swordsman of Lost Terra years ago, and Anderson certainly wrote better novels, but Swordsman of Lost Terra is special. It falls into that science fiction morphed genre called “Sword and Planet” fiction which is geek-speak for “That’s really cool, dude!” In other words, we get some Flash Gordon heroics tainted with some Conan the barbarian action, and maybe even a dash of fantasy. Swordsman of Lost Terra is really a great example of a for hire pulp fiction story that was obviously cranked out quickly, and somehow it worked. The opening line is a great hook: “Now it must be told of those who fared forth south under Bram the Red.” It didn’t have to make sense, and it sounded great. The story tells how Kery, son of Rhiach would come to play the pipe of the gods as Bram the Red and the men of Killorn fought the hordes of the Genasthi who had invaded the lands of perpetual darkness. There is no lack of imagination here, and Swordsman of Lost Terra is a sparkling tale, albeit rather short. The companion novel, Planet of Ghosts by David V. Reed, is another winner. On the planet Amanas are the remains of a lost civilization where once lived the Llanu, great winged creatures with ties to ancient earth. Dr. Kimball Crane learns of a menace from deep space and wants to warn his fellow earthmen, but his warnings fall on deaf ears. The Llanu want to exploit the ability of another alien race, the Raie, to conquer earth. Crane and others lead an expedition that has tragic results for the crew as they attempt to save earth. Pure Space Opera all the way and very well written. David V. Reed is best known for his work on the Batman comic books, and I feel that his science fiction stories and other pulp tales are too often ignored. He wrote a solid, entertaining story and his imagination was the equal of anyone writing for the pulps.