Forgotten Book: Jack of Eagles by James Blish (1952)

How much you enjoy James Blish's "Jack of Eagles" depends on how much scientific jargon you're willing to wade through.

How much you enjoy James Blish’s “Jack of Eagles” depends on how much scientific jargon you’re willing to wade through.

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 191st in my series of Forgotten Books.

This week we look at a writer I have read a fair bit of, some I enjoyed, some I did not. James Blish is considered a fairly major writer of science fiction between WWII and the beginning of the New Wave in 1967. He was nominated for a Hugo Award twice during his lifetime, winning Best Novel for A Case of Conscience. He was nominated for the Nebula Award three times, not winning in all tries. He has since been nominated for three Retro-Hugo Awards which he won twice for early shorter versions of A Case of Conscience and Earthman, Come Home. Still an impressive list.

I really enjoyed the four Cities in Flight novels, of which Earthman, Come Home was a portion. His After Such Knowledge series featuring A Case of Conscience, Doctor Mirabilis, Black Easter and The Day After Judgment was not a sequence I particularly liked, though. Case of Conscience was okay but overlong. The rest, I finished but had no desire ever to re-read.

Other novels I liked included VOR, A Torrent of Faces (with Norman L. Knight) and the novella “There Shall Be No Darkness,” which was an early werewolf novel.

When I selected Jack of Eagles, I did so thinking I had read it before. Very quickly, though, I became aware that this was the first time. I think I initially had it confused with VOR. But I read it and it was OK. Again, not anything great, but I did not begrudge myself the time.

The novel tells the story of Danny Caidan, a journalist at a food service magazine in New York City. He has the amazing ability to tell people where they have lost items. Other than that, he’s pretty normal. Until the one day he is called on the carpet for writing an article that says a wheat company is about to get in trouble with the Feds for insider trading. When asked for a source, he cannot provide one and is summarily fired.

Gathering his things, he begins to wonder about his situation. He visits a stock broker and wants to buy some futures in the wheat company. If what he wrote was true, he could make a killing, ironically on “insider trading.” He visits his bank and finds he has a tidy sum, so he goes to a bookie and makes some bets on horse races. His bets all come in. Since he bet modestly, he won modestly.

He also visits a fortune teller and meets her niece, Marla, who wants to know what tricks he is using to scam the rubes. He also visits a group of psychic believers.

Suddenly, everyone wants a piece of Danny Caiden. The FBI and SEC want to know about insider trading and how he was able to break the news on a very secret investigation. The gangsters running the bookie outfit want to know how he gets the winners correct. The psychics want to know the true extent of his power. He seems to be a precog who has some telekinesis and the ability to teleport and they are not sure what else. He could be a danger to them, since he does not want to follow their party line.

There is a lot of scientific jargon in this novel. In his introduction, Robert A. W. Lowndes talks about Blish’s fascination with science and trying to be scrupulous in how he described things. Blish was not one for a hand-wavy explanation and that may be what I dislike in his work. I am not an engineer; I don’t need to know how something works to appreciate it. When Blish comments on a scientific text, it is after reading it thoroughly, rather than getting the Cliff Notes version,

Anyway, Danny has to work out his problems with some help from a friend and save the girl while avoiding jail or death.

It was an OK read, as I said. Your mileage may vary. I will probably not revisit another Blish title in the immediate future though.

Series organizer Patti Abbott usually hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs. This week the lovely talented and vivacious Todd Mason is doing those honors.

 

 

 

Forgotten Book: The Opener of the Way by Robert Block (1945 and 1976)

Many options, some very pricey, exist for purchasing Robert Bloch's The Opener of the Way

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 186th in my series of Forgotten Books.

Like most readers, I go through phases where I binge on certain types of books and try to collect them in various editions. One of my longer manias involved Arkham House books. I went through several stages where I wanted the words to all their titles or I wanted nice collectible copies of all their volumes. That path, I can assure, you will lead to destitution and madness. That would particularly be true now if you are starting your collection now and do not have really deep, deep pockets.

Back when I was looking at the Arkham House titles, they were expensive. And, while I work with accounting and money and the like, I have never been one to let my better judgment stand in the way of something I want. Well, not quite true. In 1973, I was offered a presentation copy of Lewis Carroll’s Phantasmagoria for a mere $150. At the time, I was working maybe 20 hours a week, for less than $2 per hour while attending school. That $150 price tag represented close to two months take-home pay for me. I was barely able to stay in school and feed myself at the time, so I had to let it go. But that potential purchase always remains back in my thoughts. What might have happened? What might have happened was that I would have lost my apartment, been unable to pay my bills and I would have had to sell the book, along with many other nice things, in order to keep a roof over my head, my car running and food on the table.

That book was THE ONE that got away.

I have had many fine things over the years, but Arkhams were always one thing I loved. I once convinced a bookstore to order the entire available Arkham catalog and tried to buy them one at a time for a while. They were only $4 or $5 each at the time, but even then, I had trouble getting them paid for. It caused some stress in my relationship with the bookstore.

Arkham, for those who have made it this far and don’t really know what I am talking about, is a specialty publisher, that started as a venue for August Derleth and Donald Wandrei to publish a memorial volume for H. P. Lovecraft, since no commercial publisher was interested. They launched the enterprise with The Outsider and Others in 1939. They soon also published more Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, along with Robert E. Howard’s amazing Skullface and Others. They did the first books of many fine writers of the weird, fantastic and horrible. People like Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Seabury Quinn, William Hope Hodgson and Robert Bloch. Their volumes are wonderful, filled with stories only available to those with a fantastic pulp magazine collection and deep pockets. My first Arkham book was The House on the Borderland and Other Stories by Hodgson, which reprinted the title novel and three others. I ran across Hodgson through Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy Series and loved his work.

Over the years, I acquired several Arkham House books, some like the Hodgson expensive, others like Lord Kelvin’s Machine by James P. Blaylock not nearly so much. But I never had The Opener of the Way by Robert Bloch, which was published in 1945. It was Bloch’s first book.

For several titles, such as the massive Clark Ashton Smith volumes, I got the British publisher Neville Spearman’s 1970’s reprints. Sure, you had to order them from England and it took forever and the postage was expensive, but CAS was worth it. Spearman did The Opener of the Way in 1974 but I missed it. Again, funds were a big reason.

In 1976, British publisher Panther released the massive collection in two paperback volumes, The Opener of the Way and The House of the Hatchet. Last year, I got the first of those volumes, not realizing it did not contain all of the hardcover title. And that is what I read this week.

This volume contains ten stories from the hardcover edition, including the title story, “Beetles,” “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” and “The Fiddler’s Fee,” all stories I really liked. They suffer slightly from being together, as many of the stories contain that final line that serves as a “Gotcha!” with the Ripper story being a superb example. Others you could see coming.

I like Robert Bloch’s work. About 6 months ago I reviewed his novel The Will to Kill here and it was great. This volume holds up reasonably well. It does represent early work by Bloch who matured as he wrote more.

Those who want the whole volume can get the Arkham House volume (starting in the $400 + range on up to a price with a comma in it), the Neville Spearman edition ($30 to $750), the two paperbacks (between $10 and $20 each) or The Early Fears by Bloch (Fedogan and Bremer, 1993), which reprints all of Opener (except the introduction) and Pleasant Dreams, another early collection.

Go forth and collect.

Series organizer Patti Abbott usually hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.

Forgotten Book: Amazon Planet by Mack Reynolds (1966 – 1967 magazine, 1975 book form)

Mack Reynolds' Amazon Planet seems to have lost some of its political punch.

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 183rd in my series of Forgotten Books.

Popular taste in science fiction is a pretty fluid thing. The field is so broad and encompasses lots of sub-genres. It’s pretty easy to be focused on a single area or author and not see whole fields that exist. As a teenager in the ’60s, I found it was still possible to read most of the important books in the field each year. Within a few years that was no longer possible.

I remember when fantasy titles were very, very scarce. This year represents the 50th anniversary of the first Lancer Conan title with a Frank Frazetta cover. At that time you had to look. Michael Moorcock was coming and Ballantine had published Tolkien and some E. R. Eddison but not much else. Ace was thinking of printing the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser books.

So all this is in prelude to talking about Mack Reynolds. A very prolific writer, Reynolds published something like 75 books between the 1950s and 1980s, of which I have read four. That’s not much based on his output and huge presence in the marketplace. I don’t know why I never read much. He was in a lot of ace Doubles, and I certainly read many of those by lesser writers. But I did read Amazon Planet back then, and now, some 48 years later, I decided to revisit him and one of his novels.

Amazon Planet was serialized in Analog in 1966 and 1967, which is where I originally read it. God only knows why, because I didn’t read many of the serialized novels at that time. The fact that I had all three parts at the time is pretty amazing, at least to me.

Guy Thomas is a United Planets Federation negotiator who has been sent to Amazonia on a freighter. The only other passenger is a young woman, Patricia “Pat” O’Gara, who is going from her home planet of Victoria to Amazonia.

The crew is fascinated that Guy plans to go to Amazonia. The planet is run by women, and men have little to no rights. Pat is trying to escape the repressive Victorian mores of her planet to the more enlightened government of Amazonia. There are several early political discussions about matriarchies and female warriors, a subject which Reynolds obviously knew much about.

But there are difficulties. Pat has no landing visa to go there. And Guy is a man. When the Amazonians show up, there is a problem with Guy’s visa also, since it shows his name as Gay. He tries to convince them that it is no big deal. The Amazonians warn him that since he is a man, any Amazonian warrior with fewer than three husbands can come up, clasp him on the shoulder and say, “I take thee.” At that point, he would become part of the warrior’s harem.

But things are never quite what they seem. Guy is not a sales negotiator. He is a spy hoping to help a male underground rise up from the female tyranny.

It becomes an action adventure story stuck in the idle of a political discussion (not quite a diatribe) and something approaching Women’s Rights. And even that does not begin to cover the whole of the book.

I mostly enjoyed the novel, but it does seem a bit dated. And according to Wikipedia, this was one of the books caught up in a period of declining sales on Reynolds’ part and a takeover of Ace Books that prevented several novels from being published between 1969 and 1975. By 1975 the ERA was old hat and much of the punch of this book seemed to have been lost.

I do have another Reynolds book that I intend to read sometime, Code Duello. I am not sure when I will get to it. My experience with Amazon Planet has not moved that one in up in my reading list, nor caused it to disappear.

The Ace Books thing is interesting as it notes that his sales had declined. Yet on the paperback copy I read, he is noted in a big label, “Voted the most popular science fiction author by the readers of Galaxy and If.” Go figure.

Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.

 

Forgotten Book: The Everness Series by Ian McDonald (2011 – present)

Planesrunner kicks off Ian McDonald's dizzying Everness series.

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 180th in my series of Forgotten Books.

I have been a fan of Ian McDonald ever since his first book Desolation Road was published by Bantam Books in 1988. It was an amazing book about a future Mars. Soon other novels followed, including Out on Blue Six and King of Morning, Queen of Day and the short story collection Empire Dreams. I knew from the beginning that I would be buying all his works and enjoying them for years to come.

In late 2011, Pyr Books published Planesrunner. I became aware of it because of the wonderful John Picacio cover, and I got my copy from John himself. It followed closely with the second in the series, Be My Enemy, and in 2014, Empress of the Sun continued the tale. The two subsequent books also sported Picacio covers.

The series is a wild conglomeration of steam punk and space opera and young adult coming of age. The hero of the series is a young Punjabi boy living in London named Everett Singh. His father is a quantum physicist who has been working on some very odd ideas when he is suddenly kidnapped right in front of Everett. The kidnappers seem to have vanished but Everett receives an odd email that leads to the discovery of the Infundibulum, a device that allows him to hop worlds. The kidnappers are members of the Plenipotentiary of the Ten Worlds, the ten alternate Earths which run things. Charlotte Villiers is the villain of the piece, a Plenipotentiary of one of the Earth’s. Everett’s earth is Earth 10.

When Everett operates the Infundibulum he finds himself on an Earth with no fossil fuels, where airships rule the skies. He eventually finds himself aboard the airship Everness, commanded by Captain Anastasia Sixsmyth, her adoptive daughter Sen and a wild crew.

But Everett soon finds out that with the Infundibulum he is not limited to the 10 Earths. The whole of the Multiverse is available to him.

While Everett searches for his father, Charlotte searches for Everett and the Infundibulum. Each of the Earths contains variations of the inhabitants of the other Earths. So there is an alter of Everett Singh on each of the ten worlds, as well as of his father and friends and Charlotte. Sometimes these alters are of the opposite sex.

There are weird alien races which react like computer viruses (the Nahn) or create highly modified versions, like Everett M. Singh in Empress of the Sun and Be My Enemy, who comes to our Earth bringing the Nahn.

And there are the Jiju, dinosaurs that did not die out in the comet disaster and therefore have a 65 million year evolutionary advance on humans in their universe. They live on a diskworld with a captive sun. The construction of this world makes Niven’s Ringworld look like a kiddie park. All the Jiju want is to get the Infundibulum and obliterate their competitors on their world and throughout the Multiverse. Cold blooded dinosaur space killers! What more could you want?

McDonald has developed the culture of the airships along gypsy terms and created the Palari language which combines terms and ideas from many other societies. A glossary is included in each volume.

Everyone in the books is pursuing something. Everett wants his father. Charlotte wants the Infundibulum and Power (with the capital P). Sen wants Everett and to work on the Everness and to please her mom. Captain Anastasia wants to take care of her ship and crew and to see whatever it is Everett can do to get to his father, pretty much in that order.

These are fun books with lots of action and adventure. The story through the three published volumes is not complete, which I disliked, but that’s pretty much the only thing I disliked about them. There does not seem to be any information about a fourth volume, but we can hope.

Check out the first one, then settle in for all three. Super advanced dinosaurs are quite a bit of fun — and nastiness.

Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.

 

Forgotten Films: The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything (1980)

The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything: Not a very good movie then and not a very good movie now.

This is the 156th in my series of Forgotten, Obscure or Neglected Films

One of my favorite writers of all time is John D. McDonald. I’ve read a lot of his books; at some point I will read many more. I read all the Travis McGee novels, but my all time favorite John D. McDonald novel is The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything. I’ve read it several times and I reviewed it as one of my Forgotten Books at some point in the past. I’m not sure when, because several of my reviews were lost when the Missions Unknown site succumbed to whatever evil it was that killed it. Some reviews had not been backed up (my very bad) and there are several which are not available in archived versions of the site.

So, when this book was announced as a made-for-TV movie in 1980, I was there waiting. I watched it. I was appalled. Kirby Winter was being played by Robert Hays, a TV actor who had not yet made his big splash in Airplane!, the film which was his next role. Pam Dawber, late of Mork and Mindy, was Bonnie Lee Beaumont, sporting a horrendous South Carolina accent.  My beloved book was being sanitized and bastardized into pabulum for the masses.

I still remember that paperback book cover which claimed “One day with Bonnie Lee was like a three-year lease on a harem.” Not in this version. “Throne Smith meets Mickey Spillane.” Not in this version.

So, for 35 years I have hated this film as the epitome of bad made-for-TV movies. And I was happy with that.

This week, I was going to watch Svengali with John Barrymore, a silent film that I had on VHS. I put the tape in and while the tape was moving, I was not getting the picture. I tried several times but it was just not tracking correctly…

So, suddenly I am looking for something to watch and review. I was sitting in the floor with the DVDs and was trying to decide. Should I do The Point with its wonderful soundtrack and hippy-dippy story? What about Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings? Or Roger Corman’s Forbidden World, an amazing Alien rip-off? All these were on the tapes in front of me. And I remembered that they were not going to last too much longer, as VHS tapes have a half life of 25 years or so (or at least that’s what I have been told). Anyway, The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything popped up and the next thing I knew I was shoving it into the player and watching it.

The movie’s protagonist, Kirby Winter, is a lovable loser, who worked for his uncle Omar Krebs. His uncle, worth $220 million dollars has died and Kirby is anxious as the will is read. Turns out Kirby’s inheritance is a gold-plated watch. And that’s it.

Suddenly the Board of the Krebs Foundation is noting that Omar moved $75 million into a side venture OK Enterprises, which Kirby worked for. The only other employee, the sexually-repressed-and-not-loving-it Miss Wilma Farnham (Zohra Lampert), has burned all the company records according to Omar’s instructions.

As a result, Kirby and Wilma are being hunted for embezzlement. Omar’s competitors Joseph Locordolos (Ed Nelson) and Charla O’Rourke (Jill Ireland!) are trying to unearth Omar’s secrets and are using Kirby to try and find out anything.

This leads Kirby to find a new place to stay. His hotel manager, Hoover (Burton Gilliam, notable in Blazing Saddles, not so much here), finds him a friend’s apartment. While there, Kirby is visited by Bonnie Lee Beaumont, who mistakes him for her boyfriend. This mistake leads to anger and then strangely to attraction. While having a hot dog, Kirby accidentally sets the watch and finds that he can stop time around him. He is able to act while everyone remains frozen in the moment.

So far, the film is OK – not good but OK. But from here, it goes bad. The way to fix things seems to be to undress people or leave them in awkward situations. Dressing hired guns up as Las Vegas showgirls is TV-risqué but not particularly effective.

The film was not as bad as I remembered, but it is still not good. I saw this so you do not have to. Nor do you want to see the sequel, The Girl, the Gold Watch and Dynamite (1981), which thankfully does not feature Hays or Dawber but does not replace them with anyone better.

Series organizer Todd Mason hosts more Tuesday Forgotten Film reviews at his own blog and posts a complete list of participating blogs.

 

Forgotten Book: The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron (1954)

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet sets the wayback machine to 1954.

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 174th in my series of Forgotten Books.

This week we have a book that shares some similarities with last week’s Shell Scott adventures. No, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet is not a humorous detective novel. But like the Prather novel, I missed Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom Planet novels when I was much younger.

This first novel in the series should have been in my school libraries when I was in grade school and, had they been, I would have found them. But, in those formative years, I was in Alaska and then in small-town Texas. The libraries were small – heavy on reference books and some fiction. In several, there was not a formal library, just collections of books in each teacher’s room and whatever was there was what you got. It was not until junior high in Iowa Park, Texas, that I really found out about libraries and what wonders they held.

The Iowa Park town library was small and featured many older titles. I got to read my first Edgar Rice Burroughs books there and Tom Swift (not the Tom Swift Jr. titles that were coming out when I was at that age; these were the older things). And, since the junior high was in the same building as the high school, we had a more formal library at the school, and there I found Heinlein, Wells and Verne. Those were exciting days of discovery.

But, the Mushroom Planet was never in the galaxies I roamed. I don’t believe I ever heard of those books until I got to college and took a course in children’s literature (kiddy litter, as we called it). And I was not about to read them then.

Somewhere along the way, I acquired the first volume of the series and it has been on my shelves for a while. The other day I decided to pick it up and read it.

It’s a fast read and definitely a kid’s book. There are some attempts at science-y things but not much. And that is deliberate. The first chapter tells you what you need to know with the strange green ad in the paper

WANTED

A small space ship about eight feet long, built by one or two kids. The ship should be sturdy and well made and should be of materials found at hand. Nothing need be bought. No adult should be consulted as to its plan or method of construction. An adventure and a chance to do a good deed await the boys who build the best space ship.

Yep, you’ve got to be imaginative and a risk taker and your own person. David and his buddy Chuck are the boys who meet up with Mr. Tyco M. Bass, a peculiarly odd person who wants the boys to travel to Basidium X, a small planetoid located 50,000 miles above Earth that only he can see because he has a special filter. He can make a fuel to power this ship and send two boys to it in two hours, and there they can help out the residents of the tiny mushroom planet. They need to bring some food, capture some Basidium air and bring a mascot, for which Mrs. Pennyfeather, David’s chicken serves the role.

They travel to the planet and meet two wise men, Mebe and Oru, and the great King Ta help them solve a problem and return home, all in one night. Of course, no one believes them because they are kids and things happen to their proof.

It was a fun enough book. If I had preteen kids or grandkids, I might have subjected them to this. I think they would have enjoyed it. But I find that for myself, the one book will do. I don’t really care to return to the Mushroom Planet.

What about you readers out there? Someone have a fond spot for these books, or some other ones. As a kid I read a lot of Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Tom Swift. Then I found ERB. I was lost from that point on. And at 14, Conan began to appear and Elric the following year or so. And Philip K. Dick. I was doomed.

I hope your new year is going well. I’ll be back with another book next week, certainly one more age appropriate, I think.

Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.

 

Forgotten Book: Everybody Had a Gun by Richard Prather (1951)

Everybody Had a gun features Richard Prather's private eye Shell Scott.

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 173rd in my series of Forgotten Books.

This week is special across the various blogs that constitute the Forgotten Books group. Check out the listing at Patti Abbott’s blog by clicking the link at the end of the column. Friday, January 15, has been designated Richard Prather Day, when as many of the bloggers as are inclined will discuss the work of this quintessential ’50s paperback writer.

I will confess up front that I have not read much Prather. I didn’t discover his works when I was at the impressionable age where I would have read everything multiple times. By the time I had found Prather’s work, I was already reading Hammett, Chandler, both McDonalds, Charles Williams and more. Prather was entertaining, but the others were more representative of what I wanted to read. Still, I thought I would give one a try this week.

Prather is best known for his Shell Scott series of detective novels. Scott is a California private eye, tall with blond close cropped hair, a veteran of WWII and able to get into some truly interesting situations.

This novel begins with action on the first page. Shell is walking down the street when someone starts shooting at him. He almost doesn’t even notice it since he is reading the paper about a local hood named Lobo who had contracted a fatal dose of lead the previous night. But when he does, he has no idea who or why is after him.

He cautiously approaches his office and begins running down the list of people who might have a grudge. It might be Marty Sader, who runs a local nightclub and who had hired Shell to check out a horse betting parlor and to get an idea of the take. Shell takes the job but finds out very little, as Lobo approaches him and tells him to stop. This is something he would normally ignore, so he continues his research, but Lobo is a little more insistent the next time. And Lobo is a right hand guy for a bigger fish named Collier Breed with whom Shell does not want to tangle.

When he gets to his office, Shell sees an attractive redhead tentatively approaching the building. When she sees Shell at his window, she crosses over the street headed toward his office. Meanwhile, a short skinny guy with a gun enters the office and attempts to take Shell away. There is a fight and he knocks the hood out. The redhead shows up and recognizes him as one of Sader’s guys.  She says Sader wants to kill them both and that she has just escaped from him. She won’t talk until Shell gets rid of the hood, so he sends her down to the bar below his office and takes the hood to a nearby cop.

When he gets back to the bar, he discovers the girl never made it there. He finds her purse and learns her name is Iris Gordon. He tracks down her address. He meets her barely clothed roommate, Mia, and finds that they both work for Sader. Figuring that if she escaped from Sader earlier, perhaps she has been taken back there. He tries Sader’s house first and finds a drunken Mrs. Sader shooting a big gun at bales of hay.

Soon he is involved with two gangs, lots of people with guns, some fast talking and quick thinking — and lots of dead bodies. It’s a fast-moving, quick read about attempted takeovers, murder and more.

Overall, I enjoyed it. I would have probably loved it when I was a teenager, but it wasn’t bad. It had a fair bit of skewed humor, which was OK, but a little can go a long way. If you’ve not read Prather, this isn’t a bad one to start with. Chronologically, it was the third Shell Scott adventure and the series was starting to get its quirky feel.

Check out the other Prather reviews on Friday and give him a try. As always, your mileage may vary.

Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.

 

Forgotten Book: The Will to Kill by Robert Bloch (1954)

Robert Bloch's The Will to Kill is full of twists and turns.

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 172nd in my series of Forgotten Books.

After enjoying a Fredric Brown book last week, I thought it might be nice to try a novel from another classic writer. So I pulled my copy of Screams by Robert Bloch off the shelf. That volume contains three early suspense novels by the Psycho master, so I decided to go with the earliest novel, The Will to Kill.

I had read a lot of Bloch over the years, mostly his short fiction. His horror for Weird Tales was spectacular and he was an early acolyte/friend of H. P. Lovecraft. In fact, the two writers each did a story where they killed the other off by horrific means. Such a fun group.

The Will to Kill was, for many years, a legendary Bloch novel, available only as an Ace paperback original that was very hard to come by. Over the years, I searched for copies of this novel in many states. I did eventually find one in the late 90’s in Springfield, Missouri, at a small paperback house. I locates a lot of great titles that day, including the first five 84th Precinct novels by Ed McBain. I was about to check out when I saw this one behind the counter. The clerk said they were holding it for some customer but he had never come in. I asked when he was going to pick it up and the clerk said if it was still available on Friday, I could have it for $2. Come Friday I picked it up.

Screams collects three early Robert Bloch novels, including The Will to Kill.

I never got around to reading it before my Big Book Sale of 2007, when it went away to land on someone else’s shelves. So this last week, I decided to remedy that situation.

Tom Keller is a Korean War veteran suffering from PTSD, even though that phrase did not exist at the time. He has come home from the war to a loving wife. Sometimes Keller suffers from blackouts, fugue states where he wanders and does things that he does not remember. Following one of those episodes, he wakes up with scissors in his hand and a dead wife at his feet. Her throat had been cut … by scissors. He is jailed but eventually released when forensics prove he could not have performed the murder.

Now in another town, he runs a stamp, coin and book store where he works with his new girlfriend. He wants to be with her, but he still has his own doubts about the murder of his first wife. As the novel opens, Keller is recovering from a blackout and has no idea what he has done. He soon finds that he has told his girlfriend Kit about his fears and this drives her away.

While Kit is gone, Keller deals with a fat man with an obviously stolen stamp collection. He chooses the high road and does not buy the material, even though he could turn it into a quick profit. The seller is upset and leaves.

Soon, Keller encounters the fat man again at a bar, where he is abusing a woman and making threats. When Keller steps in, a knife comes out. But Keller is a veteran and disarms the man, ejecting him from the bar.

The girl he has saved, Trixie, invites him over and frantic sex happens at her place. Keller falls asleep, and when he wakes up, Trixie is dead. In circumstances similar to the previous murder he was involved with.

Keller is, of course, arrested and the earlier case is brought up. A blind man identifies Keller by his walk and the taps on his shoes as the killer. The murder weapon is identified as a poniard, a French style stiletto. And, of course, Tom has one in a case at his store. Or, had one, since the store has been broken into and the knife taken. The only possible lead is Trixie’s roommate. When the police go to ask her questions, she is found dead also. But, Tom was in police custody when the roommate was killed. And, of course, the same knife was used.

Kit shows up with a lawyer, Anthony Mingo, for whom she used to work and had been romantically involved. Tom, already unsure of himself, takes this new twist poorly and begins to doubt Kit’s affection for him.

The story takes several good turns and eventually resolves itself, but not before several unusual items from Tom’s and Kit’s past are revealed.

I really enjoyed this novel and read it in one sitting. And, with Screams, I still have two more early Bloch novels waiting for my attention, specifically Firebug and The Star Stalker. Bloch was really crafting his style at this point, leading up to his 1959 novel Psycho.

So, if you can find the Ace paperback, buy it. If not, get Screams and have three fun books. And, as with all such titles, your mileage may vary, but I doubt it. Bloch is fabulous.

Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs. This week Todd Mason is hosting the listing.

 

Forgotten Book: The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs (1969)

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 168th in my series of Forgotten Books.

Once again I have to apologize for those few regular readers, After Thanksgiving I began a new work project and that consumed my time. Normally over the holiday I would have spent some time reading but we had guests and that didn’t happen. I hope it doesn’t happen again anytime soon, but it will, so hopefully we can all bear through it.

This week’s title is a book I have had for many years and somehow never got around to reading, even though I knew it had a great reputation and that I would enjoy it. The Face in the Frost is by the great YA writer John Bellairs, but this is not a real YA book. This was meant for the adult fantasy market and it deserves the reputation it has maintained for the last 46 years.

It is a story of magic and magicians and friendship and how all these things work together. The two main characters are both magicians with familiar names, Prospero and Roger Bacon. Prospero lives in the South Kingdom while Roger lives in the North Kingdom. The two realms have no other names than that. They each have their quirks.

The two magicians are old friends and see each other rarely. So it is with joy that Prospero greeted his old friend who came telling of a book he had been searching for. The book is in an unknown tongue and has last been owned by a wizard named Melichus who had trained with Prospero and, during that training, the two had become not friends, more like adversaries.

Strange things are happening in the kingdoms and the two wizards find themselves on a quest to find the book before evil really happens. They shrink down and travel on a small ship. They get separated. Prospero finds an evil pseudo-village and nearly dies. The wizards are reunited and find themselves traveling in a smaller version of Cinderella’s coach, made form a squash.

All the above makes this sound formulaic and squeaky. It is not that at all. The writing is so wonderful it practically leaps off the page. I found myself not wanting to finish the book because I was enjoying it so much, but this column was not going to write itself if I didn’t finish. But, let me cite an example from the first chapter:

“Several centuries (or so) ago, in a country whose name doesn’t matter, there was a tall skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero, and not the one you are thinking of, either. He lived in a huge, ridiculous, doodad-covered, trash-filled two-story horror of a house that stumbled, staggered, and dribbled right up to the edge of a great shadowy forest filled with elms and oaks and maples. It was a house whose gutter spouts were worked into the shape of whistling sphinxes and screaming bearded faces: a house whose white wooden porch was decorated with carved bears, monkeys, toads. And fat women in togas holding sheaves of grain; a house whose steep gray-slate roof was capped with a glass-enclosed twisty-copper-columned observatory…”

Your mileage may vary but I was hooked from those words on. There are not any cutesy elves or orcs or hobbits or warrior-kings. This is the good stuff, not the derivative stuff that passes for fantasy these days.

Take the time. Enjoy the ride. Treasure the words. Live. You won’t regret it.

I know this is a shorter column, but the time is late and I have a 5 a.m. wake-up staring me down.

Buy some great books for your friends and yourself for Christmas. Spread the words.

Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.

 

Forgotten Book: Gestapo Mars by Victor Gischler (2015)

Gestapo Mars: Lots of fun, but don't expect to find it at your local Barnes & Noble.

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 165th in my series of Forgotten Books.

I hope you all had a wonderful Halloween with lots of costumes and candy and fun. We had rain in San Antonio, first early in the day and then again just as the sun went down. Kind of dampened a few spirits and ghouls too.

This week I need to talk about one of my favorite living writers, Victor Gischler. It was Bill Crider who I blame for pointing me in Gischler’s direction. VG was looking for “Gischler virgins” (people who had never read his work) to try a test on. I responded that I was a virgin and he sent me a copy of Shotgun Opera. The only requirement was that I read the book and post a review. If I liked it, great. If not, tell people what I thought and pass the book on.

I posted my review on Amazon and it went along the lines of “What if Quentin Tarrant no had directed the Marx Brothers in Kill Bill and they had done it in drag?” That really didn’t describe the plot of the book, but it certainly captured the flavor. Gischler is not going to be your mother’s thriller writer. Conventional is not a word to enter into these discussions.

I’ve read many of his books, but not all. A couple are waiting for me to get to them. I just cannot binge on this stuff. But I love what I read. When I was Toastmaster at ArmadilloCon a few years back, the committee asked if there was anyone they could invite that I wanted to come. I told them Gischler’s name and he came in from Baton Rouge. He seems like a nice normal person, and I think he had a good time. I know I enjoyed seeing him there.

So this week we are looking at his new science fiction thriller which is not likely to be in a lot of places because … well, it’s not very PC. Gestapo Mars is a title unlikely to send Barnes & Noble ordering 150 copies per store. It’s much more likely to be in the one-or-fewer copy range. Much like Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream, this attempts to make a Nazi sympathetic hero work for the reader.

Carter Sloan is a programmed and highly trained assassin and spy for the Third Reich, which is still in existence several centuries from now. He has been in cryostorage for 258 years, awaiting a mission. When he is awaked, he is told that he will be invading a resistance group looking for the Daughter of the Brass Dragon. Almost immediately, the people reviving him are attacked by the Nazis, who also want him to get to the Daughter of the Brass Dragon. His instructions are a little vague. He will have to improvise and move along. When he finds the Daughter he is to capture her. Or maybe kill her. No, it’s capture. Then it’s kill. Things get a little weird.

He is sent to the moon in a disguise and is accepted by the resistance and the lovely Meredith Capulet, who agrees to smuggle him out. But nothing goes as planned, and her little flyer is attacked by the aliens of the Coriandon race, gelatinous beings from somewhere not near here.

To save himself, he must reveal his Nazi connections and call for help. This obviously does not set well with Meredith, but he wants to live and love again. Bad things happen to the Nazis, and Carter and Meredith are on a slow ship back to the Nazi stronghold on Mars.

But, wait, things have changed. The resistance has moved against the Nazis, and no one is safe. His mission changes until he no longer cares and just wants to survive. Enter the exploding dog with new missions.

The action is fast, furious and irreverent. Sloan has to question all sides and make love to all available women. It’s kind of like Raiders of the Lost Reich, as situations change every few pages. The Nazis and resistance need to unite, because the gooey aliens are coming and they have big guns.

It’s a fun and fast read full of in jokes and odd stuff. When someone sings “Hey, hey we’re the Nazis. The people say we Nazi around,” you know sanity has left the building.

As usual, your mileage may vary, but if Ernie Kovacs and Monty Python are your type of humor, along with a tiny sprinkle of Benny Hill, you can find a home on Gestapo Mars. And the cover is fun, too.

Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.