Thursday, June 28, 2012

John Eagle Expeditor #6: The Glyphs of Gold

John Eagle Expeditor #6: The Glyphs of Gold, by Paul Edwards
February, 1974 Pyramid Books

Robert Lory returns as "Paul Edwards" for another installment of the Expeditor series, and, like Lory's previous two offerings, The Glyphs of Gold is a bit too padded, a bit too rushed, a bit too unfinished. But then, practically anything would pale in comparison to the previous volume in the series, Valley of Vultures, by Manning Lee Stokes.

The Glyphs of Gold also displays this series' lack of continuity. In that previous volume, our hero John Eagle traveled to South America where he took on neo-Nazis and also "jungle savages." In this installment Eagle does the same thing -- heading into uncharted regions of Mexico to find a lost Mayan city filled with gold, going up against Nazis and "jungle savages"...and for some inexplicable reason it never occurs to Eagle that it's all so similar to his previous mission.

But then, that's one of the drawbacks of having more than one author handle a series. Really though, the Expeditor lacks much continuity at all. That's not to say I don't enjoy the series, though. As I've said before, this is one of my favorites. It really captures a "pulp for the '70s" feel, with Eagle the alpha male of alpha males, his high-tech costume and gadgetry putting him in a sort of superheroic realm. And, as I've also mentioned before, the Expeditor recaptures the macho/misogynist feel of the old sweat mags of the '50s and '60s, with Eagle flung about to exotic locales around the world while conquering anything that stands in his way.

The narrative starts off a bit involved, but as it plays out The Glyphs of Gold is the simplest offering yet. It develops that three centuries ago a band of Mayan priests and warriors escaped with a cache of gold, taking it into the jungle to hide it from the invading Spaniards. Over the years a legend has developed, that there's a "lost city" somewhere in the Mexican jungles, a lost city teeming with all of that gold. The Tikal Zero codex, left behind by some anonymous Mayan scribe, serves up vague clues on where the city might be. A German scholar believes he has cracked the code...but then he is captured and murdered by his insane (and Nazi) brother, a callous fellow given to grandiose speeches of pristine grammar who travels about with an electric cane and a hunchbacked henchman.

A small circle of Mayan scholars were also on the path to cracking the code, and one by one each of them are turning up dead, murdered by the Nazi. Eventually the story makes its way to Merlin, wheelchair-bound boss of John Eagle. Merlin has a meeting with the Secretary of State; if there is a city of gold in Mexico, and if the Chinese or Russians are also attempting to locate the place, then it would behoove the US to send someone in there, find the gold, and get it out before some enemy power could take it. (Of course, that the gold doesn't even belong to the US is brought up -- by Eagle, of course -- but Merlin brushes it off.)

All of this is setup, and soon enough Eagle is on the scene, posing as a scholar in a crime-ridden hovel of a city in Mexico. Nevertheless he manages to meet a gorgeous gal: Juanita, raven-haired daughter of another of the murdered scholars. It's another of the goofy joys of this genre that Juanita, prompty after meeting Eagle, lets him know that she plans to have sex with him. What makes it even more goofy -- and again displays the chaveunist tone of this series -- is that Eagle treats Juanita like shit for the rest of the book...and she loves it, still coming to his bed every night on the trail as they make their way into the jungle.

And really, that's the brunt of the story. Eagle, safe and cozy in his bullet and weather-proof chameleon suit, travels through the jungle with a local guide and Juanita, who has forced her way into Eagle's party due to her connections with the local police. Along the way they encounter bandits and even a Russian party, one which Eagle quickly disposes of. The Glyphs of Gold follows its predecessor in another way: Eagle makes little use of that chameleon suit and his fancy gadgetry, coming off like a regular men's adventure protagonist rather than the super hero-esque character he was in the first installments.

Once they arrive in the lost city, Lory sort of drops the narrative ball. All along our impression has been that Eagle is hurrying to find the lost city before the murderous German and his hunchback can get there, but once Eagle arrives in the city the story instead becomes a drawn-out deal where Eagle is challenged by the war chief. Why? Because the war chief has the instant hots for Juanita, and so challenges Eagle for "his woman." Again the series displays its leanings as Juanita doesn't have a single line of dialog throughout this sequence, as if her opinion on the situation (or its outcome!) doesn't matter. Which of course it doesn't.

So we have this long fight scene where a nude Eagle must balance himself on a narrow platform, suspended high above sharpened stakes, as he battles against a well-trained foe who basically grew up doing this sort of crap. I kept wondering if the Nazi and his hunchback had taken a wrong turn or something. Even the finale, when it finally arrives, sees a still-nude Eagle fighting against the hunchback as he tries to climb up a pyramid to get Eagle. In other words, the climax too lacks the thrill of its predecessors.

As far as the writing itself goes, Lory holds true to the Expeditor style, in that it can be a little too ponderous and fussy at times, at least as far as the genre is concerned. There is the occasional tendency to over-explain things and to go on for too long, sort of like I do in these reviews. And yet, this "lofty" tone serves to elevate the series in a way, and definitely makes it stand out.  It's an unusual mixture of literature and pulp. I've also found that, while it might seem to drag at timest, I find myself pulled into the narrative moreso than in the other men's adventure novels I've read.

All told, this was an underwhelming installment, with little of the lurid or "cool" factor of previous books. About the only memorable thing was the consistent and frequent usage of the "male mystique" which has been central to the series since the first volume.  I'm looking forward to the next installment, though, which features the debut of Paul Eiden, third and final of the three "Paul Edwards."

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Enforcer #5: Bio Blitz

The Enforcer #5: Bio Blitz, by Andrew Sugar
No month stated, 1975 Manor Books

After Lancer Books stopped publishing the Enforcer, Andrew Sugar's series was in limbo for two years before Manor Books picked it up in 1975. Reprinting the Lancer originals with new covers (athough for some curious reason, #4: Kill Deadline wasn't reprinted until 1979 -- and with Sugar's name misspelled as "Angrew" Sugar on the spine!), Manor also published two new installments, Bio Blitz and Steel Trap. Neither installment featured a number or a publication month, which must've caused reader confusion. Given that each prior Enforcer novel had been heavily based in continuity, which of these two new books was supposed to be read first?

Anyway, I can confirm that Bio Blitz takes place shortly after Kill Deadline, and precedes Steel Trap; hence, it's the fifth volume of the series, even though Manor (for whatever reason) neglected to title it as such. I can also happily report that Bio Blitz is a return of sorts to the lurid, scifi-esque pulp of Enforcer #1 -- still one of the best men's adventure novels I've ever read. Though Bio Blitz doesn't quite achieve the twisted glory of that first installment, it comes close at times.

For one, Sugar here has figured out how to meld his Objectivist/Libertarian views with violent pulp. Whereas the first volume started off strong with great characterization, plotting, writing, and action, the succeeding three volumes became increasingly static. Gone were the jungle locales and weird menaces of the first book, replaced by long scenes of our clone hero Alex Jason sitting around, smoking and drinking endlessly, while he would talk his way through some conundrum. The series, I'm saying, was becoming more of a psuedo-mystery thing, with a veritable intellectual/philosophical thrust. I am not saying however that I didn't enjoy it. Hell, I rank the Enforcer way up in the ranks of the men's adventure series I've read. I most like it precisely because it's something different than the genre norm.

But still, the series was becoming a bit too padded and, at times, dull. Kill Deadline in particular, while promising a great plot about a killer stalking new members of the John Anryn Institute (ie the shadowy private organization for which Jason enforces), was given over to patience-trying scenes of Jason drinking and smoking and talking and talking. So Bio Blitz comes as a jolt of fresh air, given that it features a lot more action and thrills, the narrative very rarely getting stuck in the mire of the longwinded digressions/discussions of those three previous volumes.

Sugar here capitalizes on two popular topics of the mid-'70s: the bug menace craze (as seen in innumerable films of the time, most spectacularly in the almighty Swarm, with Michael Caine) and women's lib. Both topics are combined in the latest threat facing the Anryn Institute; Lockner, archenemy from the previous volumes and seen briefly in Kill Deadline, has concocted an incredibly complex scheme to infiltrate the Institute, involving strains of specifically-mutated insects as well as an army of gun-toting women's libbers.

In Kill Deadline Jason's longtime flame Janet was murdered by Lockner's vassal; at the end of the novel, Jason discovered that Janet had also been pregnant with his child. As we'll recall, Jason swore vengeance, and pledged that the Institute would go on the offense. Bio Blitz opens up three months later (we also learn it's been "over four years" since the events of the first volume), and the Institute hasn't gotten much closer to finding Lockner, let alone capturing him...but Jason has found himself a new flame!

This new character, Samantha, is one of the failings of Bio Blitz. She is a carbon copy of Janet (a veritable clone, you might say): a gorgeous doctor who enjoys the thrill of danger and who falls in love with Jason. The only difference being that Samantha (nicknamed "Sam" -- just like in Bewitched!!) is also a clone. But really she is so similar to Janet that it made me wonder why Sugar even bothered killing Janet off...especially given that Janet is mentioned but a few times in the novel, Jason already getting hot and heavy with Sam in one of Sugar's trademark explicit scenes (though, sadly, the sex scenes have become less and less explicit with each volume).

However Bio Blitz features many inventive scenes, such as when Jason goes out to the countryside with Institute honcho/best friend Flack to see the man's restored Colonial mansion, which falls apart beneath their feet, courtesy some Lockner-designed termites. This scene features the first of a handful of actual action sequences, with Jason using his 3-shot laser pistol to blow off the heads of a few of Lockner's goons. Another enjoyable scene, Sugar playing up the dark comedy and lurid aspects throughout, is when three of the female militants try to break into the Institute, and Jason makes them strip before they are interrogated. The highlight though is the climax of the novel, with Jason and Samantha, nude from the waist down, trying to get across an approaching army of ants so they can rescue Flack from Lockner's clutches.

This is not to say that Bio Blitz doesn't occasionally revert to the stagebound, dialog-driven nature of preceding volumes. Sugar must've done a lot of research on insects and he displays his knowledge, in outright bald terms, through the conduit of a newly-introduced scientist on the Institute's payroll. Also, Lockner's schemes are way too complex, and there are several scenes where Jason will talk his way through them for pages and pages. Again Jason is presented as the know-it-all, able to figure things out long before anyone else. That being said, though Jason is smart about some things he's a complete idiot when it's narratively convenient, like when he fails to spot the obvious identity of a frail man who's trying to gain admittance to the Institute.

The "lost art of being a guy" ethic I've written about in previous Enforcer reviews is here in full force, possibly moreso than any other volume yet. Sugar must've been a hell of a smoker, or perhaps he was trying to quit and was getting a vicarious nicotine fix through his characters, because these people friggin' smoke. Each and every scene features a mention of someone pulling out a pack of smokes, offering it around, holding aloft a zippo, taking pleasurable drags. It about made me want to go out and buy a pack! In fact, it occurred to me that Manor lost a great opportunity for some product-placement revenue; Bio Blitz features one of those cardboard ads for Kent Cigarettes, bound into the book, as was custom for a lot of these 1970s men's adventure novels. All Sugar had to do was specify that Jason and his pals smoked Kents, and Manor probably could've raked in some extra cash.

But anyway we again have many scenes where Jason and his Institute comrades sit around and smoke cigarettes and drink brandy -- and they drink brandy just about as much as they smoke cigarettes. Jason in previous books has been a bit more "advanced" than the average men's adventure protagonist, more open-minded about women and the world. So here Sugar lets the other Institute guys mouth all of the misogynist stuff, in particular Abernathy, the Institute's non-clone head of security. This guy gets a lot of lines in about the female militants, who of course are played up as complete idiots; every time he brings them into the narrative, Sugar goes to pains to tell us how stupid these militant women are. I also got a kick out of the official Institute name for female enforcers -- "enforcerettes!"

Bio Blitz is layed out the same as previous volumes, opening up with a scene before the climax, with Jason reflecting back on how it all started before we make our way back to the end. So we have various bug attacks, convoluted schemes, a sex scene or two, lots of drinking and smoking (at one point someone even jams a cig into Jason's mouth immediately as he regains consciousness after being knocked out!), Jason blowing off heads and searing off limbs with his laser pistol, and the final comeuppance of Lockner -- something worked toward since Enforcer #1.

One more volume remains, the aforementioned Steel Trap, which apparently sees Jason going undercover in a prison. Bio Blitz by the way doesn't play up much on the clone aspect; indeed Jason's body in this volume, a red-haired and burly Irish model, is arbitrary to the plot itself. Anyway, as the length of this review will attest, I quite enjoy this series, despite its faults, and will be sad to see it go -- sometimes I get the feeling we could learn something from The Enforcer, but god knows what it might be.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Doomsday Warrior #4: Bloody America

Doomsday Warrior #4: Bloody America, by Ryder Stacy
March, 1985 Zebra Books

The Doomsday Warrior series continues to build into an epic, with this volume picking up immediately after the previous one. Little explanation is given in regards to what's going on; we meet Ted "Doomsday Warrior" Rockson as he's still making his way back to Century City with Kim, Mt. Ed, and the newly-elected president of the "Re-United States of America." Stacy doesn't bother much with setting up the backstory, which might be frustrating for someone new to the series, but works very well for those who have been in from the ground floor.

The previous volume went more into a New Age/psychedelic territory with the appearance of the Glowers, which leads me to believe that Ryder Syvertsen did the majority of the writing for that one. This volume however is mostly action, goofy action at that, and rendered in the clunky tones that are the hallmark of Jan Stacy. In fact I have the feeling Jan Stacy wrote this installment solo as, save for one or two brief instances, it lacks all of the psychedelic flourishes of Syvertsen. Whereas the first half of previous volumes was usually composed of goofy action scenes and clunky writing (Jan Stacy) before veering off into psychedelia and good writing (Ryder Syvertsen), Bloody America is pretty much goofy action and clunky writing from first page to last.

The title is also misleading, as the majority of the novel takes place in Russia! First though we have Rockson and crew up against a tidal wave of acidic spew which destroys all the flora and fauna in its wake, culminating in a clifftop battle with a hulking lizard thing that beheads Mt. Ed with one fell swoop (goodbye, Ed, we hardly knew ye). After getting back to the neutron-bombed site of the re-election committee from the previous novel, Rockson et al reunite with the "Rock squad," ie Rockson's regular team of Detroit, Chen, Archer, and McLaughlin, who of course survived the nuke attack unharmed.

When a Red recon patrol comes in, Rockson and Archer break off from the pack to serve as decoys so that the all-important president may continue on to safety. Rockson and Archer are prompty captured. Meanwhile Premiere Vassily, who as we'll recall is locked in war with insane KGB Colonel Killov, gets wind that the "Ultimate American" has actually been caught. Vassily believes that if he can get Rockson on his side, the two would prove to be an unbeatable force, and so defeat Killov. Rockson's saved from torture by the fortuitous call of the premiere himself, and posthaste he and Archer are flown in a stratosphere-climbing jet all the way to Russia.

Here we have what might be the only sequence written by Ryder Syvertsen; while on the cozy plane, Rockson mediates and has an out of body experience, taking an astral voyage down to the earth far below. Here he feels the calming vibes of the Glowers and the earth itself. After which the novel gets right back on track, with Rockson going through the motions of working out a treaty with Vassily, just waiting for the moment when he can break free.

Rockson wants to destroy the massive dome which sets outside of Moscow, from which Red technicians control killer satellites that can both fire ICBM warheads and also knock any opposing ones out of the sky (not that any other nation has any nukes left to fire). Rockson knows that the Russians now lack the technical skills to repair it, if it were to be destroyed; the Reds basically just work off of stuff made a century before, becoming lax in their dominance. So upon freeing themselves (of course, not before they can enjoy, in Ryder Stacy-patented explicit detail, the charms of some pleasure-girls), Rockson and Archer head for the dome, hoping to find a way to blast it.

Instead they meet "the dissidents," white haired Russian jazz-lovers who speak in jive (one of them claims to have learned English from jazz album covers!). The dissidents cary clarinets and tubas which are sound-based weapons capable of much destruction. Luckily they too are opposed to the Reds and become instant allies with Rockson. Once again though Rockson is captured and here Bloody America delivers on its back-cover promise: Rockson becomes a gladiator in Moscow's games.

The reason is skirted over; apparently an enraged Vassily wants to use Rockson as an example, forcing him to fight with other slaves against professional gladiators. Rockson gets two weeks of training, though, the weapon given him a "duo-blade" (that's it on the cover). Rockson even sees the opponent that has been arranged for him, a hulking three-armed African mutant who towers over even Rockson and who has a few hundred kills to his credit.

The ensuing games sequence, which comes straight out of Danniel Mannix's Way of the Gladiator, takes up a goodly portion of the novel, complete with maidens ravished by animals, mallet-carrying dwarves braining their opponents, and standard gladiator-on-gladiator combat. Rockson's battle with the African giant is well rendered, and leads to a finale that would've made Spartacus envious. After which Rockson again escapes, and again runs right into the dissidents.

Stacy keeps the ball rolling with more goofy action scenes as Rockson blows the dome, the dissidents blow up the Moscow prison, and then Rockson and Archer escape in a Red fighter jet. Somehow the thing's able to fly all the way over to America, before running out of fuel right over the Great Lakes. Rockson and Archer bail, the Glowers in a brief interlude realize Rockson is back in the US and again state that he's the only person able to hold off the coming darkness (another indication of Stacy's intent that this be seen as an epic, not just another action series), and we leave Rockson as he's parachuting to the soil, happy to be back in the US.

This installment was a lot of fun, and the gladiator stuff is a hallmark of the post-nuke genre, so it was about time Rockson got to fight in the arena. But for me the psychedelic aspects are the best part of Doomsday Warrior, and they were lacking here. To be sure, Bloody America still has the frenetic, oddball charm of the series, but the goofy action scenes just don't work for me...the battle scenes have zero realism, and I'm a guy who doesn't even want much realism in my action scenes. The ones here though are just too unbelieveable, which gives the novel a juvenile tone.

Not that it matters. I'm so caught up in this series that I'll be getting to the next installment soon; in fact I hope to read through the next 15 volumes within the year.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Guardians #1

The Guardians #1, by Richard Austin
February, 1985 Jove Books

Here's a series I was aware of but just never read. An example of the post-nuke pulps that sprouted up in the mid-'80s, The Guardians was written by Victor Milan, under the house name "Richard Austin;" it's my understanding Milan wrote the first fourteen volumes, before being replaced by some still-unknown ghostwriter(s) for the last two volumes. But this is a post-nuke pulp more in the paramilitary vein of Gold Eagle books, lacking the crazed fun of Doomsday Warrior or Phoenix. In fact this first book's a bit too dour and repetitive for its own good.

Taking place in the early 1990s, this first novel sets the stage for the ensuing volumes. The Guardians are a four-man team comprised of hotshots from the four branches of the US military, their mission to safeguard the president in the event of a nuclear war. Headed up by Billy McKay, a gruff Marine, they supercede the authority of the Secret Service and military brass. They are even beyond the authority of the president; their mission is ingrained Terminator-like into them, and they will overcome any obstacle to achieve it.

The other members are Casey Wilson, a laid-back Air Force top gun, Sloan, a Navy hotshot who actually outranks McKay but who has taken a junior position in the Guardians, and finally Rogers, an Army green beret who has as much covert ops experience as McKay. POV-wise Milan mostly stays with McKay, with the occasional jump to one of the other Guardians. Actually Milan POV-hops throughout the novel, from paragraph to paragraph, which is something I guess I just have to get used to in this genre, and who knows, maybe someday I will.

In this first novel the shit hits the fan as Russia, after losing a conventional war, launches a nuclear strike on the US. But rather than the immediate insanity that would ensue in a Ryder Stacy novel, Milan instead has the structure of the US government remain in place. In other words, we don't get roving gangs of leather-clad street punks or mutants or whatever. The survivors do panic, and the novel opens with McKay blasting away civilians who, in their terror after the catastrophe, attempt to storm the White House, but all in all the novel lacks the manic, OTT nature I prefer in the post-nuke genre. It's all just so depressingly "realistic," which again harkens back to those dour Gold Eagle books.

The Guardians get the president out of the White House and onto the road in a trio of advanced armored personal carriers. Get used to them, because these damn things are basically the sole setting for the rest of the novel. Pretty much the entirety of Guardians #1 takes place inside one of these "Super Commandos" as the Guardians escort the president over the blasted wastelands of the United States. Their destination: a fortress in the midwest known as Heartland, where the president can safely guide the US into recovery. To get there though they will have to deal with bandits, traitorous National Guard soldiers, and the CIA.

Milan works a larger threat into the storyline with the presence of a shadowy Russian type who has already conquered Europe. We learn in brief snatches that this man controls the CIA and has even brought the USSR in tow (Russia was hammered by the US's retaliatory nuclear strike, by the way). Now he wants the president, preferably alive, so he can bring the US to heel. This lends the novel a much-needed comic book sort of vibe, because otherwise it's hard going.

As mentioned, Guardians #1 is very repetitive. There are so many scenes of our heroes sitting around in their APC as they head for their destination. The action scenes, too, are kind of repetitive, and even worse I found some of them hard to follow. Milan also has a tendency to write these sequences like military fiction, again playing up a "real world" vibe. But nothing stands out. In fact there are two scenes where an armored helicopter attacks the APCs, and both scenes are pretty much identical. The only highlight is the climatic assault on a high school overrun by sadistic National Guard troops.

The heroes themselves suffer as well, a bit too bland to care about. McKay is the only memorable one, which is understandable given that he takes on the brunt of the narrative. His sentiments throughout the book mimic those of the reader, as he tries to figure out why the hell the Guardians were put together -- not to mention from all walks of the military. Why in the world would you need a ship's captain for a drive across the midwest? The Guardians make their journey with a detachment of Secret Service agents, all of whom bicker with the "show boating" Guardians. We are reminded, again and again and again, that there's a lot of rivalry between the two groups, and after a while you just get sick of it.

Anyway, not a very enjoyable book, but at least ensuing volumes appear to be more entertaining -- and more importantly, get out of the limited setting of this first installment. Milan by the way is still churning out men's adventure novels; indeed he is actually now writing for Gold Eagle itself! I've read reviews of his other books in the genre and they all sound up my alley, so I'm guessing this first volume was just a bit of a misstep as Milan tried to find his footing.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Empress of Desire

Empress of Desire, by Jack Mertes
March, 1982 Pocket Books

Here's a sentence I don't get to write every day, but I got burned out on toga porn. A couple years ago I went through a fit of madness, trying to find these trashy works of historical fiction, the majority of which were long forgotten. (I listed all of the ones I'd found on two Amazon Listmania lists, which can now be found on my Toga Porn Mania post.) I read a lot of them at the time, but unfortunately it was before I started this blog...back then I'd post reviews on Amazon, where they'd just collect dust, due to the obscurity of the books.

Anyway, I've been meaning to read Empress of Desire for a few years now. This is a late-model release in the genre, which had mostly dried up by the late 1970s. But it's a big fat paperback original which promises a trashy excursion back into the days of Imperial Rome, detailing the sex-filled maneuverings of Poppaea Sabina as she plots to ensnare emperor Nero and marry him, thus becoming empress of Rome.

Poppaea in my mind will always be the ultra-sexy Claudette Colbert (my favorite actress, by the way), as she appeared in the role in Cecil B. DeMille's 1932 sex-and-sin extravaganza The Sign of the Cross:

And that's not even a shot from her infamous (and topless) milk bath scene!

Ironically, even though Claudette only appears in about a quarter of the film, her portrayal of Poppaea is more memorable than the one Jack Mertes presents. Claudette's Poppaea is a powerhouse of erotic force who dominates every character (not to mention scene); Mertes's Poppaea is more of a shrill harpie who, if her wiles don't work, throws tantrums to get what she wants. But then, the Poppaea of the film is already empress of Rome. Mertes shows the torrid path she took to get there, though he does take a few liberties with history. Not that it matters - this is fiction, after all.

The majority of the novel is given over to Poppaea's scheming to first meet Nero, and then seduce him. Really though Empress of Desire is in the vein of the sex-filled Romance novels that were all the rage in the late 1970s, with a duplicitous and headstrong female character who thinks she wants power, but it turns out that all she's really been searching for is a good orgasm. There's also the obligatory love-hate relationship, in this case with a gruff horse-breeder named Tigellinus (an actual historical figure, but changed here), whom Poppaea just hates and hates...that is, when she isn't jumping his bones or planning to give up her dreams and marry him.

But Poppaea's sexual antics aren't limited to Tigellinus. Over the course of Empress of Desire she beds a veritable army of men, Mertes never shirking on the good stuff -- though, humorously enough, he likes to employ euphemisms that were all the rage with early 20th century Loeb Classical Library translators: mound of Venus, love-spear, etc. So while it doesn't get full-on Baroness hardcore, the book still packs a hefty punch. Just to give you an idea, Poppaea seduces (then poisons) her present husband while carrying on an affair with the porcine Otho, whom she later marries -- all in a bid to meet Nero. Along the way she manages frequent encounters with Tigellinus, even at one point hooking up with a Gallic barbarian. And all of this is before we even get to Nero!

Mertes though has this super-strange tendency to always specify that the men stink. It's really weird and disconcerting, mainly because it's mentioned in every sex scene. The men either reek of garlic, cheap wine, or just a general funk, and it gets pretty old after a while. Even pampered Nero, we learn, has an unsavory smell about him. Maybe Mertes's theme is that men just stink in general, who knows. But after you've read for the umpteenth time about Tigellinus reeking of garlic as he hops on Poppaea, you've pretty much had enough.

Another strange quirk of Mertes is his occasional attempt to gross us out. There's a sequence where Otho, as a way to teach her a lesson, has Poppaea thrown into the Mamertine prison. After enduring this squalid existence for a few days, Poppaea is freed during a slave revolt. (Here is where she bumps uglies with the aforementioned barbarian, right on the street!) After which Poppaea passes out; it turns out she has contracted some plague from the prison, and over the next several pages Mertes delights in telling us all about Poppaea's vomitous spewings and so forth. Later on there's an even more nauseating sequence where Poppaea gives herself an abortion. I mean, not that I'm squeamish or anything, it's' just that these scenes don't seem to fit into the trashy decadence of the novel itself.

For Mertes proves himself a master of trashy decadence. There are some great scenes here, from when Poppaea rents out a room in a whorehouse in the hopes of fooling Nero into thinking she's the house's prized courtesan, to Poppaea and Nero's later plotting to kill off Nero's family. Mertes generally does a good job bringing to life the torrid world of Imperial Rome, though not with quite the mastery that Sylvia Fraser displayed in her 1982 The Emperor's Virgin (one of those toga porns I read before I started this blog -- and it was a good one). But there are many scenes here that capture the exotic glory of Rome, even an overlong sequence in the Circus Maximus.

Empress of Desire could almost be seen as a psuedo-sequel to Jack Oleck's Messalina. Poppaea's mother killed herself as a result of Messalina's scheming, and Poppaea grew up consumed with vengeance. Poppaea's story is unusual because you know this woman deserved to gain her revenge, but fate robbed her of it -- everyone who deserved comeuppance was dead by the time she reached adulthood. So instead, Poppaea just became as cruel, vindictive, and calculative as Messalina herself; there are many scenes in the novel where she goes into conniptions when someone actually compares her to Messalina.

So, Poppaea sets her sights on Nero, because she wants the power of being empress. She quickly ensnares him, Poppaea's beauty such that Nero is overwhelmed (Mertes skirts over the popular notion -- as intimated by Charles Laughton in The Sign of the Cross -- that Nero was gay), and soon enough she has the emperor eating out of the palm of her hand. Nero, constantly dominated by women throughout the novel, plots the deaths of various people at the behest of Poppaea, who sees all of them as obstacles in her path to becoming empress.

Top target is Agrippina, Nero's mother. Like Poppaea, Agrippina suffered a miserable childhood in which most of her family was murdered, insinuating herself into politics as an adult. And she sees Poppaea using the same wooing tricks on Nero that Agrippina herself used on emperor Claudius. Mertes delivers some awesome soap opera-esque catfights between Poppaea and Agrippina, complete with delicious putdowns and the like. Agrippina is losing her firm hold on Nero, even resorting to incestual propositions in a desperate attempt to keep him in tow.

But those who know their history know that Agrippina's time is limited, and Mertes enacts her famous murder toward the end of the tale, having Tigellinus witness it. (Empress of Desire by the way also takes place around the same time as Lance Horner's Rogue Roman, but in that novel at least Agrippina was busy counter-plotting against her son.)

The title of the novel is misleading in that Poppaea doesn't actually become empress until the last page. Mertes leaves Poppaea's fate unmentioned, and indeed serves up foreshadowing in the narrative that he doesn't follow through on, leaving it up to interested readers to seek out Tacitus or Suetonius. For example, he intimates that Poppea may one day regret having Nero ban her former husband Otho, but never tells us why -- namely, because upon Nero's death Otho himself became emperor for a brief time, and actually ordered the death of Tigellinus (who in the novel as in history becomes the leader of the Praetorian guard). As for Poppaea's fate, which again Mertes doesn't cover, she was killed (accidentally?) by Nero, who either kicked her or fell on her while she was pregnant.

Given that he ends the tale so early in Poppaea's life, Mertes doesn't even get to the well-known stuff. We don't get to see the infamous "Great Fire" of Rome, Nero's Golden House, or any of the other sordid events as recounted by the ancient historians. It makes me wonder if Empress of Desire was planned as the first volume in perhaps a trilogy about Poppaea -- as it is, the novel ends with the fate of all the characters still in question.

In a final note, Mertes thanks several people on the opening page, and closes his acknowledgements with the statement, "This is only the beginning!" Ironically enough, this appears to be the only novel Mertes published. So I guess it was the beginning and the end.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Mutants Amok #1

Mutants Amok #1, by Mark Grant
March, 1991 Avon Books

I was unfamiliar with this five-volume series until I read about it over on Zwolf's blog, The Mighty Blowhole. The concept sounded pretty goofy -- a future America where human-created mutants have enslaved the human population, all of it relayed in an appropriately over-the-top style.

"Just wacky," as Zwolf put it in his review. Which is exactly what the book turned out to be. To be sure, Mutants Amok is a violent, sex-filled trip into a funhouse future America, but it's told with a definite tongue in cheek vibe. I mean, there's a part in here where the main mutant villain stomps on (and crushes) the head of a baby, and it's played for laughs!

Before we get to the meat of the review, a bit of background: Mark Grant is a house name, and this first volume as well as the next three were written by David Bischoff, a noted sci-fi author with reams of books published under his own name and a variety of psuedonyms. The fifth and final volume, Christmas Slaughter, was written by Bruce King, though it too carried the "Mark Grant" by-line. (And speaking of which, Christmas Slaughter is by far the most rare and expensive volume in the series, so act now if you're interested, before it disappears -- or before online sellers jack up the prices of their copies to even more absurd levels.)

As mentioned, Mutants Amok occurs in a future America which is now enslaved by mutants. There are a variety of "muties," from Braingenerals to foot soldiers to even cybernetically-enhanced monstrosities (in the guise of Charlegmagne, ruler of America). There are mutants who have been created for specific and menial duties, others that are bred solely for war. Humankind has been reduced to slavery, working on farms or other areas, overseen constantly by mutant overlords who have total authority over their lives.

However, the mutants are complete idiots.

What on the surface sounds like a dystopian trawl into some hellish future world (which is how the back cover even tries to hype the novel) is really more akin to a fantasy sequence from The Simpsons or the average episode of Futurama. I'm not sure if Bischoff created the series concept or someone at Avon did, but at any rate when it came time to the actual execution of the tale, Bischoff must've thought to himself, "This is just goofy, and I'm gonna write it goofy."

So then the mutant rulers are incredibly cruel and vicious but in such an over-the-top, cliched way that it's all just a plain comedy. And yet, there's so much in-fighting among them, with bosses killing off their underlings for no reason, that one begins to wonder how in the hell the mutants were able to take over the world in the first place. From first page to last the mutants, even the ones bred for war, are presented as incompetents, bungling everything. They're incredibly stupid and lazy, unaware that their human captors are carrying on secret lives right beneath their noses.

Which again seems to indicate that the book, if not the entire series, is just a light-hearted spoof. But a spoof with a punch; the action scenes here, even though there are only a few of them, are filled with gore, and there are also a handful of purple-prosed sex scenes. In short, Mutants Amok seems designed to appeal to sex and action-obsessed teenage boys, and given that I was such a teenage boy when it was published, it saddens me that I wasn't aware of the series back then.

The "hero" of the tale is Max Turkel, a famed human rebel who, when we meet him, is in the process of escaping from his latest assault on mutantkind. Hacking up a few mutant soldiers in gory fashion, Max takes off in a plane, getting shot a few times for his troubles. He crashes in a forest near a mutant-controlled agricultural center, where young field-worker Jack Bender catches sight of Turkel's plane as it's going down. Convenientely enough, Bender has a veritable treehouse palace hidden out in that very same forest, where he goes to get away from his abusive mutant owner, and Turkel's plane has crashed near it.

The majority of the novel is given over to the awakening of Jack's rebel spirit as he cares for the stricken Turkel, whom he hides up in the treehouse. Jack likes his life on the farm, even if he is a slave; plus there's Jenny Anderson, a gorgeous blond Jack has frequent (and explicit) sex scenes with. Meanwhile he listens to Turkel's rants against mutantkind, also putting up with the man's cynical remarks, drunkeness, and sexual advice(!). (The scene where Turkel, hiding up on the treehouse roof, provides Jack with tips on cunnilingus -- while Jenny is downstairs waiting for him -- is especially priceless.) Turkel comes off more like the annoying neighbor in a sitcom, but he's presented to us as the stoic hero of the human freedom movement -- yet more indication that the entire book is just a goof.

In a sideplot we see the activities of Braingeneral Torx as he searches for Turkel. Emperor Charlegmagne has demanded Turkel's head, or else he will have Torx's, and to demonstrate this the emperor has a few mutants killed in front of Torx. (Not that it makes much of a difference, as Torx himself kills a few of his underlings as the novel proceeds.) Torx is the aforementioned baby-stomper, and it's another sign of the book's spirit that he comes off as the most memorable character in the cast. The very walking cliche of a jack-booted ruler, Torx storms and stomps through the novel, determined to capture Turkel. ("Braingenerals" by the way were the original line of human-created mutants, designed and bred for military strategy genius; Torx is yet more proof that the experiment was a grand failure.)

There's also a building subplot in which the mutants are harvesting humans and dissecting them, in the hopes that they can figure out how to create self-replicating mutants; the only reason the mutants keep humans around, despite the menial labor, is because the mutants themselves are sterile. This subplot builds up until it's the turning point in Jack's relation to Turkel and the movement, and appears to carry over into the next volume; this first one ends on a cliffhanger.

But it's all very sci-fi, if overly goofy. There are robots and cyborgs, even a friggin' race of hobbits which the mutants designed! (The hobbit though provides another fun opportunity for Torx to display his mercilessness.) Battles however are staged with the weapons of today, ie machine guns and pistols and Uzis, not to mention knives and even chainsaws. Bischoff takes special relish in describing the impact of each and every bullet into the hides of his mutant villains.

I've actually picked up the rest of the series, and I enjoyed this first volume enough that I'm looking forward to reading the rest.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Executioner #262: Trigger Point

The Executioner #262: Trigger Point, by Gerald Montgomery
September, 2000 Gold Eagle Books

I've been meaning to read this book for twelve years now. Back in late 2000, during a brief spark of re-interest in the men's adventure genre (which I hadn't read since I was a kid), I found myself on, where this recently-published volume was being hotly debated on the forum. (This was also when I discovered that Gar Wilson didn't exist.) After reading the comments I went right out to a WaldenBooks store and bought a copy of Trigger Point...and it's sat unread in a box until now.

This was the first installment of a trilogy entitled "COMCON," written by first-time Gold Eagle ghostwriter Gerald Montgomery. It was also the first of only four books Montgomery wrote for the publisher; by all accounts he had some issues with them, as apparently Montgomery wanted to take Mack "Executioner" Bolan into different places than the usual terrorist-wasting storylines. It seems Gold Eagle started off on the same page as Montgomery; it's a wonder Trigger Point was even published, as it's basically an overhaul of the entire Bolan mythos, putting the Executioner up against a globe-spanning army of neo-Nazis who plan to destroy the US Constitution and take over the world.

The group goes by the name COMCON -- the Committee to destroy the Constitution -- and they mask themselves under the guise of real-life federal agency FEMA. Be preprared for a whole hell of a lot of FEMA-bashing in this book. Over and over again we are told that FEMA is basically an un-Constitutional agency, a government division created to take over the country in case of emergencies. In other words, if the emergency was great enough, FEMA could end all democratic freedoms and place the entire country under marshall law.

But Montgomery has it that FEMA is the brainchild of Nazis who came to America after WWII as part of "Operation Paperclip," in which the US imported all kinds of Nazi elite and put them to work in various governmental institutions and agencies, both to use their knowledge and also to keep them from the Soviets.

So, these Nazis have spawned their own vast army of black-garbed neo-Nazis, true fascists all, who plan to subvert the US Constitution and take over the country, initiating a New World Order (cue the Ministry track). Not only that, but they have high-tech military equipment that's beyond anything in the US arsenal; Montgomery doesn't get into details in this first volume, but apparently the COMCON guys run out of infamous Area 51, where it seems they have come upon some "advanced" weaponry. In Trigger Point this is displayed in their sleek gunship helicopters which are nuclear powered.

To recap: Nazis came to America after the war and got jobs within the government, they secretly banded together with plans to continue the Reich, they called themselves "COMCON" after their plans to destroy the Constitution, and they hid their activities behind the mantle of FEMA, which they themselves created. They now have endless legions of armed minions and command various secret bases, and also, due to their FEMA powers, can mandate "emergencies" wherever they want, thereby taking over entire towns with Federal authority. They in fact supercede the authority of the President, who meanwhile they have firmly in the pocket anyway.

The obvious question is, if COMCON is so powerful and so prevalent, how in the hell has it taken Bolan so long to come across them? To Montgomery's credit, he does answer this, having Bolan guess that some of the "shadowy government-type" organizations he's dealt with in the past were most likely COMCON agents. In other words, he's fought them before, he just didn't know who they were. But still, it's a bit far-fetched. I'm not saying it's bad or anything, it's just all very sci-fi and crazy, and thus a bit hard to swallow after the "real-world" banality of most other Gold Eagle Executioner novels.

But as I've mentioned many times, I like the crazy shit. Trigger Point gets pretty crazy, with COMCON-brainwashed teenagers (mostly girls) becoming Terminators, blitzing their way through schools and etc. This is how Bolan gets into it; there have been a rash of school shootings in the US, all of them perpetrated by teens who then killed themselves.

A government official (believe it or not, a Democrat!), who is aware of COMCON and is determined to stop them, realizes that this is the neo-Nazis's master plan finally becoming a reality: they intend to use these school shootings to engender mass protests across the US, for people to call on a ban of assault weapons, so that once the weapons are out of the public's hands COMCON will have little resistance when they finally move in to create their NWO.

I remember when this novel came out, Montgomery had a website (now gone) where he stated that his two favorite authors were Don Pendleton and Hunter Thompson. I also remember he stated it was his intention to return the Pendleton spirit to the Gold Eagle novels. Strangely though, Bolan is in full-on cipher mode in Trigger Point. There's nothing about him different from any other stoic men's adventure protagonist; he's just a stone-cold patriot determined to destroy COMCON and thus save the US Republic. Pendleton's Bolan was human, but then, it's my contention that the Gold Eagle Bolan should just be considered a wholly different character from Pendleton's original.

After being called in, Bolan meets with the COMCON-opposed diplomat and the two are promptly attacked by those nuke-powered helicopters and a legion of COMCON commandos. This is probably the best action sequence in the book, with Bolan taking on the gunship and the troops with his handy M-16/grenade launcher combo. Montgomery doesn't go too far out in the gore department, just delivering taut action scenes.

One thing I didn't enjoy as much however is that Montgomery tends to write his action scenes like military fiction. In particular the finale, in which Bolan leads a group of Rangers on an assault on COMCON's "Tranquility Base." It all comes off like Blackhawk Down, with Bolan directing fire squads and mortar rounds and etc. I'm assuming that Montgomery has some military experience, as he knows of what he writes, but personally I prefer it when action scenes have all the reality of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Commando.

The best element here though is that Tranquility Base stuff -- it's a secret COMCON base which poses as a Christian teen-rehabilitation center. Here a Nazi-lovin' brainwashing genius oversees the staff, and any kid who comes in who has a history of being sexually assaulted is shunted off to the secret underground lair, where they are promptly brainwashed. They're given multiple personalities, from assault troops to intel couriers. Montgomery gets pretty lurid here, and there's also a cool scene where Bolan performs a "soft probe" of the base; shades of Death Merchant #36: The Cosmic Reality Kill.

Really though, the majority of Trigger Point is given over to setting up the ensuing volumes. There are a lot of scenes of Bolan and his fellow Stony Man commandos learning about COMCON and FEMA, but Montgomery does spice it up every once in a while with an action scene -- there's also another good sequence where Bolan and his fellows take on one of those reprogrammed teenage girls. This must be the only scene in a Bolan novel where the Executioner goes up against a machine gun-toting schoolgirl. Another good scene is later on where Bolan poses as a COMCON "man in black" and meets a gorgeous female agent who is against COMCON; not sure if she shows up again, but her presence was a nice touch in the male-centric Gold Eagle world.

I know the trilogy only got the crazier as it went on -- the next one, Iron Fist, has Bolan going up against a nanotech-powered COMCON monster. After a decade-plus I went out and finally bought the rest of the trilogy, as well as Montgomery's fourth and final novel for Gold Eagle. While Trigger Point didn't blow me away, it was nice to see a Gold Eagle ghostwriter trying to do something different with the series, so I look forward to reading the rest of his work.