Monthly Archives: February 2014

Invasion of the objective case plural pronouns: Them by William W. Johnstone

(Zebra Books, 1992)

Every once in a while one comes across a book of such rare beauty that to read it is to feel as if one’s soul has been touched, as if all the truths of the world have been concentrated into a single sublime marvel of language. Well, Them by William W. Johnstone ain’t that book. And for a horror novel, it isn’t even really scary. And for any sort of novel at all, it isn’t really very good. In fact, you could call it lousy. But if you’re like me and enjoy B-movies and trash lit, Them can be pretty entertaining (which sounds ungrammatical when you say it aloud).

Written by prolific drivel-meister William W. Johnstone, Them is about a genius kid named Jake Silver who has a hard time because of his superior intellect in the small town of Sandy Run, inhabited by rednecks, jocks and cretins. Bullied by kids at school and beaten by his dirtbag father Paul, Jake has a huge chip on his shoulder that, in fact, is just the germ of a budding psychopathic rage. His only friends are the beanpole Terry and fat Dick, also genius nerds, and his pretty and sympathetic mother Crissy. Even his older sister Judy hates his guts. He’s got a baby sister, too, named “Lyn,” but she hardly makes an appearance. We’re always told that she’s “staying at a friend’s house” or something, so I don’t even know why she’s in the book.

Anyway, one day while Jake is at the lake with his mom and sisters, he comes across a pulsating, glowing football-sized brain sitting atop a mass of tentacles. The “brain” communicates with Jake telepathically (in a voice that I imagine to sound like Kelsey Grammar) and explains that he is called Cag and he’s a representative of a race of advanced alien beings. Cag’s sent to Earth to check things out and, sensing Jake’s far superior intellect, makes fast friends with the lad. Jake welcomes Cag’s friendship, but it also sparks an ambition for vengeance on the cretins that bully him.

Meanwhile, another bunch of brain-beings led by the sinister Kor is en route to Earth. Kor is the leader of a group of aliens that eschews Cag’s diplomatic philosophy and prefers to take the Earthlings and their planet by force. These space-brains have the ability to take over people’s minds and turn their wills to putty. It isn’t long before the townspeople are fighting amongst each other, controlled by either Cag’s or Kor’s forces. Running around in all this mess trying to figure things out are the local cops and Charles Massenet, a local doctor and the man Crissy is cheating on Paul with.

That’s basically how it goes. It starts out sounding like the story is going to focus on Jake’s plan for revenge and shifts into a huge battle in the town between the two opposing groups of space-brains. While that’s technically a plot flaw I guess, there’s enough craziness going on in the meantime to make Them bewilderingly awful and bewilderingly entertaining. Most notable is Johnstone’s penchant for inserting weird sexual situations for no apparent reason. For example, early in the book Paul orders his son Jake to drop his pants so he can give him a whuppin’ with his belt and Crissy (his mom), in shock at her husband’s cruelty…

“…could not but notice that her son was more than amply endowed. Like his father. And for some reason she could not explain, she had more than a suspicion that Jake had not been a virgin for a long time.

Seems like a weird thing to notice, huh? Judy, his sister who hates his guts, is even weirder since she gets aroused by watching dad beat the shit out of Jake with a belt, as Crissy discovers to her outrage. Later on Jake learns from Cag that Judy has been willingly having sex with their dad, to which he simply replies, “I’ve always found both of them disgusting.”

Jake is no angel either, though. He’s got the hots for a pretty teacher at his school named Faith Forlund and plans to have Cag use his mind control powers to maker her fall in love with him. With Cag’s assistance, he arranges to have a little party at his place and gets Cag to put a little telepathic nudge in Faith’s brain, making Faith uncontrollably attracted to the fifteen-year-old Jake. She arrives at Jake’s party and they go off to get it on. Jake, being the considerate sociopath he is, has not left his friends out of the fun. He has Cag control Judy’s mind to provide sexual entertainment for Terry and Dick! None of the sex in Them is described explicitly, so it’s not like reading Penthouse or anything, but there’s enough sex in it to make Johnstone seem like a dirty old man. Probably more likely he just wanted to spice up the narrative with some cheap titillation. It’s not really titillating, but it’s pretty unintentionally hilarious.

Also hilarious is the way the inhabitants of Sandy Run are described. Take all the stereotypes of Southern country folk and there you have it. Just about every other townsperson is a closed-minded degenerate who cares only about beer, football and rock music (rather than “fine” things like classical music or science or proper English). Seems sort of like Johnstone has a beef with small-town people. Particularly funny is the episode of Dickie Johnson. Dickie is a very large mentally disabled man who most people think of as harmless, but is, in fact, a serial killer! He hasn’t killed for a while, but being released from the mind control of some space-brains sends him over the edge. He grabs a double-bit ax from the barn and starts his Lizzie Borden routine on the town. He eventually comes across another mentally disabled person named Lou Ann:

God, she was shore ugly when you got up close. Hair all tangled up and matted, no front teeth, great big mouth and little bitty eyes. She wore a dirty dress ’bout four sizes too small and nothing under the dress.

Nothin’ under the dress interested Dickie either.

He asks her of she wants to go into town and “go splat on people.” She replies with her universal grunt, “Uhhh,” and together they run around “splatting” people with axes and hatchets. The whole deal is pretty funny. Especially since Dickie was a serial killer already and this could have happened regardless of the space-brain invasion.

But efforts of the space-brains to control the minds of the people of Sandy Run don’t always go as planned. Sometimes the people can’t handle it and they go off their rockers and do crazy things like walking in the middle of the street shouting and masturbating furiously. Other times they vomit blood just before their eyes shoot out and their heads explode. But that’s about as gory as it gets. Them never really approaches true horror. In fact, it’s exactly like a goofy B-movie that’s unintentionally hilarious.

The verdict: ★★★✩✩, but probably not for what the author intended. As a horror novel, Them is pretty stupid, but it’s a fun read if you don’t take it seriously. I haven’t read anything else by Johnstone, but I know that he’s written a ton of stuff. I’m just assuming that he was sincere in making this a horror novel and not a spoof or “horror-comedy,” but it’s pretty damn funny. I’ll be keeping my eye out for any more of Johnstone’s horror stuff that comes my way.

I’ve been on a steady diet of junk-food lit lately. I may have to read something of literary merit pretty soon or I’m liable to forget what that’s like.

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R.I.P. Bob Casale

He whipped it real good. Rest in peace.

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Nitey-nite: Nightlife (Cal Leandros #1) by Rob Thurman

(ROC, 2006)

It’s nice when I manage to read a book that’s been on my “to read” list for a while. Too often books placed on the list just seem to languish there, forgotten, until I happen to come across them on the library shelves, which is the case with Rob Thurman‘s Nightlife. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for the book quickly waned the more I read. It’s not that Nightlife is bad, but I’m figuring that it’s probably just one of those books that are decidedly “not for me.”

This also is a shame, because I was sort of in the mood for what I guess is called “urban fantasy” these days. I was thinking I’d like to read something akin to TV’s Supernatural with a dash of the Hellblazer comic thrown in. Nightlife seemed to fit the bill. It’s the story of two brothers, Cal and Niko Leandros. Though they have the same mother, Cal’s father was a supernatural being, one of the “Auphe,” a race of beings that became known as “elves” in the imagination of folklore, but are, in fact, horrific and cruel. Niko, the elder of the two, has devoted his life to protecting his little bro from the Auphe who claim Cal as their own flesh and blood. And so the two are constantly on the run, picking up odd jobs where they can but never putting down roots. But, of course, there are more creatures of the night than just the Auphe. There are vampires, werewolves, and even a bridge troll, all hidden under the thin veneer of the mundane.

So the premise and setting of Nightlife was fine, but the writing made me want to pull my hair out. Again, it wasn’t because it was poorly written, but I just couldn’t stand it. I was cruising along okay the first few chapters, but then it wore me down and eventually I just wanted the damn thing to end. Like a lot of UF, Nightlife is written in first person point-of-view and that was a big problem because of the snarky, sarcastic, More-Ironic-Than-Thou Cal, who is the one doing the storytelling. You’re stuck with him for the duration. I guess he’s supposed to seem gritty-but-witty but I just wanted to kick him in the balls. Every other paragraph, what with some kind of mirthless joke that isn’t as clever as Cal seems to think it is. And on and on with the whining about being half-monster and interrupting action scenes with exposition on the past or how he feels about something or other. God forbid you ask him how his day is going. You’d better have a thermos of espresso handy. Cal is one chatty Kathy. I understand that sarcasm and cynicism is sort of a genre norm. I’m okay with that, but Cal Leandros bored me.

But, hey. That’s just me. I’m sure that there are a lot of people out there who’d get more out of Nightlife than I did. What I would have liked to have seen was some of Niko’s POV, too, since their brotherly relationship was supposed to be an important part of the story, but I never got the sense of a real emotional connection between Niko and Cal. As I mentioned, it was written all right overall, but I just couldn’t stand the narrator. I just sort of skimmed over the last two-thirds of the book since I have some pathological urge to finish every book I start.

The verdict: ★★✩✩✩ Nightlife didn’t do a thing for me, but some devoted fans of the genre may get a bit more out of it. There are several more volumes in this series, so clearly Thurman is doing something right, but it’s likely I won’t be checking in on it.

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The Burma Probe (Death Merchant #59) by Joseph Rosenberger

(Pinnacle, 1984)

Deep in the heart of Burma’s thickest jungle lies the deadliest military secret of modern history. After generations of strategic planning, the Red Chinese have grasped the vital key to world power. In a desperate zero-hour maneuver, the Death Merchant is given the go-ahead. Inflitrate. Destroy!

The Burma Probe is #59 in the “incredible” adventures of the Death Merchant. What is incredible is that author Joseph Rosenberger wrote all seventy-one Death Merchant books himself in the ’70s and ’80s. That takes a very special kind of insanity. These Death Merchant books are among those that throw my rating system all askew. While they are generally a blast to read, they can’t be called “high lit” and are also incredibly offensive! I call Joseph Rosenberger the “Archie Bunker” of action novelists, but, like in his other books, I find it hard to be truly offended. It’s all just so ridiculous that it crosses the line into absurdity. I’m not being magnanimous here since few things piss me off more than bigotry, but reading some of the stuff in Rosenberger’s books I’m just dumbfounded. This stuff couldn’t be published today and I’m actually kinda surprised it could be published in the ’70s and ’80s. (As a word of warning, in case some of you are not quite as amused by Rosenberger’s nutjob extremism as I am, there may be some offensive quotes used in this review to illustrate. Just so ya know.)

The Burma Probe takes Richard Camellion, a.k.a. “the Death Merchant,” to Burma, where he and his cohorts, the merc leader of “Thunderbolt Unit Omega” “Mad Mike” Quinlan and a Gurkha soldier named Krishnan Darhangak, are on a mission to reconnoiter a secret base from which the communist Chinese plan to launch a deadly neurotoxin as phase one of their plan to take over Southeast Asia. The Burma Probe has all of Rosenberger’s trademark wackiness, but, unlike a good deal of his writing, The Burma Probe seems to follow more of a “traditional” plot structure than Rosenberger’s usual work (repeated scenes of excruciatingly detailed violence that proceed until all the bad guys are dead).

In The Burma Probe, the plot builds more slowly as DM and his buds move around Burma in a clandestine fashion, posing as British movie producers scouting sites. What they’re actually doing, though, is gathering intel and making contacts with a Burmese guerilla group. When their covers are blown, however, things get hot and the remainder of the story has DM and his gang running from commie forces while planning the destruction of the Chinese base, culminating in a humungous final battle in which hundreds of fighters, both Burmese guerilla and communist Chinese, die by the hundreds.

It’s pretty much straight-up military fiction, albeit with a healthy dose of Rosenberger’s nutjob flair and sometimes weird diction. For example, in one place he writes: “‘This place does not look like a dump because it is not a dump,’ Chit Soe Kha said in his precise but stilted English (although there is not any rule that demands the use of contractions).” That’s a little strange, the parenthetical statement there.

And the “Cosmic Lord of Death” gets a mention after Camellion has a conversation about religion and philosophy with his CIA contacts (for some reason). Camellion (like Rosenberger) is virulently anti-religion, but he seems to know a lot about it:

Dyson regarded Camellion with an off expression. “Tell me, Mr. Camellion. Are you a mercenary or a philosopher?”

“Neither. I’m merely passing by. In that respect, I’m an observer of the Human Condition and a partner of that which cuts us all down in the end.”

Dyson’s eyes narrowed.

“A ‘partner’! Of what?”

“The Cosmic Lord of Death….”

And the chapter ends there, but I imagine some unspoken odd looks thrown the Death Merchant’s way after that rather ominous statement.

But I have to admit that I get sort of a perverse kick out of the blatant racism of Rosenberger’s books. If it wasn’t so ridiculous, it’d be pretty repellent, what with all the racial slurs thrown around (I found “slant-eyed robots” particularly inventive). But about mid-way in the book, DM and his cohorts meet up with an ally named Lester Vernon Cole, who is described thusly:

Tall, muscular, gray-eyed and thin-lipped, with deep brown hair worn moderately long, Cole was a private contractor who often worked for the Company. A genius at intrigue and deception, Cole was a stone killer who firmly believed in the philosophy that the only good enemy was a dead enemy. In a sense, this could have meant three-fourths of the human race, since Cole was a racist who openly admired Adolf Hitler and Der Fuhrer’s “samurai,” the Schutzstaffel or dreaded SS. Often referred to as “The Widow Maker,” Cole had a simple solution for the ills of the world: any nonwhite would be put to sleep.

Yikes. And this dude is one of DM’s friends! (By the way, I just noticed that Red Dragon Operation, the third in another of Rosenberger’s series called C.O.B.R.A., is dedicated to an “L.V. Cole.” Hmm.) Anyway, Cole ruffles some feathers among the Quinlan’s merc group, as “Thunderbolt Unit Omega” consists of mercs from a variety of nations. While Rosenberger seems to go out of his way to make it clear that DM and the others are not “racist” (while still using slurs like “chink,” etc.), he gets to use Cole as a mouthpiece to rant on and on against blacks, gays, Jews, immigrants and liberals. While it seems too outrageous not to be a spoof, I’m pretty sure Cole speaks for Rosenberger. It’s funny that I sort of expect these trashy “men’s adventure” novels of yesteryear to be somewhat un-P.C., but the Death Merchant series is pretty out there.

So I’ve gone on about the racism in The Burma Probe (I probably shouldn’t find it so funny) but there’s plenty of other goofy stuff, like learning that Cole is mortally embarrassed to undress in front of other men and the weird little footnotes that pepper the entire book informing us of such useful things like, “This writer has always warned that the West has more to fear from the Chinese than the Russians,” or some kind of technical obscurity.

If you’ve been keeping up, you’ll note that I starting using my one-to-five-star rating system again and, like I mentioned earlier, these Death Merchant books kind of defy conventional rating. They’re not good, but they’re fun in a B-movie sort of way, despite (or perhaps because of) their decidedly un-P.C. natures.

The verdict: ★★★✩✩, 3 out of 5 stars on the Action Trash Scale. It ain’t Hemingway, but it’s got a lot of action and a better constructed plot that Rosenberger’s usual fare. Plus, a lot of wackiness and offensiveness to entertain those that are entertained by wackiness and offensiveness.

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