Saturday, August 29, 2015

Book Review: Lowland Rider

Book Review: 'Lowland Rider' by Chet Williamson

2 / 5 Stars

‘Lowland Rider’ (342 pp) was published in August, 1988 by Tor Books. The cover artist is uncredited.

The novel is set in the mid-80s, and features as its protagonist a young man named Jesse Gordon. Gordon earns a living in New York City as an advertising copy writer; he and his his wife Donna have an infant daughter named Jennifer. As ‘Lowland’ opens, Gordon’s comfortable life is turned upside-down by an act of extreme violence, leaving him emotionally and psychologically devastated.

Permanently afflicted by post-traumatic stress syndrome, Gordon makes a life-changing decision to live out the rest of his days Underground – in the NYC subway system. Keeping his small stash of belongings in a coin-operated locker, Gordon joins the army of the malcontent, the insane, the criminal, and the alienated who perpetually ride the trains, sleeping in their seats and staying ever-watchful of offending the patrolling Transit Police.

Gordon soon adapts to his new life as an outcast, scavenging for food from dumpsters and wastebins, taking makeshift showers at public restrooms, and becoming ‘invisible’ to the notice of the everyday commuters.

Gordon discovers that there is someone else living in the network of tunnels and cul-de-sacs and abandoned utility rooms.....a man named Enoch, a man strangely garbed in glowing white clothes, a man who haunts the labyrinth of abandoned corridors and utility rooms of the New York City subway system. To Gordon, Enoch is a figure of evil; he has seen Enoch hunched and whispering over the dying victims of subway car muggings. Enoch, it appears, is the instigator of the ever-present mayhem committed on the subway cars.

His meetings with Enoch disturb Gordon, but at the same time, they impel him to break free of his consuming self-pity, and take action against the drug dealers who covertly rule the subway system. Together with Rags, an experienced ‘mole man’ of the subways, Gordon embarks on a careful campaign to foil Bob Montcalm.....a crooked cop, and the leader of the drug ring.

This action is not without its risks, however, for while Gordon’s decision to become a vigilante may give his life new meaning, it comes with its own risks. For Bob Montcalm, and the corrupt cops and lowlife dealers in his employ, have no scruples about wasting yet another vagrant…….

While the cover of ‘Lowland Rider’ gives the impression that this is a horror novel, in reality, it primarily is a crime novel, one with some vague supernatural overtones. 

Most of the first half of the novel is preoccupied with documenting Jesse Gordon’s psychological turmoil and existential angst, in often overwrought prose; this, not surprisingly, makes the book a boring read. At its mid-point the novel does start to generate some momentum, as Gordon begins his campaign against the drug gang; these are ruthless adversaries, and there is some suspense as the clashes unfold.

Unfortunately, when in the latter chapters author Williamson turns at last to the mystery of Enoch and the novel’s tacked-on horror element, the plot becomes quite contrived, and the Final Revelation about Enoch’s existence is poorly composed..... and quite unconvincing.

Summing up, ‘Lowland Rider’ is modestly successful as a sort of 80s 'vigilante' genre novel; as a horror novel, it’s a failure. 

I can’t recommend this one to anyone other than die-hard Williamson fans.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Reading by Frank Brunner

The Reading
by Frank Brunner
from Alien Worlds (PC Comics) No. 9, January 1985

Some outstanding artwork from artist Frank Brunner in this Tarot-themed tale......

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Book Review: Star Trek 12

Book Review: 'Star Trek 12' by James Blish and J. A. Lawrence

2 / 5 Stars

‘Star Trek 12’ (177 pp) was published by Bantam Books in November 1977; the cover artist is uncredited.

In the book’s Forward, Judith Lawrence, James Blish’s wife, notes that Blish died (of lung cancer) on July 30, 1975. At that time Star Trek 12 was almost complete; Bantam Books agreed to let Lawrence write two of the remaining entries in the book, ‘And the Children Shall Lead’, and ‘Shore Leave’.

Along with those two stories, the other stories in Star Trek 12 include ‘Patterns of Force’, ‘The Gamesters of Triskelion’, and ‘The Corbomite Maneuver’.

Back in the mid-70s when I was in junior high school, I treasured collecting each and every volume of the Blish Star Trek novelizations….but by the time ‘12’ was published, the whole exercise had begun to pall. The limitations inherent in writing stories based on teleplays for a TV series that had first aired in 1967 was becoming fast apparent, as was the realization that James Blish simply wasn’t a very good writer.

This is manifest in the stories in ‘12’ that Blish wrote. Because they are of a longer length than those featured in previous volumes (Bantam, having realized that books for Trekkies were a financial gold mine, was determined to milk as many additional volumes as they could from the original scripts), Blish was obligated to add filler passages….these are written in a stilted, awkward manner, and usually represent internal monologues on Captain Kirk’s part. Even making allowance for the fact that Blish was in poor health at the time, his handling of these stories is unimpressive.

If you are at all familiar with the five episodes represented here, you’ll quickly find that whatever drama or suspense is inherent in the original teleplays is quickly drained away by Blish’s lumbering prose style.

To her credit, Lawrence (b. 1940), who originally was a cover artist for sf books prior to becoming a writer, does a better job with her two contributions.

Summing up, any effort by any Baby Boomer to find much enjoyment in reading Star Trek 12 is probably going to lead to disappointment, however eager the Boomers may be to find nostalgia via immersion in the Good Old Days of the franchise. The talky, static nature of the teleplays -which, to be fair, was really all that could be done with a sf show filmed in the mid-60s -  simply doesn't make for engaging prose stories.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Medusa Chain

The Medusa Chain
by Ernie Colon
DC Graphic Novel No. 3, 1984

'The Medusa Chain' (48 pp) was written and illustrated by veteran American comic artist Ernie Colon (b. 1931), and published by DC Comics as 'Graphic Novel' No. 3 in 1984.

As the novel opens main character Chon ('John') Adams, experienced pilot, is being sentenced - for the crime of conspiracy and murder - to serve six years aboard the deep space cargo transport assembly (or 'chain'), the Medusa.

The Medusa is crewed by the scum of the galaxy, including a healthy leavening of homicidal mutants who don't take kindly to the presence of Adams aboard their ship.

The Medusa's captain, Commander Kilg-9, is herself a mutant, but is too preoccupied with the covert nature of her ship's mission to spend much time disciplining the crew.

Chon Adams is no weakling, however. He's quite able to take care of himself....even when confronted with multiple opponents......

As the voyage of the Medusa progresses, Chon Adams makes a disturbing discovery ......the ship's true mission is not a simple cargo run, but something far more sinister and risky. And it doesn't help that Top Drill Sergeant Basenga and his goons want to see Adams subjected to a special kind of mutilation.......

As conditions aboard the Medusa turn from vile to suicidal, it's up to Chon Adams to come up with the sort of desperate plan that got him convicted of conspiracy and murder in the first place....but this time, the fate of the Federation itself is at stake.....

Colon's artwork for 'The Medusa Chain' is not his strongest; it has a rushed, sketchy quality.........saved to some extent by vigorous, often gory, action sequences.

But Colon's plot is what makes 'Medusa' stand out. 

Chon Adams is not your usual hero; rather, he's more of an antihero in the mold of Cody Starbuck. I won't disclose any spoilers, but I will say that Adams is happy to shift his moral stance when circumstances require that he do so. And while he is willing and able to employ violence to achieve his aims, at the same time, he adheres to his own peculiar, but steadfast, code of ethics.

"The Medusa Chain' is one of the better of the first series of DC Graphic Novels. Copies can be had for reasonable prices (i.e., under $8.00) from your usual online vendors; it's worth picking up.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Book Review: Pluribus

Book Review: 'Pluribus' by Michael Kurland

4 / 5 Stars

‘Pluribus’ (272 pp) first was published in hardback by Doubleday in 1975. This paperback version was released in January 1980 by Ace Books; the cover illustration is by Boris Vallejo.

The novel is set in California in 2080, seventy years after a bio-engineered virus known as ECHO ‘escaped’ from the lab and, in a massive plague known simply as the ‘Death’, killed 90% of the globe’s population.

While a few scattered Enclaves try to maintain a knowledge of science and technology, the majority of the US population live in small towns and villages where technology is at a 19th century level, and Christian fundamentalism is the major social and political force.

Throughout these remnants of the US, there is a disturbing swell of suspicion and resentment against the Enclaves and their inhabitants, as the fundamentalist preachers argue that the Enclaves, and Science, were responsible for the release of the Death. Conflict seems inevitable.

As ‘Pluribus’ opens, the Palisades Enclave receives some disturbing news from the colony on Mars, where technology remains intact. The ECHO virus is due to mutate, and the new strain is likely to wipe out everyone left alive.

A desperate plan is set into motion: Mars colony will send a ship carrying a seed stock of a new vaccine strain of ECHO to the space station still orbiting the Earth. There, the Martian pilot will transfer to a docked space shuttle and fly it down to the Chicago Spaceport, to deliver the seed stock into the waiting hands of a team of scientists. Then it will be up to the Enclaves across the US, to grow and distribute the vaccine before the advent of a mutant strain of ECHO dooms what remains of mankind.

As part of the efforts to prepare the Enclaves to grow the vaccine, an elderly man named Mordecai Lehrer is recruited for a vital, but secret, mission. Under the guise of being a travelling magician, he and his team of young helpers will travel from California, through the Midwest, to Chicago Spaceport, handing out instructions to Enclave representatives along the way.

Lehrer’s mission is not without danger. If the fundamentalists discover what he is doing, at the very least they surely will imprison him and his helpers…… at the worst, they are likely to execute him. But if the human race is to survive, Lehrer must succeed……..

‘Pluribus’ bases its plot on the recognizable trope of the solo (often Jewish) protagonist who, under his outward stance of deference and self-deprecation, uses his wits and guile to outmaneuver the Orthodoxy that is ruining society through its own stupidity.

What sets ‘Pluribus’ apart from other post-apocalyptic novels of its time - for example, David Brin’s ‘The Postman’ - is its underlying tone of cynicism, rather than the carefully layered note of optimistic humanism that is present in some works of the genre. In ‘Pluribus’, the efforts of the dwindling remnants of sanity and civilization are fighting what may be a losing battle against the tide of ignorance and superstition.

The verdict ? If you’re a fan of post-apocalyptic sf, then it’s worth your while to obtain a copy of ‘Pluribus’.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Dominic Fortune: The Power Broker Resolution

Dominic Fortune
'The Power Broker Resolution'
from Marvel Preview Presents: Bizarre Adventures (Marvel / Curtis) No. 20, Winter 1980

Dominic Fortune was a character created by Howard Chaykin for the color comic book Marvel Preview in 1975. A second installment appeared in the short-lived comic Marvel Super Action a year later. Both stories were reprinted in graytone in issue 20 of Marvel Preview Presents: Bizarre Adventures (1980).

The character thereafter appeared on a sporadic basis in Marvel's color and black and white comics throughout the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, often with little involvement from Chaykin. A digital comic was produced in 2009. The trade paperback Dominic Fortune: It Can Happen Here and Now (2010) collects much of this newer material.

As Chaykin remarks in his Forward to the reprinting in Marvel Preview Presents, Dominic Fortune was an attempt at placing an adventure hero in a sort of Dieselpunk / Art Deco / 30s Nostalgia -type setting. 

As always, Chaykin's artwork for this comic - even allowing for the fact that the original was in color, and this is graytone -  is very good.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Into the Night by Benny Mardones

Into the Night
by Benny Mardones
Summer 1980

If you were listening to the radio at all during the mid- to late- Summer of 1980, then you must remember hearing - many times - the overwrought vocals of the top 40 hit 'Into the Night' by New York City singer-songwriter Benny Mardones. The song was a single from Mardones' 1980 album Never Run, Never Hide.

She's just sixteen years old
Leave her alone, they say

Separated by fools

Who don't know what love is yet

But I want you to know

I never saw it (MTV didn't exist at the time) but there was a video to the song.........!

You owe it to yourself to view features a flying carpet..?!  on which Benny and his young love make out......!!!!

The video is low-budget and cheesy by today's standards, but that's part of its immeasurable charm......was there ever any more articulate and memorable a song to communicate the deep angst and emotional turmoil of Teen Love ?!

If I could fly, I'd pick you up
I'd take you into the night

And show you a love

Ooh, if I could fly

The story of 'Into the Night' has an interesting the Summer of 1989, a re-release of the song, as well as a re-recording Mardones did for his 1980 album Benny Mardones, again hit the charts. 'Into the Night' remains one of the few songs to ever hit the Billboard Top 20 twice.

An audio documentary, in which Mardones relates the inspiration for the song, can be accessed here.

And I would wait till the end of time for you
And do it again, it's true
I can't measure my love
There's nothing to compare it to
But I want you to know

If I could fly, I'd pick you up
I'd take you into the night
And show you a love

Ooh, if I could fly
I'd pick you up
I'd take you into the night
And show you a love
Like you've never seen, ever seen
Yeah, ooh

Monday, August 10, 2015

Book Review: Splinters

Book Review: 'Splinters'
edited by Alex Hamilton

2 / 5 Stars

‘Splinters’ first was published in the UK in 1968; this Berkley paperback was released in the US in September, 1971. The artist responsible for the striking cover artwork is uncredited.

In his Introduction, editor Alex Hamilton indicates that he intended this anthology to be a collection of unconventional and offbeat ‘modern’ horror stories, written by authors who usually do not work in the genre.

All the stories in the anthology were written in 1968, predominantly by UK authors. As such, many share an understated, reserved approach to their material, and many focus on the impact of psychological distress and discord in the context of everyday British life.

My brief summaries of the contents:

Jane, by Jane Gaskell: A child has a very unusual Imaginary Friend.

The Ice Palace, by Michael Baldwin: incoherent tale of labor-management conflict.

The Language of Flowers, by Hugh Atkinson: a marriage is strained when the husband acquires an unusual devotion to plants. This story has the quality of a Roald Dahl tale.

Grace Note, by Derwent May: slight, absurdist tale of a talented parrot.

Miss Smith, by William Trevor: a schoolteacher’s rudeness to a student brings retaliation.

An American Organ, by Anthony Burgess: a husband’s musical interest generates marital discord.

The Biggest Game, by John Brunner: the anthology’s sole sf tale. A playboy finds himself under surveillance.

The Way the Ladies Walk, by Richard Nettell: a young boy develops an unhealthy fascination with the dead. A genuinely creepy tale, and one of the best in the anthology.

Home Again, Home Again, Jigetty-Jig: a family copes with Pa’s love for the bottle.

Indoor Life, by Montague Haltrecht: agoraphobia taken to extremes.

Don’t You Dare, by John Burke: A husband’s previous marital conflict comes to haunt his second marriage. More of an alternate take on a John Cheever - eque short story than a horror tale.

Isabo, by J. A. Cuddon: a suburban British housewife becomes possessed. The author relates the tale using a detached, almost clinical narrative that gives a sense of verisimilitude to its increasingly bizarre events. Another of the better entries in the anthology, and a story that had me wondering if William Peter Blatty had read it prior to conceiving of The Exorcist .........!?

Mewed Up, by Peter Brent: Brent (who also wrote under the pseudonym ‘Ludovic Peters’) produces an incoherent tale of a prisoner and his jailer.

Under the Eildon Tree, by Alex Hamilton: the editor exerts his prerogative and selects one of his own stories for inclusion in the anthology. In this case, it’s a dud; ‘Eildon Tree’ is a satirical account of witchcraft in Elizabethan England; its relevance to ‘modern horror’ is entirely absent. To make things worse, it’s related in the first person..... in Olde English......which makes it a chore to read.

Summing up ? ‘Splinters’ is yet another horror anthology whose two good entries really can’t salvage the content as a whole. This one is for completists only.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Top to Bottom

Top to Bottom
by Jack Butterworth (story) and Richard Corben (art)
from Vampirella #33, May 1974

Years before the 'Borg Cube' from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and 'Lemarchand's Box' from Clive Barker's Hellraiser, there was the strange cube in this story. It features some outstanding color artwork from Corben......all this in the days before computer-assisted art !