Saturday, August 28, 2010

Book Review: Starhammer

Book Review: 'Starhammer' by Christopher Rowley
4 / 5 Stars

‘Starhammer’ (Ballantine /Del Rey, 1986, 297 pp., cover art by David Schleinkofer) is the first novel in the so-called ‘Vang’ trilogy; the succeeding volumes are ‘The Vang: The Military Form’ (1988) and ‘The Vang: Battlemaster’ (1990).

I didn’t acquire the Vang trilogy during the 80s, nor do I remember it getting the attention that other trilogies of the era received (such as Harry Harrison's 'West of Eden' series). As the 21st century dawned it looked like the series would be something of a modestly successful example of 80s space opera, if nothing more memorable.

All that changed in November 2001 with the release of the video game ‘Halo: Combat Evolved’ on the Xbox. In short order the Halo games became a marketing juggernaut. When Jason Jones, one of the producers at Bungie Studio, disclosed that some features of the game were borrowed / inspired from the Vang trilogy, it focused new attention on Rowley’s novels and today used copies of the trilogy sell rather dearly on eBay and

In ‘Starhammer’, the far future is a place of limited ambitions for humanity. Despite the arrival of FTL travel and the colonization of thousands of planets, the human race is the de facto slave of the laowon Empire: a race of humanoid, blue-skinned aliens who can be ruthless in suppressing dissent. The regions of space still open to ‘free’ humans are steadily dwindling under pressure from laowon political factions, and Earth itself is ruled by a quisling who answers to the laowon imperial family.

Jon Iehard is a human with mild psy abilities, born on the frontier world of Glegan, and reared as a serf to the loawon administration that governs the planet. Jon experiences firsthand the cruelty of laowon rule, and when he matures, he makes his way to one of the last few remaining free worlds of humanity: the Nocanicus system. Jon finds employ as a detective on the Mass Murder Squad, hunting down terrorists determined to sow fear and disorder among the elites at the top of the economic food chain.

Jon receives a new assignment: find an elderly man named Eblis Bey, a religious fanatic responsible for the detonation of a bomb inside a laowon space station; twenty of the aliens died, including members of the Blue Seygfan royalty. The pressure on the human government to find and turn Eblis Bey over to the vengeful laowon is intense. But as Jon Iehard embarks on his pursuit of Bey, the mystery behind the older man’s actions only deepens. For Eblis Bey is on a quest to reach the planet Baraf, where among the ruins of a long-dead alien civilization is rumored to rest the Starhammer: a weapon of immense power that can turn its wielder into the ruler of the galaxy.

The laowon want the Starhammer as much as Eblis Bey. But access to the Starhammer won’t come easily….for nestled within its depths is another weapon, equally ancient, and just as formidable….

‘Starhammer’ takes some time to get underway; the first few chapters barrage the reader with a lot of improvised alien proper nouns and terminologies a la ‘Dune’. Indeed, the main plot doesn’t start to develop until well into the first third of the narrative, as author Rowley methodically spends quite a few pages laying out his world construction of the laowon and their human thralls. But once Iehard receives his assignment to track down Eblis Bey the novel starts to gain momentum, and then the adventures come fast and hard all the way to the last page.

[Readers familiar with the ‘Halo’ franchise will recognize the origins of The Flood and the (rather effeminate) alien robot, 343 Guilty Spark.]

As an example of 80s space opera ‘Starhammer’ comes across very well, and is superior in my opinion to that quintessential standard of the genre at that time period, Orson Scott Card’s ‘Ender’s Game’.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

'Free Ways' by Lee Marrs

from the August 1979 issue of 'Heavy Metal'

Monday, August 23, 2010

Book Review: Whispers II

Book Review: 'Whispers II', edited by Stuart David Schiff

2 / 5 Stars

‘Whispers’ was a semi-professional zine devoted to fantasy and horror short stories. It appeared irregularly during the 70s and 80s as a labor of love by Stuart David Schiff, who worked full-time as a dentist in Binghamton, New York.

A (somewhat arrogant) account by David Drake of the magazine’s inception, and how submissions were handled / discarded, is available here.

Starting in 1977, mainstream publisher Doubleday began to reprint material from the zine (as well as commissioned new stories) in hardcover, and a series of paperbacks followed suit, appearing under the Doubleday Jove imprint. These are available from and eBay for reasonable prices (although original issues of the magazine itself are much more expensive).

The anthologies are representative of 70s and 80s horror and fantasy, much in the same manner as the DAW ‘Years Best Horror Stories’ collections (which often included stories that first saw print in Whispers). Although newcomers to the field could see their work appear in the zine, a lot of material was provided by a relatively narrow coterie of fantasy / horror / SF writers of the era, such as David Drake, Charles L. Grant, Karl Edward Wagner, Dennis Etchison, and Ramsey Campbell.

And, like the DAW anthologies, or Kirby MacCauley's ‘Dark Forces’ collection, Whispers sought to publish ‘quiet’ horror; outright grue and gore were considered the purview of tasteless hacks. Later in the 80s, splatterpunks like David Schow were able to get their more restrained pieces into the zine.

‘Whispers II’ was first published as a hardcover in 1979 by Doubleday; this Jove paperback (256 pp.) appeared in November 1987 and features cover art by Marshall Arisman. A brief rundown on the contents, some of which appeared in the Whispers zine from 1973 - 1978:

‘Undertow’ by Karl Edward Wagner: a mediocre Kane story. For whatever reason, Wagner’s early Kane stories featured really, really bad dialogue and adverb- and adjective- overloaded prose. Have a dictionary at hand for ‘corposant’, ‘rubious’, and - ‘cucurbit’ !?

‘Berryhill’ by R. A. Lafferty: juvenile delinquent investigates a haunted house.

‘The King’s Shadow Has No Limits’ by Avram Davidson: not a horror story, but a philosophical tale about the city of Bella, featuring Davidson’s Doctor Eszterhazy character.

‘Conversation Piece’ by Richard Christian Matheson: the narrative is mediated entirely by dialogue passages; a man who can’t say no to medical ‘research’ tells how he earned his living.

‘The Stormsong Runner’ by Jack L. Chalker: a hillbilly girl and ominous weather.

‘They Will Not Hush’ by Sallis and Lunde: more of a fragment than a coherent short story, whatever thin plot is present gets lost under metaphor-encrusted prose.

‘Lex Talionis’ by Russell Kirk: the ghost story component of this tale is really just a device upon which Kirk espouses his conservative, orthodox, Catholicism-driven philosophies. The prose can be ponderous (‘rusticated ashlar’ ?!).

‘Marianne’ by Joseph Payne Brennan: a short-short story of a bad time at the beach, albeit in the off-season.

‘From The Lower Deep’ by Hugh Cave: a flooded island, Lovecraftian horrors, ‘explicit’ gore (by the standards of the Whispers crowd), and one of the better stories in the anthology.

‘The Fourth Musketeer’ by Charles L. Grant: the obligatory C. L. Grant entry. A middle-aged man experiencing angst finds himself in his old neighborhood. Most readers will see where the story is headed well before the (typically for Grant, oblique) ending.

‘Ghost of a Chance’ by Ray Russell: short-short story; a skeptic meets a True Believer in ghosts.

‘The Elcar Special’ by Carl Jacobi: reasonably good haunted-car story

‘The Box’ by Lee Weinstein: Weinstein, a new writer, delivers a short story that is less about horror and more about manifestations of bereavement. Unremarkable.

‘We Have All Been Here Before’ by Dennis Etchison: The mandatory Etchison entry. A psychic assisting with a murder case may have her own agenda. The horror elements are predictably muted and failed to impress me.

‘Archie and the Scylla of Hades Hole’ by Ken Wisman, and ‘Trill Coster’s Burden’ by Manly Wade Wellman: two folk tales with supernatural themes.

‘Conversation Piece’ by Ward Moore: this story would have been more at home in ‘The New Yorker’. In 1805 Gotham, a dandy meets a mysterious family of Russian aristocrats.

‘The Bait’ by Fritz Leiber: unremarkable short-short tale featuring the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd.

‘Above the World’ by Ramsey Campbell: the obligatory Campbell entry. A distraught man embarks on a hike in the English countryside. To call Campbell’s prose turgid is an understatement; witness the description of a stream that “….pursued its wordless water monologue.”

‘The Red Leer’ by David Drake: avaricious farmers poke around an ancient Indian burial mound. One of the better stories in the collection, featuring a unique sort of monster.

‘At the Bottom of the Garden’ by David Campton: an entry in the genre of fantastical children’s tales best worked by the British author Roald Dahl. In this story, a little girl’s mysterious playmate provides very unusual medical aid.

Summing up, there are too few good stories in this iteration of the 'Whispers' anthologies to make this volume a must-have. Still, if you are a dedicated horror fan, and you can find a copy with an affordable asking price, you might want to pick it up.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

'Questar' magazine October 1980

Although it bore a cover date of October 1980, this issue of 'Questar' was on the stands in late Summer 1980. The striking cover is by the late Frank Frazetta, who was the topic of a portfolio in the interior of the magazine.

The film reviews in this issue make for a strange sort of nostalgia.'The Empire Strikes Back' was of course the main film event of the Summer and gets a deservedly laudatory review. But there is also coverage of a Cheech and Chong SF movie (??!!) that must have sunk without a trace. 

And somehow the disco-themed movie 'Xanadu', featuring Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck (who appeared in 'The Warriors') gets a review, however tenuous its relevance to a fantasy - SF theme.

Along with the bigger-budgeted studio releases, the magazine previews two low-budget horror films that are obviously hoping to cash in on the buzz of the previous year's 'Alien' movie.

One, 'Scared of the Dark', was supposed to star musician Rick Springfield ?!

The other, 'Alien on Earth' (aka 'Contamination'), was an Italian-made 'spaghetti Alien' film. It was labeled as a 'video nasty' in the UK.

Finally, there's a blurb about the animated film 'The Return of the King', produced by Rankin Bass. In the medieval days before CGI was even a dream, the only way a concept like that presented in the Tolkein novels could be envisioned as a feature film, was through animation.

The best feature in this issue of 'Questar' was a retrospective of 'Night of the Living Dead', featuring a great painting (artist unknown) of the zombie little girl, Karen Cooper (played by  Kyra Schon).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

'Slow Death' comics No. 11

This version of 'Slow Death' No. 11 was printed in 1992 and features a cover illustration by Greg Irons, who also contributed (posthumously) several strips. Also included are 'Panic in Year Zilch' by Graham Manley;'Overture to Armageddon' by Warren Greenwood; and 'Super Cosmic Comic Creator Comix' by Wally Wood. One of the better stories in this issue is 'Cold Snap' by Alan Moore and Bryan Talbot (of 'Luther Arkwright' fame). Talbot's black and white artwork is, as always, very good.


For a nice gallery of selected 'Slow Death' stories from issues 1 - 9, including many I don't post for reasons of Adult Content, try the 'Golden Age Comic Book Stories' blog.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Book Review: 'Earth Lies Sleeping' by Laurence James (Simon Rack No. 1)

3 / 5 Stars

The ‘Simon Rack’ series comprised five short novels released in 1974 – 1975 by the indefatigable British writer Laurence James (1942 – 2000). In the UK the Simon Rack paperbacks were published by Sphere Books, while in the US they were issued by Zebra  Books. ‘Earth Lies Sleeping’ was published in 1974 and this Zebra edition features a cover by Vincent DiFate.
Simon Rack was something of a mix between James Bond and Perry Rhodan. As an operative in the Inter-Galactic Security Service, Rack is routinely dispatched to handle the toughest assignments. Joining Simon for his adventures is his right-hand man, Eugene Bogart.
In this first of the Simon Rack series, we learn that 500 years into the future, Earth is not the hallowed Mother Planet, but rather, a destitute world still recovering from the effects of the Neutronic Wars centuries previously. Society is sputtering along at a medieval level, with feudal lords ruling lands occupied by hapless serfs. Earth remains valuable to the Federation for its ability to supply the precious element ‘Pheronium’, used to power starships. When GalSec gets word that a conspiracy may be afoot on Earth to control the supply of the precious element, Simon and Bogart are sent to investigate.
‘Earth Lies Sleeping’ gets started with an intense flashback sequence, as we witness the graphic execution of a peasant family who are caught poaching on Baron Mescarl’s hunting grounds. Events then move to the present-day, and the arrival on Earth of Simon and Bogart as undercover operatives. In short order our heroes come to the attention of the Baron and his ruthless lieutenant, Henri de Poictiers, and the first of many scrapes that will test their ingenuity, resolve, and ability to withstand pain….
As a straightforward SF adventure, ‘Earth Lies Sleeping’ delivers. Author James knows he has to keep the narrative moving at a rapid clip, while providing just enough exposition keep his characters from becoming too-thin caricatures. The action is violent and brutal, the villains are genuinely villainous, there is torture aplenty, and a rousing finale involving access to a particularly gruesome type of weapon. But there is never too little time for Simon not to go shtupping a comely wench – although the  70s flavor surrounding these activities may not be to the liking of contemporary audiences.....
An interesting interview with Laurence James is available here

Friday, August 13, 2010

'The Bus' by Paul Kirchner

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book Review: 'Flashing Swords 4: Barbarians and Black Magicians' edited by Lin Carter

 4 / 5 Stars

The ‘Flashing Swords’ series, published by Dell, was an interesting experiment in providing a forum for novelette-length fantasy, and sword-and-sorcery, tales for the increasing audience this literature was garnering in the mid- to –late 70s. Edited by Lin Carter, most of the submissions came from established genre writers, and all were written specifically for the 'Flashing Swords' imprint.

‘Flashing Swords 4: Barbarians and Black Magicians’ was released in November 1977 and features a stylish cover (of Elric of Melnibone’) by Don Maitz. I purchased the book at that time, and found it reasonably entertaining.

How do the stories stack up more than 30 years after first being read ?

The anthology leads off with an entry by Jack Vance in his ‘Cugel the Clever’ series. Our hero must, as always, rely on his wits to get him out of a scrape involving a rival magician and a short-tempered Prince. At the time I first read ‘The Bag of Dreams’ I was exasperated by Vance’s use of eccentric adjectives and his habit of giving his characters studiously ironic dialogue; but over time I’ve mellowed, and this story, with its emphasis on humor, is more rewarding the second time around.

‘The Tupilak’, by Poul Anderson, is an entry in his series about Scandinavian-flavored mermen. The brother-and-sister pair of Tauno and Eyjan get caught up in a violent feud between Norse and Eskimo. Anderson’s prose is overly labored in its effort to imbue his narrative with a ‘folklore’ flavor. But the bleak, depressing setting of squalid camps in the Arctic Circle, and a formidable monster as an adversary, make ‘The Tupilak’ an effective horror story.

‘Storm in a Bottle’, by John Jakes, is an entry in the 'Brak the Barbarian' saga. This time our hero is held captive in a drought-stricken kingdom ruled by one Lord Magnus and his creepy ally, Ool the magician. Somewhat against character, Brak has to use his brains, rather than his brawn, in order to solve the do-or-die task set to him by Magnus.

Katherine Kurtz provides ‘Swords Against the Marluk’, an entry in her 'Deryni' series. King Brion, his brother Prince Nigel, and Squire Alaric are confronted by the said Marluk, the King of the Elves. Although uneasy about the use of magic, Brion realizes that it is the only means by which he can hope to defeat his enemy and retain control of Wales. Kurtz’s stories have more deliberate pacing than the usual examples of the heroic fantasy genre, but this tale holds together well.

Michael Moorcock provides a story from the Elric saga, in this case ‘The Lands Beyond the World’, which eventually appeared in the book ‘The Sailor on the Seas of Fate’, the second entry in the Elric series. ‘Lands’ is one of the better Elric tales, offering adventures with pirates, decadent mystics, vengeful heroes, and a strange landscape sited in another dimension.

All in all, ‘Flashing Swords 4’ is one of the better fantasy anthologies of the mid-70s, and worth searching out.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

'Heavy Metal' magazine August 1980

'Salommbo' by Philippe Druillet (continued)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

'Heavy Metal' magazine: August 1980

The August 1980 issue of 'Heavy Metal' featured a cover by Jim Cherry, ‘Fun Turns Into Love’, and a back cover by Michael Gueranger, ‘Not so Heavy Metal’.
Moebius featured part two of his 'Shore Leave' strip, and Bilal provided another chapter in his ‘Progress’ story. The next-to-last episode of ‘The Alchemist Supreme’ appeared, and (unfortunately) new chapters of Howarth’s mediocre ‘Changes’ strip and Stiles and Lupoff’s forgettable ‘Professor Thintwhistle’.
The best entry is far and away a new feature by Philippe Druillet, titled ‘Salommbo’. The name is derived from a famous 1862 novel by Gustave Flaubert, about a young priestess of ancient Carthage.
The strip ‘A Message from the Shadows’  from the July 2010 issue of Heavy Metal is a prologue of sorts (this strip appeared on the July 1, 2010 post at the PorPor Books Blog).
‘Salommbo’ is a great example of Druillet’s innovative use of full-page, ‘cosmic’ art designs in the context of a graphic novel. The plot is a bit thin, but features Druillet’s anti-hero ‘Loane Sloane’, who, in the best Gallic tradition, smokes cigarettes and gazes moodily into space thinking existential thoughts.
I've divided the scans of this first chapter of 'Salommbo' into two parts. Part one is presented below; part two will be posted in a few days.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Book Review: 'The Turning' by Justin Scott

3 / 5 Stars

In the dying upstate New York town of Hudson City, word comes that the old asylum on the mountain overlooking the town has been sold. Observers note the presence of blue lights in the windows of the dilapidated building. Soon after, groups of young people clad in blue shirts and blue jean overalls start to take up residence in the asylum, now owned by a vaguely Christian religious sect called the Revelationists. As more and more members of the sect arrive in Hudson City, the local merchants are overjoyed to find a rapidly expanding base of customers. 

Prosperity takes hold in Hudson City, but the town doctor, Alan Springer, finds himself questioning the motives of the Revelationists . When a sect member is badly injured and taken to the town clinic, Springer is forced to look on as the sect members enact a startling ‘faith healing’ of the crippled man in the doctor’s own operating room.
Ensuing encounters with the Revelationists have Springer convinced that the benevolent actions by the sect’s leadership are simply a smokescreen. The sect’s leader, a mysterious, charismatic individual named Michael, has his own plan for the fate of Hudson City….and his plan starts with making converts of the town’s young people.
Alan Springer realizes that something must be done to fight back against the sect’s sinister designs. But the Revelationists have no desire to turn the other cheek. Anyone who seeks to blunt the sect’s plans must be prepared to risk his life…and the odds of Alan Springer’s survival are getting less with each passing day….
‘The Turning’ (March 1978; Dell; cover artist uncredited) is a member of the cohort of other 70s novels dealing with the occult, such as ‘Audrey Rose’, ‘The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane’, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, and  ‘Harvest Home’. As such, I doubt if many readers under 40 will find it very engrossing.
Author Justin Scott is a capable writer, but the narrative moves at a deliberate pace, seeking to build alarm and suspense in a gradual fashion. Much attention is focused on the emotional conflict between Springer and his teenaged daughter Samanatha, and the ambivalent response by the townspeople to the economic largesse that comes with hosting a wealthy sect. The occult and/or supernatural elements of the tale are very understated, and the novel is really more of a restrained thriller than a horror story. The violent action and gore that a younger generation (raised on zombie films, the ‘Saw’ movies, and Splatterpunk fiction) expects of a horror novel are absent from ‘The Turning’.
The book does reward the reader who manages to stick with it through to the last few of its 268 pages, but the journey is taken in the slow lane.