Thursday, July 29, 2021

A Trip to Fear Street - "Lights Out" and "The Surprise Party" by R.L. Stine

Sorry again for the gap between this post and the last. I've cranked out a 90-something page feature length movie script for the microscopic production company I'm involved with over the last few weeks which has taken my whole attention. This one has a good chance of being our first full-length picture, a transition for us from short films to the big guys. I'm incredibly excited about it, now all I have to do is re-write and re-write it some more then probably write the novelization because that's a dream of mine. And all that's before we start the long, arduous process of actually MAKING the movie. But it'll be painfully fun and I can't wait. What kind of movie is it you ask? A horror movie. After my co-producers and I decided that we wanted a horror feature I decided to ease myself into it with some books.

Besides it seems like every summer I get in the mood for some horror in my life. I usually read a few horror books and take in more then a few horror flicks. Last year I took a trip down memory lane with one of R.L. Stine's YA horror novels, "Broken Date." It was like an old friend at the door with a six-pack of free beer. There was a point in my young life where I probably read more R.L. Stine then anything else. All from the school library in those little rebound paperback/hardbacks. Horror movies got me into reading and writing later via Joe R. Lansdale, but R.L. Stine was an important foundation to my love of horror and really thriller/suspense fiction in general. Everyone my age seemed to have read at least one "Goosebumps" or "Fear Street" or at least owned them for the covers, like my best friends who's long shelf full of "Goosebumps" made me envious as a child. Mostly cause, sigh, he didn't ever read them. Some people. 

So I started buying Stine's YA books, cause I didn't have enough books to buy. I'm mostly trying to track down his Fear Street titles (damned nostalgia, making them harder to find then they used to be as everyone my age seems to be buying them up) and other YA horror titles released in Stine's wake. I no longer remember which of the individual titles I read back in the day but images still are stuck in my head 20 plus years later, a testament to the impact of Stine's writing skill. When I started looking into the YA horror movement of the late 80's-early 90's I was shocked to see how many books written. Authors like Christopher Pike, John Peel, Diane Hoh, Joseph Locke, plus YA novels based on such R-Rated horror films like "Halloween," "Friday the 13th," and "A Nightmare on Elm Street." Crazy time. They also are some of the last examples of beautiful painted covers on mass market paperbacks. 

And obviously Netflix's new trilogy of R-Rated "Fear Street" movies wetted my appetite for these books. It's a very fun, throwback horror bunch of movies by the way so check them out!

Fear Street #12 "Lights Out" is one that I sort of remember from my
younger days, mostly because it had a total "Friday the 13th" vibe (going to far as to namecheck the series) since it takes place at a summer camp. I probably read it before I had ever seen a Jason Voorhees movie but like all 90's kids I was aware of all of the popular monsters/slashers of the era. It stars Holly who's a scaredy-cat in a teenage girl's body. She's totally un-prepared to be a camp consoler at her Uncle's Camp Nightwing but does it to help him out. Once there she's frightened by bugs, snakes, the woods, the other mean girl consolers and then by the murder of her boss. There's spooky vandalism, Nacy-Drewing, things that go bump in the woods, lots of teenage angst romance (which even bored me when I WAS a teenager) and a slam-bang finale. The "mystery" of who's the murderer and would-be-camp-killer is kinda obvious, but hey it's a YA book. Stine writes cleanly and is a master at the chapter cliff-hanger. He knows his audience and delivers a book full of fun if your in the right mood or of the right age. 

The second trip is for book #2 "The Surprise Party." A year after the death one of their friends (shot by a rifle the woods, yeek) teenager Meg is trying to throw a party for her friend Ellen who's coming back to visit. BUT someone doesn't want the party to happen, cue threatening (home) phone calls, lunch bags full of blood (actually paint) and then some light attempted murder. There's spooky woods, jokes at Freddy Krueger's expense and a "Dungeons and Dragons"-like game at could be the root of some spooky stuff. It, like "Lights Out," functions more as a mystery/suspense novel then out-and-out horror. There's no supernatural element in either of them, but they both move along like a well-oiled machine of impending dread. I think by book #12 Stine had the formula down better and it's overall a little tighter then "The Surprise Party," but I might have just enjoyed the camp/slasher vibe of "Lights Out" better.

Look, the only reason for me to read these is pure nostalgia. Without I have no idea how much I'd actually enjoy them. It's interesting to be at the point in my life where cyclical nature of pop culture is focusing on the 90's. It also just makes me feel old. I enjoy reading them for the same reason I still like The Hardy Boys Casefiles series: they remind me of simpler times and the tell un-cluttered stories that are pure fun at full speed. "Fear Street" and "Goosebumps" before it set me on a path of loving horror fiction and monsters in general and for that I'll be thankful. 

Saturday, July 10, 2021

My buddy Mike Hammer and "Complex 90" by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

There a far too few writers like Mickey Spillane around, in fact there was only ever one writer (not author) like Mickey. He was a true American original who enthralled countless readers since his days writing them funny books (i.e. comics) but with the creation of Mike Hammer, Mickey found himself a winner and when I found both Mickey and Mike I found a life-long companion. Back when I was getting into private eye fiction and surfing the web for any recommendations I didn't know how to feel about Mickey. Too many folks looked down on him, some did it blatantly, some hid behind a bit of sarcasm or humor and then some folks flat-out loved him. There didn't seem to be a middle ground, which seems to fit the world of Mike Hammer and Mickey Spillane since they are men of extremes.

So, like I'm one to do I bought any Mickey Spillane I could find but held off reading him. Would Mike Hammer be too tough? Well, yeah he's the toughest S.O.B. Noir-Superman ever put on the page read "One Lonely Night" and see what I mean. Would the much degraded prose of Spillane be too much for me to take? Pssh. Other then my personal preference for short chapters, Mickey is one of the most compulsively readable writers I'd ever come across in my literary travels. 

I found myself in a hotel room, well a cabin by a lake with a Ex who'd be a fitting femme fatale antagonist. Earlier in the day, I had done what I usually do when I hit a strange town: find a used bookstore. This used bookstore wasn't actually very good. But there on the floor leveling a rack full of copies of "Twilight" was "The Erection Set." That might be hyperbole, but the dusty copy of the Mickey-stand-alone was the only thing I had to read in that cabin and femme fatales are finicky so I had time to kill. Man, I burned through that book, Dogeron Kelley and his problems that involved sexy-sex, guns, murder, and money were all I needed to be a life-long Mickey-fan, Mickey's-then wife naked on the cover didn't hurt either. I soon ran through the Mike Hammers and the rest (read "The Deep" and thank me, its underrated) and I even plowed through some of his Tiger Mann novels (I have one or two left for later consumption) who as enough like Hammer to work for me. 

CONFESSION TIME. I'm not too hot on Raymond Chandler. Or Ross MacDonald. Whoops. My bad. Sorry and all that. Marlowe's only seems to exist on the page to be a sad momma's boy/drunk man's ideal self-image and a bit of a whimp (how many times can he have his gun taken off him and still afford a new one) too boot. Lew Archer should have figured out the pattern to all of his cases real soon, cause surprise rich families suck. That may all seem harsh, but never fear! I do have complete collections of MacDonald and Chandler's work and every now and then feel romantic enough to crack one of their spines. I can absorbed the fine prose and long-winded prose just fine. Plus they've made damned fined films out of them. I digress. I bring them up cause they are two-parts of the "Holy Trinity" of mystery writers. The other? Hammett. I'm a Hammett man through and through, he never wrote a bad sentence and oozed reality. He was tough when he needed to be and sentimental with the perfect ratio. Now Mickey didn't deal in "real," Hammers (and the rest of his work) seems to exist in a wild world hard-boiled, comic strip and noir clich├ęs working in perfect unison. Hammer is a man to have as a friend, I mean. If something happened to you at least the baddies would eat slugs from a .45 for their trouble. So, my personal "Holy Trinity" is Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane and John D. MacDonald, cause you can't not love Travis McGee.

Like a lot of people I preferred the early stuff back when Hammer was a young WWII vet and his trigger finger was itchy as hell. "One Lonely Night" is Mickey and Mike at his pinnacle, followed closely "My Gun is Quick" and "Kiss Me Deadly." His later stuff is just as readable but the fire had died down a bit. I'm not saying you'll be disappointed but it's not where I'd start. As a old-friend "The Snake" or "Survival Zero" goes down easier. Still, you'll have to try to not be entertained with one of Mickey's books in your hands. 

All your real-life heroes die. As a writer, Mickey is one of my personal heroes. We probably wouldn't have seen eye-to-eye on everything but we would have hopefully enjoyed a beer together (maybe even a Miller Lite) and had a good time. Even if I never met Mickey, it feels like I knew him. There's too much Mickey in the books for you not to get some notion of the guy. When Max Allan Collins (another immensely readable author if there ever was one) a long-time fan and friend of Mickey took up the mantle to complete all the manuscripts, fragments, parts and pieces that Mickey left when he died, I was excited. Max is the only guy for the job. I bought them all, but they sat on the shelf. Maybe I was intimidated again. I read the stand-alone's and loved 'em, but the Hammer's were left unread. All your real-life heroes die, but your fictional ones only sometime do. 

I was at a crossroads again. Not shacked up in a cabin with a cut-rate femme fatale, but a nervous night-before a wife's surgery. It wasn't the first but like any husband worth his salt you get a case of nerves from planned injury to your spose. Spoiler, it turned out fine but I needed a old friend to keep me company in a waiting room. "Complex 90" seemed to leap into my hand. By howdy, some things a kismet. The book is a quasi-sequel to "The Girl Hunters," a novel I haven't read in ten years or more. Luckily my Blu-ray copy of the movie version was waiting in the wings which I watched in the middle of reading the book. Mickey Spillane IS Mike Hammer, Max encourages you to picture Mickey as Mike when you read the book in the preface. "The Girl Hunters" the movie is top-shelf Hammer-on-film too (it's free on Tubi right now too) so check it out. 

"Complex 90" is a rollicking action novel chock full of 60's flavor, i.e. Russian agent with stainless steel teeth who's boiling hot enough for you to forget he teeth look like the bumper of a Buick. Hammer is older and mellower, sure, but he does kill over 45 people over the course of the book. Jeez. Gotta slow down some time, I suppose. Velda is right there with him, backing him up like a .32 to a .45 and being one hell of a woman too boot. Pat Chamber, Art Rickerby and Hy Gardner pop up plus some new backup in the form of Korean War vet Des Casey. The baddies are obviously the Communists, out for blood and to save face for Hammer's whoomphing of them across Europe or maybe more. It's a Mickey book so the plot twisty and turns like a mountain road. Max seamlessly weaves in his own high-caliber work and practically wraps the whole thing up in a pitch-black noir bow. I haven't had this much fun with a book for a while. 

This book has probably sent me down a Mickey rabbit-hole. I've already starting picking up the Titan Mass Market reprints to replace my smattering of trade paperback and hardcovers for the Max/Mickey collaborations. Cause a Mike Hammer novel feels at home in a mass market paperback. 

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

QUICK SHOTS: T.H.E. Cat - Dell Comics

"T.H.E. Cat" was a one-season wonder starring Robert Loggia in 1966. Loggia starred as Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat (get it?) a former high-wire acrobat/jewel thief turned bodyguard/crimefighter. The show was created Harry Julian Fink who later gave us Dirty Harry, so yeah give the dude a medal. T.H.E. is a bit of a odd duck, it's a 30-mintute B&W in the era of longer adventure series like "The Wild, Wild, West," "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." and "I Spy." It's more in the 50's style of adventure show like "Peter Gun" (actually it borrowed a good bit from Peter Gunn) with its shorter format and moody atmosphere. Still there are decidedly 60's touches i.e. a martial arts-using anti-hero, the James Bond-espionage flavor and the Barris-customized Corvette Stingray that's too cool for school. Sadly it's never going to officially released on home video, the original negatives have been lost to the sands of time, leaving only a few rough prints that are on YouTube (that's how I watched it) which is all sorts of terrible. It's a good companion series with "Honey West" which rides the same line of crime/spies/adventure it does. (Honey West plays in later in the story)

Being in prime "tie-in novel" time it's odd that "T.H.E. Cat" didn't receive at least one adaptation or original tie-in book. The character really would have lent himself to novels. Too bad Ace didn't pick up the license so it could share spinner racks with "It Takes a Thief" and "Man from U.N.C.L.E." novels. Thankfully Dell comics did step-up and release 4-issues of the further adventures of Cat.

Besides the first issue each comic contains two stories pretty much splitting the book down the middle. The entire run was written by Mickey Spillane's buddy Joe Gill and the art was handled by Jack Sparling and Tony Tallarico, who obviously had only a couple of images of Robert Loggia at their disposal. Sometimes it a fairly good likeness but a lot of the time it's generic-almost-Loggia-hero-type. I've read quite a bit of Joe Gill's comic work like "The Peacemaker," "Judo Master," "Sarge Steel" and "Vengeance Squad." The latter being a favorite, as the back-up feature is Nicolas Cutti and Joe Stanton's Michael Mauser, P.I. which is my favorite comic private eye. Gill is a really solid writer of comic high-adventure and tough guy antics. Throughout of the stories T.H.E. Cat is thrown up against Russian spies, mob bosses, and crime czars. Plus there's baddies with names like King Leer and Goliath Byrne. He saves his girlfriend Maria, like, a lot but also stops sabotage and murder attempts, recovers stolen paintings from dirty beatniks, breaks INTO prison and even does some mountaineering. Cat's swings around like Batman throughout most of the stories; Gill takes full advantage of Cat's acrobat background. Since you don't have to worry about things like stunt-men, physics and TV budgets in comics Cat's death-defying is much grander with wild stunts, helicopters, boat explosions, high-steel fights, etc. etc. Even if it's a much freer interpretation in terms of action, the comics capture the noir-ish-swashbuckling tone of the show very well. Each issue was cover-to-cover fun, if you like action comics without folks in silly costumes I think you'll enjoy them immensely. 

The comic really makes me yearn for a series of paperback originals staring T.H.E. Cat full of exotic locales and deadly villains. Maybe in some alternate dimension. We get get a Moonstone Comic team-up with Honey West which I need to get, they seem like a natural duo. There WAS a novel from Moonstone where Win Scott Eckert and Matthew Baugh partnered the pair up again, but it seems to be nearly impossible to track down. SIGH. 

Friday, July 2, 2021

Quick Shots: The Inquisitor #6: Last Rites for the Vulture by Simon (Martin Cruz Smith) Quinn

Like the spy missions that happen in his Inquisitor novels Martin Cruz Smith disavows any knowledge of their existence, basically anyway. It always surprises me how established author treat their early works, I suppose they are worried about tainting their brand with (in their mind) lesser material. I enjoyed the way Randy Wayne White handled it when he got his Dusky MacMorgan books republished. He simply wrote a introduction telling folks not to expect his "better work" but have fun with them, then had them published again in their original format: the near perfect mass-market paperback.  I have heard rumors that Charles Ardai has been trying to get Smith to reprint one of them as a Hard Case Crime novel which would have been fun, especially if it was back in the early days before the imposed hardback/trade-paperback era of HCC began. But Smith wouldn't let it happen.  C'est la vie.

Frank Killy (AWESOME NAME) is an Executioner, Penetrator or Death Merchant with a difference. He works for the Catholic Church. He's a suitably paperback-tough guy with a solider/CIA past who is the Church's investigator or strong arm man, free of pesky rules like "no sex" and "no murder" that other church employees have to follow. It's certainly a fresh set-up for a Men's Adventure series that surely stood out from the crowd. Ultimately it lasted six installments which is a better than some, but a lot worse then others. The book itself is a slightly odd mix of colorful Men's Adventure and plodding detection. In some ways it prefigures Smith's later books and shows his roots as a guy who wrote some Nick Carter Killmaster books. Killy's a pretty good hero, slight smart-ass, he acts like he should and talks like he should, beds women like he should and is just generally a bad-ass, though Smith could have given him more opportunities to show himself as a ass-kicker. 

"The Last Rites of the Vulture" starts off very strong with a nice, clean professional take on two hit-men killing a Monk in Italy. It shows Smith's skill as a writer who well and thought out this hit is. He easily and quickly tells you all you need to know about the killers and their target; a Monk who is surprisingly tough to kill. After the Monk's death (made to look like a natural death) Killy's Priest boss and him go out to investigate and the ball is rolling. There's detective work on Killy's part that uncovers that the Monk was an old bootlegger and mobster who went off to WWII and changed, dedicating his life to being a Monk. Which all is tied into a real estate scheme. It really reads more like a hard-boiled international mystery, I got reminded of Stephen Marlowe's Chester Drum books a lot. Killy is an okay hero though he's fairly "generic he-man" without any extra spice to make him more memorable, save a couple witty remarks. Really the only thing that sets the books apart is the Catholic thing, which only tangentially applied here. There's some fun action set-pieces with hang-gliders, car and sharks and then with escapes and hole digging with dead turtles. It's all very well written, smooth but somehow just lacks the spark that I look for in Men's Adventure novels that set them apart from the crowd.

I've seen on more then one place on the internet where this series is wrongly thought to be a horror/adventure series. On the same lists at "Satan Sleuth," "Sabat," "Chill" and the likes. One wonders if this would have been a better use of the Catholic Church angle. A stalwart Mack Bolan-for-the-church vs. demonic forces plus a little international intrigue. May have been good, who knows? Martin Cruz-Smith really has nothing to be ashamed off with this books series. They unfortunately go for a high price because there's no reprints and Smith has got fans. If you didn't have to pay more then $5 to $10 bucks I'd say grab them but I wouldn't empty your wallet for them as you might be a little let down. I'm glad I stumbled into some cheap copies and I do read one every few years but unless I luck into the rest of the series I can live without them.