Book Review: The Book of Van Vogt

Book Review: The Book of Van Vogt by A.E. van Vogt

In 1972, DAW Books was a brand new publishing company started by noted speculative fiction editor Donald A. Wollheim.  Its mission statement was to publish quality science fiction books that had not previously appeared in paperback.  (As opposed to reprinting old books with a new title, as often happened in the paperback market.)  For their fourth publication, Mr. Wollheim reached out to A.E. van Vogt for a collection of old and new stories, trusting to name recognition to sell the book.  I mention this because the inside front page is devoted to this information rather than a teaser for the contents.

The Book of Van Vogt

There are seven stories in this collection, starting with a brand new one, “The Timed Clock.”  It’s set at a dinner party, and the host tells the tale of how he became his own grandfather.  Is he playing a joke on his guests, or does the clock in the hall have special powers?

“The Confession” is a weird story about a man who can’t quite remember why he doesn’t meet his girlfriend any more, or why he took a menial job sweeping floors when he used to be quite wealthy.  And he has visions of a future where things are better, but it’s impossible to see how he got from here to there.  Could it have anything to do with the hypnotist whose stage act he participated in?  An ambiguous ending.  Content note: attempted rape.

“The Rat and the Snake” is set on the homefront during World War Three.  Mark Grey loves feeding rats to his pet python, especially hearing their tiny screams.  But the availability of rats has dried up due to rat-catchers being drafted and pet stores put on rationing.  Mark finds a government research station filled with lab rats, and doesn’t question how easy it is to get inside and steal some.  Poetic justice ensues.

“The Barbarian” is a reprint from the 1940s.  In the far future, the Linn Empire rules Earth, and has successfully conquered Mars and Venus.  But now a new threat arises from Europa, a barbarian horde that looks as though it will sweep aside the decadent empire.  Clane Linn, a priest-scientist and acting leader of Linn, is the only hope of dealing with Czinczar.  Czinczar is far more intelligent than the title of “barbarian” would imply.  Clane is despised by many in the empire (including his late uncle, the former leader) for being a “mutant.”  We never learn the extent of his mutation, except that his clothing is designed to conceal the shape of his shoulders.  He is, by 21st Century standards, the nicest guy in his government.

“Ersatz Eternal” concerns three men who have crashlanded on an alien world.  One of them is insane, but that may make him the best suited to survive in this new environment.

“The Sound of Wild Laughter” concerns Marie Hazzard, a physicist who has been in a loveless (and sexless on her part) marriage with the philandering and maniacally jealous Carl Hazzard for over a decade.  She is briefly relieved when Carl dies, only to learn that his brain has been kept alive and able to communicate.  The situation winds tighter and tighter, as Dr. Marie must deal not only with her semi-deceased husband, but three greedy men who think they know what really happened.

That story is heavy on the misogyny, most directly from the noxious Carl, but also from the other men trying to manipulate Marie–and she has some internalized misogyny to deal with as well.  There’s some dubious consent sex.

And we wrap up with “Lost: Fifty Suns”, reprinted from the 1950s.  In the very far future, descendants of humans who fled to the Magellanic Cloud centuries past learn that the government of Earth has now reached their galaxy.  While the representatives of Earth claim now to be more inclusive of genetic minorities, they will not stand for there being an independent star nation anywhere in the universe.

The Earth ship issues an ultimatum:  Either the civilization of the Magellanic Cloud reveals itself and surrenders, or the Star Cluster will come looking for them with planet-destroying weapons.

This is especially relevant to Captain Maltby, as he is secretly the hereditary ruler of the “Mixed Men”, a new genetic minority that arose from crossbreeding different strains of humanity.  Gifted with strange powers, the Mixed Men tried to take over their galaxy’s civilization, only to be beaten back by force of numbers.  Some of the Mixed Men think this is a golden opportunity to make a deal with the Earthlings to become local satraps, while many others want to use the ultimatum to pressure their own civilization into giving them back civil rights.  Captain Maltby must try to decide what is best for his people, and convince them to accept it.

We also get to see the viewpoint of Lady Laurr, commander of the Earth ship.  Her crew has already been on this mission of mapping the Magellanic Cloud for ten years, and was looking forward to going home when they stumbled on evidence of the Magellanic civilization.  While their technology is highly advanced, they’re still looking for maybe fifty inhabited star systems out of millions of suns; it could take another decade to locate the Magellanic civilization provided this ultimatum doesn’t flush them out.  Lady Laurr faces legal mutiny if she doesn’t get results quickly.

The ending has one side’s efforts and infighting go all for naught.  Somewhat surprisingly, this story passes the Bechdel Test.

Of the stories, I liked “The Rat and the Snake” best; to the point with no faffing about.  “The Sound of Wild Laughter” goes on too long and has too much misogyny that isn’t challenged for my tastes.

If you like van Vogt’s stuff, this isn’t his most famous work, but is pretty representative.  Those who are new to him might want to try Slan or The Voyage of the Space Beagle nstead.

Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946

Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946 edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Before Analog (see previous reviews), there was Astounding, the science fiction magazine that led the field for many years.  Having gotten a copy of an issue from the pulp days, let’s take a look at what wonders lie within.  Despite the cover date, the ads indicate it came out in early December 1945.

Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946
Cover by Timmins

The lead and cover story is part one (of two) of “The Fairy Chessmen” by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner working with C.L. Moore.)  It is roughly a century into the future, and the world is at war…again.  After World War Two, the governments of Eurasia had crumbled, and reformed as the Falangists.  They and America are the two superpowers and implacable enemies.  Thanks to atom-bomb-proof shields and robot warfare, the war has stalemated for years.

Most Americans live deceptively peaceful lives in scattered communities on the surface, while the warmen toil in vast underground cities whose actual locations are closely guarded secrets.  Low Chicago might be below the ruins of Old Chicago, or anywhere in the Midwest.  Of course, in such conditions claustrophobia and other mental illnesses are a continuing concern, and it’s up to the Department of Psychometrics to keep the warmen in good mental health.

Which is why it’s concerning that Cameron, the head of the department, has been having hallucinations of eyeball doorknobs and talking clocks.  He’s trying to keep it a secret, but his help is desperately needed by the War Department.  It seems they have captured a scientific formula from the enemy, one that drives anyone who studies it mad (sometimes giving them strange powers in  the process.  For example, the levitating man who thinks he’s Muhammad’s corpse.)

There are time travel shenanigans involved, and  one character seems determined to produce a specific future.  The title comes from “fairy chess”, variants of the strategy game that use changed rules, such as a knight that can only capture backwards, or a 10×10 board.  The formula changes the rules of physics, sometimes in mid-equation, and scientifically trained minds crack under the strain.

A nifty throwaway (probably) bit is the existence of “fairylands”, miniature cities with tiny robots that people play with ala the Sims.  There’s also an amusing typo when one character claims he’s “half misogynist” when he means “misanthrope.”

Unfortunately, this novel is long out of print, so I have no idea how it ends.  The cliffhanger is neat:  “The edges of the spoon thickened, curled, spread into cold metallic lips.  And kissed him.”

“N Day” by Philip Latham (pen name of R.S. Richardson) concerns an astronomer who discovers the sun is about to go nova.  He tells the world, but is dismissed as a crackpot.  (Had there been more time, someone would have checked his math and found him correct.)  As a result, he finds his spine for the first time in decades.

“Veiled Island” by Emmett McDowell takes place on Venus (the pulp Venus of swamps and jungles.)  A three-person anthropological team goes in search of the title island to investigate reports of a new variant of human.  Apparently, unlike Earth, Venus just keeps producing new human variants out of the swamps which then climb up the ladder of civilization as they travel to the other side of the planet.

The Earthlings promptly crash-land, losing their clothing and supplies–they themselves have to start from scratch.  While struggling to survive, they run into the new variant of humans they were looking for.  A variant that seems destined to replace homo sapiens.

The sexism is pretty thick here, the action guy protagonist denigrates his female colleague for wanting to be treated as an equal, calling her a “tomboy” and the type who would have been a suffragette back in the day.  (Apparently something like feminism happened in this future, but he’s not too keen on the results.)  Over the course of the story, she comes to realize how awesome he is, and they are planning to get married (in the now considered barbaric Twentieth Century fashion) at the end.

The evolutionary science is suspect–emotionlessness is viewed as a huge evolutionary advantage that will allow the new species to outcompete other humans and replace them.

“A Matter of Length” by Ross Rocklynn (pen name of Ross Louis Rocklin) takes place in a far future with galactic travel.  A stable mutation has created a new kind of human, the “double-brained” Hypnos, who have the ability to hypnotize ordinary humans.  They are not physically distinguishable from other humans, but can be detected by “Sensitives.”  Hypnos face severe prejudice, and there’s a war going on between societies that want to exterminate them and those that tolerate them.

All that is background.  A Hypno named Joe has been captured by anti-Hypno forces, and was being shipped back to their planet for a show trial and execution when the ship went off-course and landed on a planet where time has gone wonky.  There’s a paranoid belief among some of the crew that Joe somehow caused this, or is making them hallucinate this, despite the anti-mind control forcefield surrounding his cell.  Eventually, the time wonkiness allows Joe to escape, and he rescues the two people on the ship who are not entirely anti-Hypno.

It turns out that Hypno powers have been vastly exaggerated as propaganda by the anti-Hypno forces; Joe never actually uses his mind control abilities during the course of the story.  It’s the holding cell force field that gives him the temporary advantage he needs as it shields him from the time wonkiness for a while.  Keitha, the Sensitive woman who tracked him down, is dismayed to learn that she’s next on the extermination list after all the Hypnos have been eliminated (as Sensitives are Hypno/ordinary human crossbreeds.)

Apparently, there are also longevity treatments in this future, as the captain of the anti-Hypno ship holds a grudge against the Hypnos for the death of his daughter nearly a century before, with the war starting later.  (It’s a “failure to save” instance–a doctor who was secretly a Hypno couldn’t cure the daughter from a fatal disease, and when his secret was revealed, he was lynched for deliberately killing a human girl.)

“The Plants” by Murray Leinster takes place on a planet with only one form of life.  Plants with flowers that follow the sun…or anything unusual that happens.  Four men whose spaceship was sabotaged crash-land on the planet.  Are they more in danger from the pirates that sabotaged the ship for its precious cargo…or from the plants?  A story that has some creepy moments, and could have gone full on horror if the author wanted.

“Fine Feathers” by George O. Smith is the final fiction piece.  It’s a science fiction retelling of the fable “The Bird with Borrowed Feathers” usually ascribed to Aesop.  A ruthless businessman discovers a way to artificially boost his intelligence by energizing his brain.  The process renders the user sterile (somehow) but since he wasn’t interested in having children, Wanniston considers that a small price.

Being superhumanly intelligent gives Wanniston a huge advantage over his fellow Earthmen, and he is soon the most powerful businessman on the planet.  But he yearns for more, and when a suicide trap makes it untenable for Wanniston to stay on Earth, he decides to join Galactic civilization, where dwell people who have come to super-intelligence by eons of evolutionary processes.  He keeps using the brain energizer, and is soon even more intelligent than the Galactic Ones.

Being logical beings, the Galactic Ones recognize Wan Nes Stan’s (as he now calls himself) superior intellect, and are willing to install him as their leader…as soon as his experience catches up to his intelligence in a few centuries.  Wan Nes Stan tries to shortcut the process, only to discover his true limitations and destroy himself.

The story bookends with identical dialogue at the beginning and end, which would be effective if the language in those conversations wasn’t so stilted.  It also uses the 10% of your brain gimmick (which admittedly was less debunked back then.)

Calvert Ad 1945
Patches considers switching the gift labels.

John W. Campbell’s editorial “–but are we?” is prescient on the subject of nuclear proliferation though thankfully humanity has survived so far.

There are two science fact articles.  “Hearing Aid” by George O. Smith is a very short piece on radio proximity fuses.  “Electrical Yardsticks” by Earl Welch is about the international standards for the volt, ampere and ohm; how they were decided, and how they are maintained.  Lots of math here, and possibly the technology is dated, but likely fascinating reading if you want to know more about electrical engineering.

I liked the Leinster piece best because of the thin line it walks between horror and SF; “The Fairy Chessmen” has some great imagery, but with only part one I can’t judge its full effectiveness.

Overall, an average issue, but well worth looking up for old-time science fiction fans.

Book Review: Four Sided Triangle

Book Review: Four Sided Triangle by William F. Temple

Suppose for a moment that you had access to a device that would create an exact duplicate of any object placed inside.  What would you do with it?  Solve world hunger?  Commit massive art fraud?  Resolve your sexual attraction to your  best friend’s wife?  Yeah, that last one is the possibility we’re exploring here.

Four Sided Triangle

This 1949 novel is narrated by Dr. Harvey, one of the last old-fashioned country doctors in the village of Howdean.  He’s very specifically not possessed of a full scientific education, and would never pass muster in today’s technically-oriented medical profession (indeed, he’s already having trouble keeping up when he’s in his forties!)   But he is bright enough to realize that young Bill Leggett is a child prodigy.

Dr. Harvey acts as a mentor to the young genius as much as he can, and when Bill’s abusive and alcoholic father dies, gets himself appointed Bill’s guardian.  He sponsors Bill’s further education, and secures the lad a scholarship to Cambridge.  At university, Bill meets and becomes friends with Robin Heath, who as it turns out is the son of the  lord of the shire Howdean is located in.  Robin is much more conventional in his thinking than Bill, and not nearly as brilliant, but is a good steady problem-solver who complements Bill’s impatience well.

With a loan from Rob’s father, the two young men start a research laboratory (“the Dump”) together on the outskirts of Howdean.  While they are pursuing their esoteric goals, Dr. Harvey is called upon to aid a young woman who’s taken a drug overdose.  This is Lena, a beautiful (of course) lass with an artistic bent, a fervor for creation, and no noticeable artistic or musical spark.  She can play other people’s compositions competently, and is good at art and color theory, but whenever she tries to create something new, the result is a fiasco.  Thus her attempt at suicide.

Dr. Harvey realizes that Lena needs a completely new endeavor to distract her from fatalistic thoughts, and convinces Bill and Rob to take her on as a sort of housekeeper and general assistant.  This works swimmingly.  The young men both take a fancy to Lena, Bill’s soaring imagination and Rob’s common sense working together to restore her love of life, and her bright spirit (and a spot of much-needed cash) allowing the Reproducer to become functional.

Things go well for a while, with the Reproducer bringing the young scientists renown and steady paychecks.  Dr. Harvey’s share of the enterprise even allows him to take early retirement from active medical practice.  But just as Bill is ready to propose to Lena, Lena proposes to Rob, and the latter two get married.

Bill does not take this well, but he has a plan.  He’s been working on a way to allow the Reproducer to duplicate living beings.  If there were another Lena, then she could marry him and everything would be hunky-dory!  Yeah.  The obvious objections are raised, but the somewhat selfless Lena becomes convinced that her feelings of friendship for Bill could deepen into love given time.

So it is that a second Lena is created, named Dorothy, and marries Bill.  Unfortunately, it turns out that Dorothy is too identical to Lena, and is unable to turn off her love for Rob, the man she remembers as her husband.  She cares deeply for Bill, but the stress of pretending to love him is driving her to despair.

In a twist of fate, Bill blows himself and the Reproducer up with an attempt at creating a nuclear power plant, being just a little too impatient for Rob to return with a safety device.  This leaves Dorothy free to reveal her true feelings, and Lena wants to share Rob with her as they have identical emotions.  Unfortunately, Rob is very conventional when it comes to monogamy, and nixes the idea.

Sometime later, there is another accident, leaving one of the women dead and the other amnesiac, but which is which?  Rob cannot love Dorothy, no matter how identical to Lena she might be.  Dr. Harvey discovers a clue in Bill’s papers that should allow them to settle the matter one way or the other….

The good:  Since the plot depends heavily on the personalities of the people involved, the characterization is much more in-depth than was common for science fiction novels of the time.  The author makes it believable that the characters make decisions believing they will make things better, but instead make them worse.

Bill, as a survivor of childhood abuse, physical, emotional and (all but said outright) sexual, has difficulties forming normal social relationships.  When he finds the one woman he wants to be with forever unavailable, it is unimaginable to him to find another love.  This one was so hard to work up to!  His impatience and willingness to overlook important social cues also play a large part in the tragedy.

Lena had a stage as a feral child, and has learned to make her own decisions, hide her feelings, and not ask for nor expect help.  But she’s also very tender-hearted towards others, and willing to make any sacrifice for those she loves.  Ditto for Dot.

Rob is very much the conventional English gentleman, which is great as long as there are conventional English gentleman things that need doing.  He’s reliable and steady, and good husband material.  But if there’s an ethical dilemma where his code of honor gives contradictory results, or it’s an unprecedented situation, Rob is at a total loss.

Dr. Harvey’s lack of science smarts means that the author can get away with never having to fully explain how the Reproducer actually works; just describing the end product, without having to worry about plausibility.

Not so good:  Period sexism–it’s mentioned more than once that women just aren’t interested in science (always excepting Madame Curie), and Dr. Harvey believes that Lena’s creative impulse would be best put to use in making a family (i.e. children) and she comes to believe the same.

Also, some science fiction cliches:  There’s only ever one Reproducer; Bill and Rob never patent it nor do they seem to publish any work explaining the principles behind it–one part is even revealed after the fact to be a “black box” that Bill installed without telling Rob how it worked or how to fix it.  Yet they are able to make a decent living from renting out the use of the Reproducer without anyone trying to steal their work or having the government confiscate it or demand proof of concept.

And some readers are just not going to like the ending, telling you now.

Still, if tragic romance with a science fiction twist is your thing, I think this one is well worth seeking out.

The edition I read was the 1951 Galaxy Science Fiction reprint, which was done using the same presses as their monthly magazine.  It’s unabridged, so has small type to fit it in the available page count, and the cover is glossy  but flimsy.  You might be able to find a paperback edition in better shape.

The novel was also turned into a 1953 movie by Hammer Studios, a precursor to the full-fledged horror films they were soon to move into.  It simplified the ending somewhat, making it less ambiguous.  Here’s a clip:

Book Review: The Black Bat #1: Brand of the Black Bat & Murder Calls the Black Bat

Book Review: The Black Bat #1: Brand of the Black Bat & Murder Calls the Black Bat by Norman Daniels (writing as G. Wayman Jones)

Tony Quinn was a handsome, wealthy and highly competent district attorney until the day of Oliver Snate’s trial.  This time he had proof of the gangster’s illegal activities, actual recordings of Snate openly talking about his crimes.  But Snate had a plan to destroy the evidence.  Out-of-town criminals infiltrated the courtroom, and when the recordings were brought out of their protective cover, the thugs caused a riot.  One of them hurled a bottle of vitriol on the recordings, incidentally also hitting D.A. Quinn, who had moved to protect the evidence.

The Black Bat #1

The acid hit Tony’s face, horribly scarring him, and more importantly, rendering him blind!  With the key evidence destroyed and a less effective prosecutor filling in, Snate’s slick lawyer was able to get the case dismissed.  Without his sight, Mr. Quinn thought his career was over, and the medical experts told him there was nothing they could do.  Tony became a hermit, aided only by his manservant “Silk” Kirby, a former conman who’d reformed to help Tony against an earlier assassination attempt.

Then a mysterious woman arrived, who told Tony that if he secretly went to a certain town in Illinois, there was one doctor that could cure his blindness.  After a period of recovery, not only could Tony Quinn see again, but he now possessed the ability to see in the dark!  Remembering how Snate had mocked him as “blind as a bat”, Tony decided to conceal his new abilities, and operate as the mysterious vigilante, the Black Bat.

In one of those interesting coincidences comic book history is littered with, the Black Bat first appeared in Black Book Detective about the same month that Batman first appeared in Detective Comics.  And it very much was a coincidence–the pulp character was called “the Tiger” in the original draft, from the striped facial scars.  But the publisher of Black Book Detective wanted him to be the lead character in that magazine, so he was rewritten into a darker mode, drawing on much the same cultural influences that Bob Kane and Bill Finger used to create Batman.

The two very similar characters brought about mutual threats of lawsuit–but the companies settled on an agreement that Batman would appear in comics only, while the Black Bat would stick to prose.  We’ll get back to that later.

Back in the story, Oliver Snate has graduated to making armored cars vanish on a regular basis.  He’s smart, but not that smart, so the Black Bat suspects a criminal mastermind at work.  The Black Bat begins his plan by interfering with a bank robbery.  A ex-boxer named Jack “Butch” O’Leary and the mystery girl, Carol Baldwin, get caught up in this and join the Black Bat’s team.  The Black Bat also makes an enemy of Detective Sergeant McGrath, an honest policeman who wants to arrest the vigilante for breaking the law.  McGrath catches on to the connection between the Black Bat and Tony Quinn quickly, but is never able to prove they’re the same person.  (Police Commissioner Warner also suspects, but is much less motivated to catch the Bat.)

It turns out that Carol’s father was a police officer who’d been blinded by Oliver Snate in a different way some years before.  Dying, he convinced Dr. Harrington, a brilliant surgeon living in obscurity for reasons never discussed, to transplant his intact corneas and other vital bits into Tony Quinn’s eyes.  (Dr. Harrington is declared dead offstage at the beginning of the second story, so we never follow up on him.)  Carol and Tony are strongly affectionate towards each other, though they both know romance is out of the question.

Now that all the pieces are in place, it’s time to run Snate to earth, and expose the true villain behind him.

Our heroes are pretty cold-blooded about killing; Tony and Silk don’t hesitate to shoot criminals even before they become vigilantes, and the team racks up quite a body count by the end.  Perhaps the most brutal moment is when the Black Bat straight up murders a parked getaway driver so that bank robbers will be forced to use a car he’s gimmicked to record their voices.

The Black Bat’s double life is a recurring problem; he must often cut investigations short and hurry home so that poor, blind Tony Quinn can be seen to still be blind and most certainly not running around in a hood and cape.

Carol’s backstory has her be an effective solo operator until she joins the team, at which point she never takes initiative any more, just doing whatever the Black Bat assigns.  Yes, she does get into peril a lot and need to be saved, but Silk and Butch are about equally peril-prone.

In the second story, several elite jewelry emporiums discover that large portions of their stock have turned counterfeit, seemingly overnight.  One owner is apparently driven to suicide, while another consults Tony Quinn (who used to be his lawyer before being elected district attorney) before apparently driving off a cliff in an exploding automobile.  When a hitman shows up to kill Tony, he realizes that the crooks behind this bizarre series of events must think he knows more about what’s going on than he really does.  Time to become the Black Bat!

Freed of having to do a lot of set-up, this story is more of an action-mystery with plenty of suspects.  There’s a nasty torture scene, though the cover switches Silk with Carol for the equivalent peril.   The bad guys’ major weak point turns out to be that the field leader of the thieves is obviously planning to betray his boss just as soon as he has the loot.  There’s some ethnic stereotyping.

One neat bit that comes up is that Tony’s scars make the Black Bat not be a master of disguise.  He can disguise himself a bit, but he’s no man of a thousand faces, leaving that to the clever Silk.

Now, remember that deal I mentioned a few paragraphs ago?  Eventually, the publisher of Black Bat wanted to adapt some of the magazine stories to comic book form.  But they couldn’t use the name “Black Bat,” so he was changed to the Owl.  Oops, by the time the art was finished, someone had started publishing another superhero named “the Owl.”  So the script was quickly changed by Raymond Thayer to call the main character “the Mask.”  “The Mask Strikes” from Exciting Comics #1 is the first half of “Brand of the Black Bat” with a few names changed, and the hero wearing a noticeably bird-themed hood.  Very compact art that gets a lot done in a few pages.

The Black Bat’s origin went on to inspire comic book characters Dr. Mid-Nite and Two-Face.  Batman-related character Cassandra Cain took up the name Black Bat for a few issues before a reboot made her vanish (the latest version of her is now called “Orphan”), and the Tony Quinn Black Bat finally got to appear in comics in a series from Dynamite.

Recommended for pulp fans, and fans of two-fisted vigilantes who don’t pull punches when dealing with criminals.

 

Book Review: Lobster Johnson: The Satan Factory

Book Review: Lobster Johnson: The Satan Factory by Thomas E. Sniegoski

Disgraced doctor Jonas Chapel, on the run from the mob in Mexico, stumbles across a mysterious skeleton dripping a fluid that turns humans into monsters.  Soon thereafter Chapel’s back in New York, teaming up with the very gang boss who’d ordered the hit on him to take over all the gangs in the city.  Or so mobster Rocco Fazzina thinks, but Dr. Chapel’s ambitions are larger than that.  Only the masked man known as the Lobster and his few agents are aware of the Satan Factory and the threat it poses to all human life!

Lobster Johnson: The Satan Factory

The Lobster is a character first appearing in the Hellboy comic books by Mike Mignola.  He was a vigilante of the 1930s, dead in the present day, and had become known at “Lobster Johnson” through a series of ever less accurate fictionalizations.  For the purposes of this book, the body of the story is a previously unknown manuscript that predates all other fictionalizations, and may have been written by an agent of the Lobster himself.

That agent (under the alias Jacob Hurley) is a former police officer who’d been framed for corruption when he dared speak out against it, and after several years in prison, released to become an unemployable homeless man.  He’s recently been recruited by the Lobster to keep an eye on the city’s underbelly.  As this is the twilight period of history after the start of the Depression but before the end of Prohibition, there is a thriving Hooverville for Jake to get information from.

As a new agent of the Lobster, Jake serves as the viewpoint character to introduce us to the team.  We also get scenes from the viewpoint of the Lobster, but these are all directly connected to his fight against crime and tell almost nothing about his personal life beyond dark allusions to tragic events that motivated him to become the Lobster, and perhaps gave him his “not a normal human” status.

The Lobster is much in the Spider mode, branding fallen foes with his lobster claw emblem, and killing scores of monsters as well as any gangster that crosses his path (that isn’t killed by something else.)

We get a bit more insight into the backgrounds of villains Chapel and Fazzina, and how they got started on their paths to darkness.  By the end, however, there’s almost nothing left of Dr. Chapel’s original personality as the owner of the skeleton starts taking him over to spread its army of monsters.

This book is very much is the pulp tradition with lots of fast moving action and not much time spent on introspection.  Also in the pulp tradition, there’s a glitch–as I hinted at above, “Lobster Johnson” was a name attached to the Lobster only much later than the purported date of the manuscript, and yet the narrative slips and calls him that a couple of times.

Primarily for Mike Mignola fans who didn’t get enough of the Lobster in the comics, but should also go well for fans of pulp heroes in general.

Book Review: Nick Carter Volume 2

Book Review: Nick Carter Volume 2 edited by Anthony Tollin

As noted in my review of the first volume, Nick Carter, Master Detective, was a long-running character who had three distinct phases.  These reprint volumes primarily cover his pulp magazine career.  The stories were written under the house name “Nick Carter,” even though they weren’t in first person.

Nick Carter, Volume Two

“Whispers of Death” by John Chambliss leads off the volume.  A Presidential Commission has met to decide if New York should have a federally-run electric power distribution system, ala the Tennessee Valley Authority, (still new in 1935 when the story was written.)  They’ve made their secret decision and sent it off to Washington so that the President can announce it in four days’ time.  But Mr. Ballard, the head of the commission, suspects something has gone wrong, and calls Nick Carter in for a consultation.  By the time Nick arrives, Ballard has been murdered!

The government orders Nick to keep this murder a secret, even from the police, so that the public won’t panic about what this means for the power industry.  This hampers his investigation considerably, although it’s clear that whoever the murderer is, Ballard knew them and it is almost certainly something to do with the commission’s decision.  And therefore the other members of the commission are the main suspects!

Nick Carter and his closest associates soon discover they’re up against a “whisper gang” that uses cleverly planted rumors to manipulate markets.  But who’s behind the gang?  They’ll need to do a lot of shooting, fist-fighting, escaping from death traps and, oh yeah, actual detective work to figure it out.

Of note is that the writer apparently was not aware of FDR’s physical limitations (or, since the President is never named, we are in an alternate universe) as he has him walking around freely.

There’s a touch of period ethnic stereotyping and sexism (it’s mentioned a couple of times how surprising it is that Nick’s female assistant Roxy is a competent operative.)

“Trail of the Scorpion” is by Thomas Calvert McClary, who also wrote “The Impossible Theft” in the first volume (and which is referenced in this story.)  Nick Carter receives a visitor who’s tattooed in a code known only to himself and one other person (who is not the person with the tattoo.)  A messenger will soon arrive beating a ring engraved with a scorpion, and the fate of far Iraghan hangs in the balance.

The identity of the story’s villain is quickly revealed, an usurper named McClelland, but the mystery is where that man hid the gold he looted from Iraghan’s treasury before he was expelled from that country.  Mixed up in this somehow is a con artist named Winnie the Weeper.  But is she working for McClelland, against him, or just for herself?

Nick gets into a lot of narrow scrapes in this one, having his guns and tools stolen more than once, and taking more head trauma than could possibly be good for him.  The trail takes him to Valdosta, Georgia and from  there deep into the Everglades.

There’s a lot of outdated ethnic stereotyping in this one, as McClelland is an equal-opportunity employer–to the point that one of the minor characters is known as “the Caucasian.”  There’s also some torture by the bad guys.

Another note for both these stories is that Nick Carter doesn’t get paid for either of these adventures, nor does he ever discuss his finances.

“The Voice of Crime”, an episode of the radio show version written by Walter B. Gibson (The Shadow) and Edward Gruskin, on the other hand, has Nick hurting for cash.  Enough so that when a safecracker known as “Vox” offers a $10,000 reward if Nick Carter can capture him, Nick is all too willing to take the too clever for his own good criminal as a client.  One gets the feeling that Nick really enjoys letting Vox think he’s outsmarted the master detective before puncturing his balloon.

“The Shadow Calling Nick Carter” is also by Walter B. Gibson with artist Charles Coll, an adaptation of the radio episode just mentioned in comic book form to turn it into a crossover with the Shadow.  It’s very slight, but a rare crossover by one of the original writers of the Shadow character.

Both of the magazine stories are very exciting, though the second one may have too many racist undertones for some readers.  Recommended for pulp fans.

Magazine Review: The Avenger #8: House of Death | The Hate Master

Book Review: The Avenger #8: House of Death | The Hate Master by Kenneth Robeson

Quick recap:  The Avenger, Richard Henry Benson, is a wealthy adventurer who took early retirement to spend time with his wife and daughter.  They were murdered by criminals, and he has sworn vengeance on crimedom, gathering a team of highly skilled people known as “Justice, Inc.”  As mentioned in my review of #7, sales on the title weren’t doing so well, so editorial ordered some changes that removed the Avenger’s weird appearance and retconned his age to be considerably younger, with these changes taking place in Murder on Wheels.

The Avenger #8

This had a direct effect on the first story in this volume, House of Death.  It had originally been finished by Paul Ernst (writing as Kenneth Robeson) under the title “House of Hate.”  But then the editorial decision came down, Murder on Wheels was hastily put in place instead, and this story was stowed away.   Then it was rewritten to change Benson’s appearance to the new look, excise his uncanny face-change ability, and put in a line explaining where the new team member Cole Wilson was.  By that time, the next story also had “Hate” in the title, so this story was retitled.

So, what is House of Death about?  It’s about an once powerful and wealthy family, the Haygars.  Political changes and bad health have whittled away the family’s fortune and numbers, leaving only a handful of cousins from various parts of the world.  They have come to America for a reunion, each bearing a small gold coin to identify themselves.  However, those coins also mark the bearers for death, and at least one of the Haygars is an impostor.

The story has an interesting opening, focusing on Milky Morley, a down on his luck mugger who attacks a man on a lonely street for the “profit” of a wad of bills from a country that doesn’t exist any more, and a small gold coin of no known nation.  He is only the first person in the story to die because he’s touched one of the coins.

Nellie Gray gets to be particularly useful in this story once the scene switches to an island off the coast of Maine.  She brachiates ala  Tarzan, kills a guard dog with an improvised boar spear, and saves the lives of several of the male members of the team.  And if she gets in trouble in the deadly house of the title, it’s because everyone else has had a turn.

The Hate Master, also by Paul Ernst, opens with a scientist disappearing from an isolated laboratory by unknown means.  Then a Scottish terrier is torn to pieces by rabbits.  It’s soon clear that the scientist has developed some means of causing animals and people to hate on command, which may be tied to a wealthy politician who’s running for president.  (Will Murray’s article in this volume claims this was the first appearance of a “hate plague” in the hero pulps.)  There’s an unpleasant scene of the political candidate whipping a dog with a copper wire

Both stories happen to have the gigantic Smitty’s ankles torn up by small animals, and have sections set in Maine.

After the two main stories, there are two shorts.  “A Coffin for the Avenger” by Emile Tepperman appeared in Clues Detective, and has the Avenger up against a Nazi spy codenamed “the Black Tulip” after the villain’s horticultural ambitions.  There’s a chilling first bit with a straitjacketed man forced to “drive” a car into a hotel lobby, only one of a series of events the Black Tulip has orchestrated.  The villain boasts that he never overlooks a detail–he’s wrong, and it’s a short story because the Black Tulip’s henchman has failed to notice the neighborhood kids playing games.

“Death Paces the Widow’s Walk” by Bruce Elliott stars detective Nick Carter (see the review I did of one of his books) investigating an apparent suicide on Martha’s Vineyard.  The suicide note is an obvious forgery, and the most likely suspect, the man with bald nostrils, has vanished.  It’s a double “locked room mystery” and Nick cuts the solution very close to his own death.

While not quite up to the earlier stories in the series, these Avenger tales have some great plot twists and exciting action.  Recommended to pulp fans.

Magazine Review: High Adventure #144 Captain Battle

Magazine Review: High Adventure #144 Captain Battle edited by John P. Gunnison

This issue of the pulp reprint magazine has two stories by renowned adventure writer H. Bedford-Jones, both from the pages of People’s.  People’s was a Street & Smith publication that ran from 1906 to 1924 under varying titles, all of which had “People’s” in them.  It appears to have been a generic adventure story magazine, and notable for covers that were more picturesque than lurid, unlike many of the later pulps.

High Adventure #144: Captain Battle

“Captain Battle” has a main character whose name is both more and less unlikely at the same time.  His birth name is Captain Cathenach, the family one being an old Gaelic term for “battle.”  He’s investigating rum-running and other criminal activity in the Pacific Northwest towards the end of World War One.  The main villain of the story is “Yellow” Hearne, a criminal mastermind who has decided to get out of the rum-running business just as Prohibition is making it really profitable as he has even bigger plans.

What brings these men into direct conflict is that they both have an acquaintance with wealthy businessman Philip Nichols…and his beautiful daughter Faith.  Hearne wants to marry Faith, by hook or by crook, but would prefer she do it voluntarily, and as long as the manly Captain is around, that’s too much competition.   Hearne uses the implication that he is a government agent several times in the story to get his way.

Captain Cathenach is also in love with Faith, but has a number of secrets that get in the way.  First, he is actually a government agent undercover as a wealthy eccentric.  Second, under another name, he’s wanted for jewel robbery and murder.  Those he could probably clear up for Faith, but his third secret, the one that keeps him from revealing his true feelings to the maiden, is that he’s going blind!

There are a number of twists and turns, including a mid-story shocker when Cathenach gets a head wound and becomes a simple-minded amnesiac.

There’s some period racism in the story, with Cathenach being of the “my best friend is Chinese” type.  Sexism is more of the setting related type; Faith is plucky, but not expected to fend for herself in dangerous situations.

“John  Solomon-Retired” is another long story, this one featuring recurring character John Solomon, a Cockney ship’s chandler (a dealer in ship supplies and equipment.)   The hero of the story is Ralph Carter, an American salesman who finds himself at loose ends in Java.  Mr. Solomon  enlists Ralph in a favor the older man is doing a Chinese secret society.

It seems that Miss Wilhemina Bergen owns a spice plantation that hasn’t been able to sell its crop due to the Great War sapping trade.   Herman Stoppel, a “half-caste” (mixed race) trader, has been trying to gain control of the plantation for some reason as yet unknown.  Wing Fu, the secret society representative, went to college with Miss Bergen’s late brother, and has determined that Captain Stoppel thinks he can make two million American dollars from something on the plantation.  It’s unlikely to be the nutmeg, even if the American market is in dire need.

Mr. Carter is sent to the plantation to pretend to be a rival potential buyer, to see if he can figure out what’s going on and protect Miss Bergen’s interests.

Once again there are many twists to the story, with much of the later action taking place on John Solomon’s tricked-out ship, and then on Stoppel’s own craft.  There’s a series of plans and reversals until the final paragraphs.

Again, some period racism, though meaner to the mixed race people than to the Chinese person.  Miss Bergen has competence in her background, she’s been running the plantation for the last two years since her brother died, but has no action skills.  Stoppel turns out to want to marry Miss Bergen–and not to gain the money, either!  She is pretty racist in her response to that.

Both are exciting adventure stories with plenty of action and a bit of romance (somewhat more believable in the first story as the characters have known each other for some years.)   They are, however, products of their time and this may not appeal to some readers.

 

Magazine Review: High Adventure #143: Planet Stories Issue

Magazine Review: High Adventure #143: Planet Stories Issue edited by John P. Gunnison

Planet Stories was a science-fiction pulp magazine published between 1939 and 1955; it specialized in interplanetary action and daring-do.  (See my review of Planet Comics, its sister magazine that started publishing about the same time.  Covers tended to the formula of busty, scantily-clad (by the standards of the time) woman, handsome hero and bug-eyed monster.

High Adventure #143: Planet Stories

The stories in this reprint are from 1951 & 1952, by which time the general quality of the stories had improved and science fiction itself was trending towards more mature writing.  Most of the SF pulps that survived did so by switching to a digest format on somewhat better paper; Planet Stories was unable to make that transition.

“Zero Data” by Charles Saphro is a bit different from the usual for the magazine in that while interplanetary travel exists, it takes place on Earth.  Police officer Jason has been trying to get the goods on crimelord Lonnie Raichi for years.  But no matter what new crime-fighting equipment the police labs produce, Lonnie always escapes detection.  By 2009, he’s become THE Launcelot Raichi and the higher-ups of Government City are putting heavy pressure on Captain Jason to simply stop investigating.

Lonnie ascribes his success to his “Triple Ethic”, one of the tenets of which is paying the right people to produce solutions to his problems.  For example, the head inventor of the police labs was on his payroll, creating ways to beat the latest anti-crime technology before delivering that technology to the police.

Captain Jason has the last laugh, however, figuring out what Lonnie is after, and using the low-tech approach of being there in person with his human eyes.  He’s realized that Lonnie has never bothered learning the scientific principles his crime suit operates on.

“Thompson’s Cat” by Robert Moore Williams demonstrates the wisdom of bringing a housecat on your rocketship.  An exploration crew finds a planet devoid of life, looking like everyone died in a sudden attack by unknown enemies, but with no radioactivity or battle damage to the buildings.  On the way back to Earth, crew members start dying of something that turns their skin green.  The captain locks the ship into a course for the sun–if they can’t figure out the cause before they fry, at least Earth won’t be contaminated.  A fairly simple puzzle story, though raising some questions about the alien life cycles.

“The Slaves of Venus” by Edwin James is closer to the traditional “planetary romance” formula Planet Stories was known for.  A political figure exiled from Earth and Mars arrives on Venus to free it from the tyrannical interplanetary government.  Except that he himself is one of the former dictators who has been overthrown.  The actual hero unites Venus’ barbarian tribes to stop the slave trade and has a romance with the dictator’s naive daughter who bought into her father’s narrative.

“Evil Out of Onzar” by Mark Ganes has a shapeshifting intelligence officer assigned to bodyguard a scientist who has developed a new wrinkle on hyperspace travel that would make it easier for one side of the galactic war to win.  He fails, but manages to hook up with the scientist’s lovely daughter, herself a brilliant scientist (Planet tended to have pretty competent heroines who were of actual use to the hero once he saved them.)   Onzar turns out to be an important choke point in the hyperspace system, and an ideal place for an ambush.  Unfortunately, it’s run by a dictator who is himself bent on conquest.

The best character in the story is Pyuf, an amiable and hard-drinking fellow who has many jobs, not all of them legitimate.  Sadly, he leaves the tale about halfway through.  There’s also an interesting social divide between gold-obsessed males and religious females on Onzar.

“The Virgin of Valkarion” by Poul Anderson is in the “Barbarian Worlds” setting.  Humanity went to the stars, but the planets became cut off from each other and fell into more primitive societies.  Eons have passed since then.  Alfric, an outlander, comes to Valkarion, last vestige of an empire that once ruled the planet back when it had oceans.  He’s directed to a particular tavern, and the girl that comes with his room is of far too high quality to be an ordinary prostitute.

Turns out she’s Hildaborg, queen of Valkarion, whose husband just died–there’s a prophecy that Alfric fits to an uncomfortable degree, and she wants in on the ground floor.  The priest Therokos, on the other hand, wants to break the prophecy and rule himself.  (The title is a lie.  There is no virgin in the story.)

This could easily be fantasy; the only hints of SF are the alien planet thing and hints that Alfric’s sword is technological in nature.

“The Big Pill” by Raymond Z. Gallun finishes the issue with a colony on Titan.  It’s just suffered a tragedy due to defective equipment shipped in by Space Colonists’ Supply, Inc.  The current owner values profit over safety, and has blocked more modern equipment from being imported thanks to his monopoly.  Some of the colonists have a plan to make conditions on Titan better…using a descendant of the hydrogen bomb.  They must work against the clock as the corporate jerk is determined to see them all under his thumb instead.

Overall, this is a fun issue for pulp SF fans, which is better on the sexism front than much of the contemporary material.  (There’s some Mighty Whitey moments in “The Slaves of Venus” that  may be off-putting.)

 

Magazine Review: Phantom Detective #2: Dealers in Death | The Yacht Club Murders

Magazine Review: Phantom Detective #2: Dealers in Death | The Yacht Club Murders edited by Anthony Tollin.

The Phantom Detective was wealthy playboy Richard Curtis Van Loan, who became bored with his civilian life after serving in World War One.   His friend, publisher Frank Havens, suggested he put his brains and assortment of interesting talents to work solving a mysterious crime just to see if he could.  Van Loan did, and enjoyed it so much he decided to dedicate his life to fighting crime  as a “phantom.”  A master of disguise, he identified himself with a platinum mask-shaped jewel set with diamonds, a signal known to police forces world-wide.

The Phantom Detective #2

The Phantom Detective was actually the longest-running of the pulp hero magazines, lasting from 1933 (appearing a month before Doc Savage) to 1953, though both Doc and The Shadow had more issues.  Inside the stories, Van Loan was just “The Phantom.”  The character was kind of generic as pulp heroes go, almost all of them were wealthy masters of disguise with good fighting skills and a variety of useful talents.  He didn’t really have a gimmick that made him stand out, but the stories always had gimmicks that caught reader interest, so the magazine was a consistent seller.

The two main stories in this issue are both attributed to house name “Robert Wallace”, which took over from house name “G. Wayman Jones” when the series turned more hard-boiled from the earlier, more adventure-focused issues.

“Dealers in Death” is from 1936 and primarily written by Norman Daniels, though the text article indicates it got a substantial rewrite from an unnamed writer.   A daring penthouse jewel robbery that ends in murder happens the same night  a crime reporter employed by Frank Havens is assassinated in the Clarion newspaper offices.  The story introduces ace reporter Steve Huston of the Clarion as the murdered reporter’s protege and a recurring supporting character.   But more importantly, it is the first appearance of the red light atop the newspaper building that Mr. Havens has lit whenever he or the police need the services of the Phantom.  This “Phantom signal” inspired the later Bat-Signal of the comics.

The most interesting character in the story as a character is Kate Wilde, the second-in command of the criminal gang.  As the leader’s identity is part of the mystery, she does most of the on-screen skulduggery and contrasts her own love-sickness for the leader with her bodyguard’s devotion to herself.  She’s competent and a good actress.   It’s an unusually good performance for a secondary female character in the genre at the time.

The cover is for this story, but somewhat misleading–while there is a knifed corpse, and a note with the body, the note is not attached to the body by the knife.  The climax of the story is the Phantom infiltrating the criminals’ hideout in the Everglades.

“The Yacht Club Murders” from 1939 was written by Charles Greenberg, and largely takes place in and near the yacht club of the title.  The ten owners of the club have been offered a large sum of money for land the club owns, a sum which could save one of the men from financial ruin with just his share.   But another member blocks the sale with his mysterious control over several of the other shareholders.  He’s assaulted by the ruined man, and just as things are getting calmed down, the ruined man is murdered by a shot through the window.

The Phantom is coincidentally on hand, and his investigation soon reveals that the murder was part of a criminal conspiracy led by the mysterious Bat, who wears a dark cowl, and a ribbed cape that looks like a bat’s wings.  By this point in the series, Van Loan is going steady with Frank Havens’ lovely daughter Muriel.  Knowing that the Phantom is somehow connected to Mr. Havens, the Bat kidnaps Muriel in an attempt to get the detective to back off.  Like many masked heroes in the comics, Richard Curtis Van Loan never bothered to inform his girlfriend of his secret identity.  This got her kidnapped and threatened a lot without knowing why.  (This finally came back to bite the Phantom in the 2006 “continuation” The Phantom’s Phantom, when a bitter Muriel leaves Van Loan over his long deception.)

There’s an article by pulp scholar Will Murray about how the Phantom Detective influenced the Batman comics, including the possibility that the Bat from the later story, which would have been fresh in memory when Batman was created, inspired some costume details.  Editors Mort Weisinger and Jack Schiff both worked on The Phantom Detective before coming to DC Comics, and Mort became editor of Batman just about the time the Bat-Signal was introduced.  Hmm….

To round out the issue, we have a story from the comic book version of Richard Curtis Van Loan published by Nedor Comics, “The Case of the Complex Corpse.”  Illustrated by Edmond Good (later artistic director of Tupperware), the story concerns a rest home that’s been murdering its wealthy patients.  It’s a quick story with little mystery, but allows the Phantom to show off his disguise skills and quick-change abilities.  Also, it shows some criminal stupidity.  If one of your patients tells a visitor that he fears being murdered by a “freak accident”, you probably should hold off on murdering him for a while to throw off suspicion.

Both the main stories are notable for the absolute ruthlessness of their criminal masterminds towards their subordinates, murdering them en masse to save money and avoid being fingered.  There’s also a bit of outdated ethnic stereotyping in the first story that may be uncomfortable for some readers.

While Batman fans are the ones most likely to want this issue, these are pretty good pulp stories in their own right and worth taking a look at.

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