THE SHADOW'S SHADOW, first published in February, 1933, was the 23rd adventure of the Master of Darkness. I finished reading the Pyramid Books reprint (from July, 1977) the other evening and it's another corker.
Master villain and international criminal Felix Zubian and wealthy man-about-town Douglas Carleton, plot to steal millions in diamonds. They know the only thing standing against them is The Shadow so they decide to take the fight to mysterious crime-fighter. Zubian and Carleton are aided in their fight against The Shadow by tough talking gangster Gats Hackett who refers to his two huge revolvers as "smoke wagons". Only in the pulps! The villains discover and capture two of The Shadow's agents, Harry Vincent and Rutledge Mann and through careful observation, deduce that The Shadow is really Lamont Cranston.
But The Shadow is, as always, a step ahead of the crooks He ditches the Cranston persona and becomes Henry Arnaud. There are several gun battles (with high body counts) before the final showdown in which all of the villains are slain and Zubian, before he dies, catches a glimpse of The Shadow's real face, which is neither Cranston nor Arnaud. What is the true face of The Shadow? Author Walter Gibson's not telling.
With a terrific cover by the legendary Jim Steranko, THE SHADOW'S SHADOW is pure pulp pleasure. Recommended.
Even though it was published by Mysterious Press (a Warner Books imprint), BROTHERS KEEPERS by Donald E. Westlake doesn't qualify as a mystery in my book. Oh sure, a little bit of deductive reasoning takes place and crimes (electronic eavesdropping, theft and arson) are committed, but basically this is a comic romp of a novel involving a New York City monastery and the monks who live there as they attempt to save their home from being sold and demolished to make room for a major new development.
Brother Benedict of the Crispinite Order is the narrator of this breezy tale. The order is devoted to thoughts of God and travel. The monks aren't necessarily opposed to travel but they don't engage in it to any degree as they are a fairly self-sufficient little group. But when a big developer threatens to buy the property and demolish it, Brother Benedict is forced to venture outside of the monastery in an attempt to save his home.
His travels take him first to the Long Island home of the developer where he comes under the spell of the developer's lovely daughter, Elaine. Elaine indicates a willingness to help Brother Benedict save the monastery but before he can pursue that avenue, the monks discover that their original copy of the lease has been stolen. When they attempt to reproduce the lease (using an illuminated manuscript), that document is put to the torch by the developer's son posing as a monk. Brother Benedict is forced to fly to Puerto Rico to confront Elaine and ask for her help. Of course, he falls for her and must make a very difficult decision: should he abandon his brothers and the monastery for the woman he loves or renounce Elaine and return to where he is safe and secure and stay with his brothers no matter what?
The third act introduction of a travel agent who wants to join the order puts a new twist on things and the climax finds all of the brothers boarding a bus to the developer's home on New Year's Eve for a final showdown.
BROTHERS KEEPERS was first published in 1975. It was reprinted under the Mysterious Press imprint in 1993. These brothers are more Marx than Crispinite and Westlake keeps things moving at a good clip. Mystery? No. Crime novel? Nope. Fun? You bet. Recommended.
British writer H.G. Wells, one of the grandfathers of literary science fiction, published THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU in 1896. I'm ashamed to admit, I've never read the book but I do have a copy on a shelf in my man cave and I hope to get around to finally reading it in 2016. Keep watching to see if I make good on that goal.
The book has served as the source material for three different film versions over the years. The first (and best) version was THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1933), an atmospheric shocker starring Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1977) with Burt Lancaster and Michael York, is a serviceable enough film that has it's moments. And then there's 1996's utterly outre ISLAND OF LOST SOULS with Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. This mess, directed by veteran filmmaker John Frankenheimer, has to be seen to be believed. And contrary to popular belief, the morbidly obese Brando does not play Moreau, he plays the island. I've seen all three films and own a copy of ISLAND OF LOST SOULS on the Criterion Collection label.
All of which brings me to AN ISLAND CALLED MOREAU, a 1981 novel by British science fiction writer Brian W. Aldiss which I recently read and enjoyed. The year is 1996. A world war is brewing. A shuttle craft returning from a diplomatic meeting on the moon crashes into the Pacific Ocean. The only survivor of the wreck is United States Undersecretary of State Calvert Roberts, who drifts in a makeshift raft for several days before finally being rescued.
His rescuers are an odd pair. One is a gruff bearded man. The other appears more animal than man. They take Roberts to a small island with a gigantic M carved into a cliff face. There Roberts finds more man (and woman)-animals and the mysterious Mortimer Dart, a crippled and deformed wheelchair ridden man who uses a multi-armed suit of high tech armor to walk about the island.
It turns out that everything Wells wrote about was true. There really was a Dr. Moreau (real name, McMoreau) and he really did experiment on men and animals to create hybrid beasts. Dart is following in that tradition, a horrifying revelation that Roberts must try to stop. But as things progress, more and more secrets about the island and the work taking place there are revealed. These revelations turn everything Roberts thinks he knows about his government upside down.
AN ISLAND CALLED MOREAU is a good, fast paced, science fiction adventure story. It mixes excitement and narrative pace with thought provoking ideas and concepts. There is action, plenty of bizarre characters (human and otherwise), and a real sense of science put to an extreme use in war time.
I watched THE DESCENT (2005), the other day for the first time. This British horror film has many similarities to John Boorman's brilliant classic DELIVERANCE (1972). Here, instead of four men, it's six women. Instead of white-water rafting down a raging river, it's spelunking in an unexplored cave. A broken leg with protruding bone? Check for both. But instead of corn-holin' hillbillies, the women here must face off against a horde of Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers, or, if you prefer C.H.U.D. (hands up if you remember that 1984 shlock fest).
The six women exist only to be slaughtered so don't look for any thing remotely resembling character development. The ostensible main character is Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), who survives a horrific automobile accident early in the film, an accident that leaves her husband and daughter both dead and Sarah severely unhinged. Flash forward to a year later and Sarah and her buds embark on a spelunking trip somewhere in the Appalachians. The trouble is, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), the most experienced spelunker of the group, doesn't tell the others that the cave has never been explored. She wants to claim the victory of exploring it and naming it for herself.
As if the sheer, claustrophobic terror of being in a very dark, very small space deep underground (sequences which are effectively staged, by the way), wasn't enough, it's not long before the women encounter the blind, fish-belly white, hairless cannibal creatures and all hell breaks loose. We're talking a beheading, a throat impalement with a climbing hammer, one woman eaten alive in a tunnel, etc, etc. The brutality, violence and gore is unrelenting during the last third of the film and you begin to wonder if any of these women will survive. Finally, Sarah escapes back to the surface and away from the cave. Or does she?
Exteriors for the film were shot in the U.K. while all of the cave scenes were shot on sets built at Pinewood Studios in Great Britain. The sets are extremely convincing, as are the cannibals. But it's extremely difficult to tell what's going on in some of the fight scenes due to both limited lighting and helter skelter editing. Neil Marshall does double duty as writer and director. His direction is good but his screenplay is strictly by-the-numbers. Marshall's next film after THE DESCENT was DOOMSDAY (2008), a schizoid mash-up of a film that starts out as an ALIENS rip-off which suddenly and inexplicably morphs into a ROAD WARRIOR pastiche midway through the film. It sounds crazy but it works.
THE DESCENT is technically well made but I can only recommend this one to die-hard horror film fans. The cardboard characters, cookie-cutter plot and over-the-top gore really put me off.
Christmas, 1963. I was seven years old on that Christmas morning when I found this big guy waiting for me under the tree. Big Loo, the giant moon robot by Marx toys, was one of my all-time favorite toys when I was a kid. This beauty truly lived up to his name. Loo stood three feet tall, one foot wide and nine inches deep and retailed for the then exorbitant price of $9.99. He was a virtual one man army robot who could do almost everything. You think I'm kidding? How about these features:
He had a sight scope with cross hairs in his forehead. Two battery operated flashing red eyes. A hand cranked mechanical voice box with several different recorded phrases. Two rubber tipped drafts fired from his chest plate. A water squirter sprayed out of his navel. His L-shaped left arm fired four red "ping pong" balls. The right arm was hinged at the shoulder, could rotate 360 degrees and pick things up with his pincer claw of a right hand. Even his feet were weaponized, with a small spring-loaded missile launcher embedded in the left foot. Also included in Big Loo's arsenal were a compass, a whistle, a bell, and a Morse code clicker. He rolled on wheels and was jointed at the waist allowing him to bend down. He was the perfect robot toy and I loved him.
That is, until I didn't. Years later, my buddy Terry Porter and I were reenacting television's ALL STAR WRESTLING show in the hallway of my home. We were rolling and tussling on the floor and somehow I got the notion to grab Loo and start hitting Terry with him. Not hard, mind you, just hard enough to do complete and permanent damage to the old guy. Yep, I busted Big Loo over my best friend's head.
A few years ago, Judy and I toured Geppi's Pop Culture museum in Baltimore, Maryland (a must see for comic book and pop culture fans). In the room displaying vintage toys was Big Loo, placed high up on a display shelf, with a commanding view of the entire room. I squealed like a little girl when I saw him. I pointed and gasped, "It's Big Loo!" Judy, of course, had no idea what I was talking about. I filled her in on my childhood friend and his ignominious fate.
To this day, I wish I still had the goofy looking guy. But toy dealers are asking a king's ransom for the toy alone, more for the toy and the box. Still, I have my memories of that long ago Christmas morning when Big Loo was waiting under the tree for me to take him into my heart.
Welsh actress Catherine Zeta Jones was the "bad girl" in THE PHANTOM (1996), which I recall seeing when it came out but she really caught my eye in THE MASK OF ZORRO (1998). I literally could not take my eyes off of her every time she appeared on the screen. I thought she had to be a Latina actress but I was shocked to find out she was from Wales. She was hands down the best thing about MASK OF ZORRO.
I've only seen a couple of her other films, ENTRAPMENT (1999), a so-so caper film made watchable by the pairing of Zeta Jones and the legendary Sean Connery and AMERICA'S SWEETHEARTS (2001), a middling romantic comedy that Judy and I rented one night.
After my first exposure to her, I immediately cast her in my imaginary WONDER WOMAN film as Princess Diana with the still breathtaking Lynda Carter as her mother, Queen Hippolyta. Sadly, that onscreen team-up will never happen but a guy can dream can't he?
By the way, my closest brush with Catherine Zeta Jones came when I met "Zorro" himself, Antonio Banderas. He was shopping in the store one afternoon while his wife, Melanie Griffiths was shooting a film at a nearby location. Every female employee was going nuts over having him on the premises. I told them to just leave the guy alone. Later, I was walking the floor and our paths crossed. I just asked him if there was anything I could help him with. He said no and I went back to my office where I immediately called Judy with the news that "I"m bigger than Zorro!" She had no idea what I was talking about until I explained that I had met Banderas in the store. He's a little guy. I'm no giant and I certainly weigh less now than I did then but I'm pretty sure I could have taken him sixteen years ago.
I've got to give credit where credit is due. I recently received as an early Christmas gift, a package of DVDs from my old buddy Gary Banks (thanks Gary!). Most of the DVDs were "burned" copies but one was the real deal, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971) in an attractive package on the Blue Underground label. I'd never seen this one until I sat down and watched it this afternoon.
This is a Euro-horror-art film about lesbian vampires with overtones of sadism. The kinko-meter is turned up to 11 on this stylish, nicely shot film. Delphine Seyrig stars as Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a beautiful woman made immortal by both bathing in and drinking the blood of virgins. She crosses paths with a newlywed couple, Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) at a deserted Belgian hotel. Bathory is accompanied by her "secretary" Ilona (Andrea Rau) and the four characters soon engage in a game of seduction and death. Bathory and Ilona are, of course, lesbian vampires. Bathory sets her sights on Valerie while Ilona goes after Stefan. But Stefan is revealed to be a sadist with a bizarre "mother".
The action of the film takes place in a variety of curiously de-populated European locales. Besides the four principal characters, the only other key people to appear in the film are the concierge at the hotel and a retired detective who keeps showing up in the oddest places. The stark, isolated landscapes and interiors work in favor of the narrative and give the film a haunted, dreamlike quality.
Competently directed by Harry Kumel, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS is a Belgium/France/West Germany co-production that clearly took advantage of the sexually liberated international cinema of the 1970s. The three women are all attractive and there's plenty of nudity (male and female) to go along with the surprising little (given the subject matter) on-screen bloodshed and violence. If you're a fan of vampire films or 1970s European horror cinema, check out DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS. Thumbs up.
I finished reading MAYFLOWER: A STORY OF COURAGE, COMMUNITY AND WAR (2006) by Nathaniel Philbrick the other evening. It's the second Philbrick penned history book I've read this year. Back in the spring, I read and thoroughly enjoyed SEA OF GLORY (2001). It was a terrific read, full of fascinating characters and epic adventure. MAYFLOWER contains many of those same elements: bigger than life characters (both English and Native American), grand adventure and a reminder that what I thought I knew about the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, Plymouth Colony and the First Thanksgiving, as I was taught in school, is not entirely correct.
Philbrick's narrative begins in England where the Pilgrims yearn to practice their religion freely. They are oppressed by the British monarchy and flee to the Netherlands where they find a modicum of religious freedom. But it is ultimately in the New World where true freedom awaits them. The voyage is perilous and the landing, while successful, doesn't bode well. They are ashore in a savage, unknown land with no pre-established resources of shelter, food or arms to comfort them. The Pilgrims must make do on their own.
Well, not entirely on their own. They do form an alliance with the powerful and influential Indian sachem Massasoit, who convinces his people to work with the Pilgrims to their mutual advantage. That first year was a brutal one. The winter was one of the coldest on record and many of the Pilgrims did not survive. When it came time for the first Thanksgiving (which did indeed take place), it was vastly different than the stories we were told in grade school.
Over the years, Massasoit and other Indian sachems and the Pilgrims forged a more-or-less peaceful co-existence. The Pilgrim leaders knew they needed the Indians assistance to survive and the Indians knew it was better to work with the English rather than against them. Not all Indians subscribed to this compromise however and such stalwarts as Captain Miles Standish led his men against more than one hostile tribe of Indians.
Peace was finally reached and as the years went by, the number of Pilgrims increased, as did the number of English settlers in New England. Fifty years after that first landing in 1620, the sons and daughters of the Pilgrims went to bloody war with King Philip, the son of Massasoit. Philip gathered a confederation of various Indian tribes under his command and convinced them that they must destroy the English settlers and their colonies once and for all. In 1675, what has come to be know as King Philip's War took place, a conflict that, in terms of the percentage of the population lost on both sides, ranks as the bloodiest in American history.
Philbrick tells the story of the war with cinematic sweep and vigor. The Great Swamp Fight is a standout part of the narrative. The Indians had constructed a massive, rough hewn fortress in the middle of a swamp. It's the dead of winter when a party of Englishmen, led by Benjamin Church, come across the fort. A terrific battle ensued which resulted in numerous casualties to the Indians. The fort and all survivors within it was ultimately put to the torch. The battle in the desolate, frozen swamp in a structure that was nothing like the traditional English fort, reminds me of something out of a Robert E. Howard story. Except it's all true.
MAYFLOWER is the story of the Pilgrims, the Indians and the tumultuous history between them over the course of fifty-some odd years. The gains that were made by the original players in the saga are wiped out years later when the English exert their military superiority to vanquish the Indians. It was only in later years that the mythology and legends of the Mayflower, Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock and Thanksgiving were created. While those legends and myths are held dear by all Americans, the truth is vastly different and much more interesting.
If you like American history and want to find out what they didn't teach you in school, read MAYFLOWER. I give it my highest recommendation.
Well, that was certainly depressing.
I finished reading MEMORY by Donald E. Westlake this morning. I know this sounds strange coming from someone who loves film noir and hard boiled crime and mystery fiction, but this may be one of the most relentlessly grim books I've ever read. The story centers around Paul Cole, a young actor appearing in a roadshow production in a small mid-western town. Cole makes the mistake of sleeping with a married woman after a performance. He's attacked by the woman's husband (a tableau depicted on the cover of the book). Paul is struck in the head with a chair and wakes up later in a hospital with his memory severely impaired.The touring company has left town leaving Cole behind. He's soon forced to leave town by a hard nosed detective and thus begins his odyssey to find himself and his previous life.
Cole knows he has an apartment in New York City but before he can return there, he needs money. He finds work in a tannery in a small town. He takes a room with a kindly older couple. He dates a mousy young woman named Edna. Things are going fairly well for him but he's determined to save enough money to return to New York. When he does, he leaves town only to find that things in New York are even worse.
His old acquaintances know him but his memories of them are dim. He returns to his apartment and begins to live a hermetic existence. His agent tries to seduce him (to no avail) and even sends him on an acting job where he's has one line in a courtroom scene on a television soap opera. Cole fails as an actor and takes work as a furniture mover. He finally decides to return to the small town where he was happy with Edna. The trouble is, he can't remember the name of the town. He eventually returns to the town where his troubles all began but of course, it's not the town he wants.
Throughout the book, Cole is constantly writing notes to himself to help him remember the things he's supposed to do, where's he 's supposed to go and when. He follows some of these reminders while others go unheeded. You want him to succeed but his struggle is so immense, so overwhelming that for every one step forward he takes, he moves two or three back.
Westlake relates Paul's ordeal in granular detail. He painstakingly shows us how Paul's memory works (or doesn't). As a character study, MEMORY is first rate. But it's not a true mystery/crime novel. Sure, a crime (assault) launches the narrative and there is a mystery of sorts (just what does the square shiny plate of metal mean?) but Westlake's concern here is examining the broken memory of a man who is desperately trying to reclaim a life that is totally alien to him.
MEMORY was originally written in 1963 but never published. The manuscript was found in Westlake's possessions after he died in 2008. Hard Case Crime (my favorite publisher), published the work for the first time in 2010. It's an utterly compelling story with an extremely well drawn main character facing an insurmountable obstacle. MEMORY is definitely a change of pace from Westlake's other work but it's worth reading to see what this future MWA Grandmaster was capable of producing early in his career.
But reader beware. It's dark. Really dark.