Wednesday, July 27, 2011

CONAN - The Barbarian

By Michael Stackpole
Berkeley Boulevard
Movie Tie-In
292 pages

It appears you just can’t keep a good barbarian down.  Conan the Barbarian is a hero and well known iconic figure in American fantasy. He was created by writer Robert E.Howard in 1932 via a series of fantasy stories sold to Weird Tales Magazine.  Howard was born and raised in Texas and spent most of his life in the town of Cross Plains.  As a boy he dreamed of becoming a writer of adventure fiction but was not successful until the age of twenty-three.

Howard’s Conan is a character whose literary imprint has been compared to such fiction greats as Tarzan, Count Dracula, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.  With Conan, Howard created the genre known as sword and sorcery, inspiring a legion of imitators and giving him an influence in the fantasy field rivaled only by J.R.R. Tolkein.  On the eve of publishing his first novel, he committed suicide at the age of thirty. That he remains a highly read author, with his best works continuously reprinted speaks volumes for his place in the ranks of American masters.

As for Conan, he has appeared in hundreds of licensed paperbacks, Marvel comics, films, television programs, video games, roleplaying games, and even a board game.  In 1982 he came to big screen portrayed by bodybuilding champion turned actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger who recreated the role in the sequel several years later.  Producer John Milius had planned a trilogy, but the proposed third film, Conan the Conqueror was never produced.  Now, almost three decades later, the famous Cimmerian warrior from the mythological Hyborian age once again comes to the silver screen in a brand new production from Millenium Films, Lionsgate, and Paradox Entertainment.  And to promote what they hope will be a huge summer blockbuster, their marketing department commissioned a novelization of the screenplay by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood.  The writer given the job was Michael Stackpole.

Many book lovers detest such novelizations believing them to be mere carbon copy retellings form the screenplays with nothing new to offer readers who plan on seeing the movie. In many cases, that is exactly all they get. On the other hand, when such a task is given to a true fan of the material, then what results is something much deeper and more complete than the screen treatment.  Stackpole is a gifted professional who clearly knows Conan and his original exploits as chronicled by Howard.  He not only tells the story laid out by the screenplay, but at the same time enriches it scene upon scene with authentic references to the Conan canon which totally elevates the narrative beyond being a mere reflection of the movie.

Born on a battlefield, young Conan grows up amongst the mountain people of Cimmeria and is taught to be a warrior from the day he can hold and wield a sword.  But as he matures, his father relates how his unique birth is regarded by seers as a powerful portent of the fate that awaits Conan. Not only will he be a great fighter amongst his people, but there are signs that he will one day be known throughout the civilized nations as mighty hero of unrivaled strength and daring.

As always, we have to assume that there will be people picking up this book who have absolutely no idea of who Conan is or Robert E.Howard, but have seen the trailers for the movie and are curious about it. For them, this is as good an introduction to Conan as any other that has come along in the past thirty years.  The book is fun and does its job well; it makes you want to go see the film.  So please, save me the aisle seat.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


The Dead Town
By Dean Koontz
Bantam Books
402 pages

Seems like there is a new trend in wrapping up great, fantastic literary journeys.  The folks at Warner Brothers wisely split the last J.K. Rowling Harry Potter book, “The Deathly Hollows” into two truly amazing movies, the finale now showing in theaters everywhere is a superb adaptation of the book’s climatic ending.

Likewise writer Dean Koontz went deliriously overboard in relating the final conflict between the mad scientist Victor Frankenstein and his pathos filled creation, the so called “monster” now known as Deaucalion and offered it to his legion of fans in two parts.  “Frankenstein: The Dead Town” is a truly fitting resolution to not only the first part of the narrative, “Lost Souls” but the entire five book series.

One of the common traits of most successful pulp writers today is that they are prolific.  The tons of words they produce daily is staggering and would make the old pulp writers proud.  Koontz is no exception in this ability.  Whereas being fast does not assure quality, only a professional competency his readers have come to expect.  Of all his series, the new Frankenstein books are easily some of his most enjoyable action heavy offerings yet.

In part four, “Lost Souls,” the town of Rainbow Falls, Montana, was being invaded by clones created with super nano-technology in a hidden missile silo long abandoned by the military.  The twisted genius behind this assault on humanity was the surviving clone of the first Victor Frankenstein; his goal, the complete eradication of all life, human, plant and animal, on the planet. Battling him at every step is Deucalion, that stitched together protagonist.  Whereas in this series, he is a near indestructible superman who has developed a truly beautiful soul and is determined to fowl his mad creator and save the world.

The fun of this, and the previous volume, is the eclectic band of town citizens, all of them unique, eccentric characters in their own right, who ultimately band together as Deucalion’s army and bravely aid him this apocalyptic battle that has the fate of all mankind resting on its outcome.  Koontz is truly a master tale spinner and in “Frankenstein – The Dead Town,” he is at his best.  And that’s saying a lot!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Edited by Chris Gabrysch
Twit Publishing LLC
213 pages

I make no bones about loving anthologies as I’m a huge fan of the short story format.  And with pulp anthologies of this kind you are bound to find some really amazing nuggets as well as an assortment of lesser quality entries.  Overall, if the number of excellent, fun tales outweighs the bad, you’re in good hands. Which is why it is easy for me to recommend this book edited by Chris Gabrysch as the majority of the twelve included within are truly worth your perusal.

My favorite was easily “A Shot in the Dark” by Peter Michael Rosenberg which features a marvelous protagonist in Cairo based Chief Inspector Walaa Yousesef.  This Egyptian Hercules Poirot won me over from his first appearance revolving around the body of an English photojournalist found crammed in an old cabinet in her hotel room. I hope Rosenberg writes many more cases for this unique detective.

Another enjoyable entry was “Balalaika” by Jennifer Loring.  It deals with vengeful vampire stalking the citizens of an isolated Russian village.  It is well written and haunting in its depiction of rural Russian settlement and the horror visited upon it. Whereas “The Schitzel Connection” by Cyril C. Young Jr. had me in stitches.  It’s a cautionary tale wherein we are warned evolution can easily go backwards instead of forward depending on how much pretzels and beer one consumes.  If you can’t chuckle after reading this, there’s something totally wrong with you.

“Install” by Drew Wilcox is a scary tale of a cable guy’s visit to a very bad address. Horror shorts are hard to do but Wilcox pulls it off and this one really had me flipping pages to get to the end.  Noire crime stories were also well represented with two nifty yarns.  “Smooth as Sharkskin,” by Slade Grayson is a classic crime pulp story and delivers as neatly as its title portents while “My Date with Red,” by Tom Swoffer, is an oddball, highly readable story of a drug dealer scared witless done in a Quentin Tarrentino style.

As this collection is eclectic in subject matter, I was pleased to find “Montana Jack” by Dave P. Fisher, a no-frills classic western tale; truly superb writing.  Another contender for my favorite in this book.  Fisher really should stretch his writing muscles and try a full length western novel.  He’s that good.

And finally there is the fantasy comedy “Whatever Happened to the Dark Lord?” by Frank R. Sjodin that has some really hilarious moments and twists nicely on its own logic.

The remaining four stories did nothing for me at all; obviously not my cup of tea. One, a long crime piece, “Double Take,” by Chris O’Grady was competently written, but in his attempt to mimic other successful hard boiled writers, he completely homogenized his tale so that it comes across bland and spiritless.  Even the toughest, most cynical writers of this genre know you need to inject some melodrama to grease the plot wheels.

So eight out of twelve gives this collection a big thumbs up in my accounting.  Try a copy and let me know if you agree with me.  Or not?

Saturday, July 09, 2011


By Max Allan Collins
Forge Books
326 pages
Release Date 16 Aug. 2011

Sometimes it’s all too personal.  Or so Chicago based private eye, Nathan Heller discovers when he’s asked by his friend, Hollywood sex symbol and superstar Marilyn Monroe to help her in her battle with Twentieth Century Fox. The year is 1962 and the famous blond is in a contractual contest with the studio that is facing financial ruins. When the entire energies of the studio’s marketing staff begin attacking her reputation and credibility, Marilyn retaliates.  Fearing the contest will end in court, she asks Heller to tap her phones thus providing her with physical evidence to present a judge. Heller, now in his mid-50s and a highly successful entrepreneur with offices in New York, Chicago and Hollywood, gladly accepts the job unaware his client is deeply embroiled in a sex scandal that could rip the country apart.

Heller soon learns that Marilyn’s sexual escapades with Jack and Bobby Kennedy have attracted a hive of dangerous bees to include the C.I.A., FBI, Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa and underworld figure Sam Giancana. All of them have a vested interest in keeping the blond bombshell quiet.  When she dies only a few months later of a drug overdose, the usually unflappable Heller is shocked by the inept police investigation that follows. It reeks of a cover up and Heller is convinced the depressed film actress was murdered.  Now comes the tough part, proving it.

“Bye Bye, Baby,” is the fifteenth Nate Heller mystery, Collins’ longest running series and his most acclaimed.  So meticulous is the research that goes into each book, one gets both a fast paced thriller and a history at the same time.  Talk about more bang for your bucks.  Throughout the series, Heller has crossed paths with such personalities as Orson Welles, Frank Nitti, Sally Rand and Charles Lindberg.  He’s very much the detective version of a Forrest Gump.  Yet in all these past cases, he has never been more human or vulnerable.  This is due in large part to the events taking place in a time writer Collins is personally familiar with and it is that intimate connection that infuses itself into the character’s perceptions.

Norma Jean Baker, born June 1st, 1926, came to Hollywood as a model and became Marilyn Monroe.  She landed her first film contract in 1946 and went on to become the most popular screen sex goddess since Jean Harlow.  By 1953, she had progressed to leading roles and shaken off her “dumb blonde” image, winning the coveted Golden Globe Award in 1959 for her role in “Some Like It Hot.”  The true circumstances of her death sparked an avalanche of conspiracy theories still bandied about today.

Collins’ genius is taking the dozens of convoluted records and few remaining pieces of evidence to describe one possible scenario on how Marilyn was murdered.  In the end the story is a gut wrenching tragedy and perhaps Collin’s finest book ever.  It is one this reviewer was emotionally involved with from beginning to end.   I can remember all too easily being a fifteen year old fan when Marilyn Monroe died and the sadness I felt.  You see, Max, I loved her too.