Tuesday, June 28, 2011



I’ve always had a soft spot for German war fiction. I read and re-read All Quiet on the Western Front in my teen years. Later the bloody stylistics of Sam Peckinpah led me to Willi Heinrich’s Cross of Iron. A peruse through the remote stacks of the University of Florida library turned up Hans Helmut Kirst’s Gunner Asch series. Then whilst rooting through the heaps of paperback treasures in Chamblin’s Bookmine, I found the Holy Grail of MPI rounds, the sacred wellspring of panzer exhaust, the sepulchre of GROFAZ’s excommunicate Knights Templar, Wheels of Terror by Sven Hassel.

Sven Hassel was Remarque with a bullet fetish. He was Heinrich with a sense of humor. He was Kirst on crack. Hassel did for the war novel what Sergio Corbucci did for the western.

The novels recount the exploits of Porta, Tiny, the Old ‘Un, Gergor, Hiede, the Legionnaire, Barcelona, and the narrator, Sven. All are assigned to a penal panzer regiment. Condemned for various political and criminal offenses, they are considered totally expendable. When not slaughtering Red Army troops by the dozen, Porta is relating  daft stories or organizing cook-ups of liberated Russian foodstuffs. Tiny is a semi-brainless thug from the Reeperbahn, and perhaps the bravest soldier on the Eastern Front.

Being a penal outfit, they are anti-authority to a man. Or almost, Hiede is a fanatical Nazi, who constantly bemoans the disloyalty of the others. Usually they are busy giving fits to long-suffering Oberst Hinka (a decent fellow under his crusty Prussian exterior), and occasionally liquidating officers who get too obnoxious.

Disdain for Nazism doesn’t translate into sympathy for Communism. The gang’s favorite targets are OGPU commissars, the mirror-image twins of the Gestapo. There is a certain amount of post-war score settling too, as General von Paulus & Ilya Ehrenburg come in for some bashing. But even an SS general can earn respect if he knows how to fight and keep his men alive when there is no hope.

Formally the narration is by Sven, A young man of Danish-German origin who has made the grave error of enlisting in the Wehrmacht. But Sven is mostly almost invisible, except for the occasional trenchant comment such as, “it takes nerves of steel to stand in front of advancing T-34 tanks firing a machine  gun from the hip. Mine were only of mediocre quality so I was cowering in a shell hole.”

There is a divide in the books. The first novel, Legion of the Damned, is the most serious, offering an overview of Sven’s life from his court martial for desertion to the end of the war. The later books are deranged romps through the nihilistic bloodletting of the Ostfront. And they are fiction, unless you think penal troops were supplied with Tiger tanks or a pair of legs came  running out a  shell blast or that Porta took time out from the war to reestablish his control of Berlin’s red-light district. Just enjoy Sven Hassel’s little tours of Hell

-Dave Hardy.

*GROFAZ: Gosster Feldheer Aller Zeitung, Hitler.
* Bonus: Sven Hassel meets Beatrix Potter, Peter Rabbit Tank Killer!

Friday, June 17, 2011


By E.R. Eddison

One might think there would be a revival of interest in epic fantasy written by scholarly Englishmen in the early 20th century. There might and it ought to include The Worm Ouroboros. Eric Rucker Eddison penned the tale of the Great War of the Witches and Demons back in 1922 and it is just as good today.

Unlike the reluctant and self-conscious heroes of Lord of the Rings, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, or even Harry Potter, the Lords Juss, Goldry Bluszco, Spitfire, and Brandoch Daha are bona fide sword-swinging adventurers. They are Conans who’ve been to Eton. They need every bit of their mighty sword arms and their wits to defeat the evil king Gorice of Witchland in his drive to build an empire.

As befits and epic, minor characters are not wanting. There is Corund, the witch nobleman who steers a course of loyalty to his king and self-defense against his rivals. We meet Lord Gro the Goblin who has betrayed so many masters he can’t remember which side he is on. Eddison’s idiosyncrasies lend the tale an off-kilter charm, kingdoms have names straight from fairy tales and characters write letters in Elizabethan English. The scene where Gorice performs black magic is truly bizarre and creepy. If you like high adventure in a fantasy world, read The Worm Ouroboros.
-Dave Hardy

Thursday, June 16, 2011


by Dashiell Hammett

This novella appeared as a serial in Liberty in 1933. It is Hammett’s next to last work of long fiction, The Thin Man followed it, and a long terrible writer’s block followed that.

Woman in the Dark is a good, well paced tale of crime and pursuit. Instead of a PI pursing outlaws, the outlaws are unjustly persecuted by corrupt law. The tale opens with a woman, fleeing in the dark, by chance seeking refuge in the cabin of an ex-con named Brazil. One might say Brazil is the Continental Op’s bastard brother, homely, cynical and detached, but with a powerful sense of right and wrong. But chance, a roadhouse brawl that ended in death, put Brazil on the other side of the law.

He meets his match in Luise Fischer. She’s a Euro-trash drifter who knows the rules of the game but insists on breaking them. Luise Fischer (always both names, just as Brazil has one and the Continental Op has none) understands that a woman has to bend without breaking, that a gal without money has to trade what she has to get by. But she only gives so much and only as much as she has to.

The story is a departure from the often cynical view of Hammett’s detective fiction. It is truly a story about love and the heroism that love can call forth. While not as blazing as the manic grandeur of Red Harvest or as tightly plotted as The Maltese Falcon, Woman in the Dark is a story that can grow in a reader’s mind.
-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


By E. Howard Hunt

This is a decent little thriller by E. Howard Hunt. Hunt is much better known for his role as a CIA agent and Watergate conspirator. In fact that seems to be the selling point the publisher banked on in this 1973 Fawcett re-print.

The yarn is about a suave ex-CIA agent and dedicated patriot named Tnuh Drawoh E, sorry, Conroy, who just wants to mind his own business but keeps getting yanked into other people’s wacky conspiracies. Ain’t life like that. Anyway, Conroy has to sort out moles and back-stabbers inside the moribund world of anti-Castro Cubans. It’s a pretty good yarn and kept my interest up to the end. Rather than dedicated freedom-fighters the Cubans are rather seedy and a trifle whacked. There are no Commie super-spies, just guys out to get what they can. Idealism takes a beating. Where Murder Waits is worth a look.
-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


By Fletcher Pratt

Fletcher Pratt may be better known for his naval wargames than for his work in science fiction and sword and sorcery. If so it’s a pity. In The Well of the Unicorn Pratt created an epic fantasy with a hard-boiled attitude toward war, politics, and sex.

The tale concerns young Airar Alvarson, a Dalecarlesman dispossessed by the relentless taxation of the Vulkings. Airar joins the rebellion and we learn of his fortunes as he progresses from raw youth to hardened war-leader while trying to retain his innate decency in a world dominated by ruthless totalitarian fanatics and sleazy opportunists.

The supporting cast is rich and acts as Airar’s Greek chorus. Principal among them are the Star Captains of Carrhoene, a group of exiled mercenaries who join the Dalecarles’ revolt for their own ends. They are a violent, lusty lot and much of the novel’s conflict is about Airar’s struggle to keep a rein on his followers. Airar’s untrustworthy consigliere is Meliboe the Wizard, an outlaw by reason of his use of sorcerous arts. He and Airar have a series of agons where the nature of political power is dissected and found wanting.

The politics of sex get a look in too. Airar’s loves and friendships are repeatedly tested by the tendency of the powerful to exploit the weak. The Well of the Unicorn takes a politically incorrect view of pederasty in these instances. More than one of Pratt’s sword swinging warlords has a fondness for young men. To be fair heterosexuality is shown as scarcely less exploitive and Pratt ain’t depicting the kind of fellows you bring home to mama, unless mom organized slave auctions for the Roman army.

This is not to suggest that Well of the Unicorn is a series of dull conversations. There are battles by land and sea. Pratt has some excellent set-pieces of battles on siege works around a beleaguered castle.

Well of the Unicorn does not have the wide-eyed idealism of Lord of the Rings or the unbridled love of battle for its own sake found in The Worm Orobouros. What is does have is sweeping movement and a sharply defined character caught up in the tides of war and a lucid sense of what that means.
-Dave Hardy

Monday, June 13, 2011


By Mario Vargas Llosa

A confrontation between government forces and a small group of religious fanatics leads to bloodshed and mass death. No, it’s not the story of Mt. Carmel, it is Canudos, a settlement in the backwoods of Brazil where the wretched of the earth came to build a Godly life.

Mario Vargas Llosa, one of Latin America’s best known playwrights and novelists, chose this as the subject of his epic novel. In outward facts it is outrageous enough. Antonio Conselheiro was a charismatic backwoods preacher who drew together escaped slaves, starving farmers, reformed bandits, cripples and all the rejects of Brazilian society in a giant squatter city at Canudos. The Brazilian backwoods was as bleak as the American Southwest, as lawless as Dodge City, and as prey to political extremism as, well, Latin America. When Conselheiro began denouncing the republic that replaced the Brazilian monarchy, the authorities decided to take him down.

Llosa brings this all to life with great urgency. He employs any number of point of view characters, and has a disconcerting tendency to terminate their points of view abruptly. First he follows Galileo Gall, a Scottish anarchist who proves to be quite a creep, then a journalist from Rio who finds himself a prisoner in Canudos. But there are dozens of others, from Jurema, a backwoods woman, to the Lion of Natuba, a man with a deformed face who is a pillar of spiritual strength, to the Baron of Canebrava, a monarchist who finds himself being scapegoated for the anti-republicanism of the Canudenses.

Llosa doesn’t miss the big picture. The people of Canudos smashed wave after wave of Brazilian police and army assaults. The scene is often more like All Quiet on the Western Front than a shoot out in a Latin American backwater.

The War of the End of the World is an epic, it is brutal and tragic, but unforgettable and heroic. Just like the people of Canudos.
-Dave  Hardy

Friday, June 10, 2011


By Jorge Amado

You may have thought that chocolate comes from little elves in pointy caps who dance around as they pour giant (relatively speaking) vats of gooey fudge on tasty cookies. Well you’re WRONG! Actually chocolate grows on trees, unlike money, unless you are a chocolate farmer when prices are up in which case money does kind of grow on trees.

Anyway, Jorge Amado was from south Bahia, a state in Brazil, where the cacao (ka-kow) nuts grow. Instead of gold rushes they had cacao rushes back in the 1910s. It was a tough land, and ruthless cacao-barons would send their cacaoboys out to claim choice bits of jungle and hold it with guns and machetes against all comers. 

Amado tells of the rivalry of two families over a strip of jungle and the people around them: wives, sisters, hired guns, lawyers, and a con man from Rio. This is a colorful book about a colorful place and time. If you want to read a Western with all the adventure, triumph, tragedy, and wonder of the West, without the cliches, this is a good one to take in.
-Dave Hardy

Thursday, June 09, 2011


By Talbot Mundy

Talbot Mundy created his best character more or less by accident. He was a favorite at Adventure, one of the top quality pulps in the ‘20s & ‘30s. He had committed to a historical yarn about Queen Cleopatra (first it would appear as a serial in Adventure, then as a hard-back novel). But he kept stalling, it turns out he found a rather minor character to be far more interesting. The story of Cleopatra’s captain proved far more compelling. The Queen got a novel eventually, but Tros got a novel three times as long and another that followed Queen Cleopatra!

Tros is a Hellenized Samothracian. Like many other Mundy heroes he is a member of a highly ethical secret society that seeks enlightenment. A bit of derring-do in the service of good is on the menu too. Tros is blackmailed into acting as a secret agent for Caesar in Britain. Instead Tros hooks up with Casawallwn (Cassiavellaunus of Caesar's Commentaries) and his Britons, builds the world’s most advanced warship, and recruits a bunch of Vikings to crew it!

The action doesn’t flag. Tros follows through, trying to avoid bloodshed in a bloody world, chasing Caesar’s schemes through Roman Spain, Gaul, all the way to Rome itself. He faces crackpot sorcerers, treachery, Roman arrogance, and even gladiatorial combat before Britain is safe.

While it may seem odd in our Celtophilic days, Mundy’s depiction of Caesar as an ambitious militarist building a dictatorship was controversial. It is a mark of Mundy’s influence that his ideas are pretty much the norm now.

The book has a complex publication history. It appeared as four volumes from Avon in the 1960s and as three from Zebra in the 1970s. A peculiarity of the Zebra editions is that Robert E. Howard got bigger billing on the cover!

-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, June 08, 2011


By Robert E. Howard

If there was anyplace that Robert E. Howard loved more than his native Texas, it was Celtic fringe of Europe, the sea-girt isles where the Gaels made the last stand of Celtic culture. Most of his heroes are of Celtic descent (Francis X. Gordon, Kirby O’Donnell), or from pre-proto-Celtic groups (Kull the Atlantean, Conan the Cimmerian), or actual, honest-to-Crom, Irish Gaels (Turlough Dubh, Black Vulmea, Cormac FitzGeoffrey). Among the latter is the Gaelic sea-rover, Cormac Mac Art.

Cormac Mac Art is a true Scot, the scotti were the Irsih pirates who descended on late Roman Britain along with the Picts and Saxons. Cormac sails with his blood-brother, Wulfhere the Viking, in the days when Arthur tries to hold together the fading remnants of Roman glory.

Only two of the tales, “Swords of the Northern Sea” and “Night of the Wolf” are entirely by REH. The other two, “Tigers of the Sea” and “The Temple of Abomination” include material written by Richard Tierney. While I am usually quite negative toward “posthumous collaborations” and re-writes, I am just about willing to give Richard Tierney a pass! He is perhaps the only writer I have encountered who really seems to understand the basic motivation of REH heroes and the appropriate structure of his tales.

REH tended to thrust his Celtic heroes into exotic, hot southern lands (like Scots-Irish settlers entering the Mexican province of Tejas?). In the Cormac Mac Art series REH brings the Celtic fringe to life as Gaels, Britons, Vikings, and Picts struggle for mastery over remote isles on the fringes of the known world. These are excellent tales of action and adventure (there is relatively little fantasy, except in “Temple of Abomination”). REH’s treatment of Dark Ages Britain is a sharp contrast to the sentimental depiction of the 5th century as the flowering of pre-proto-Hippie Pagandom. Although it is out of print, Tigers of the Sea is well worth hunting down.

-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, June 07, 2011


By Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs created one of the longest-lived and influential of all pulp-action heroes: Tarzan is not just a character, he is modern myth. The novel tells of how the Greystokes were shipwrecked on a remote African shore and slain by a ferocious man-eating “Great Ape” (a species Burroughs created, he knew real gorillas didn’t fit the bill for his story). Only little baby Greystoke survives, adopted by one of the she-apes. He grows to manhood as Tarzan, the fiercest beast and cleverest man in the jungle.

ERB’s novel is ferociously un-PC, some might even say offensively racist (some, post-modern literary critics, have). ERB’s world is explicitly Darwinian, both in nature and society. It is also laden with any number of crazy contrivances (even my teen-age eyes, dazzled by derring-do, found the way Tarzan learns to read to be a stretch) and wacky coincidences (evidently lots of folks get shipwrecked on this one stretch of African coast, they might even be related). But lord-a-mercy, this novel has adventure! Tarzan gets to do, if not all, many of the things that nice boys in dull American suburbs don’t get to do. He is a wild-man, like Enkidu of ancient Sumer, savage and heroic at the same time.
-Dave Hardy

Monday, June 06, 2011


By Stanislaw Lem

Stanislaw Lem is a forgotten man of science fiction. In the ‘60s and ‘70s he crafted amazing visions of man’s place in his technological world and probed the meaning of artificial intelligence, order in chaos, and even reality itself. Today he’s best-remembered as the guy who wrote the novel Solaris was based on. I never saw the movie, so I don’t know if that’s fair or not, but for sure Solaris is a first-rate novel. Tales of Pirx the Pilot is a first rate collection of short stories!

We meet Pirx in "The Test", a story that manages to be a white-knuckle ride while having a laugh. Pirx starts out a goofy knucklehead trying to pass his cadet training. He is distinguished by little save bulldog perseverance. Lem’s vision of space travel is diametrically opposite the clean, well-lighted comfort of the Enterprise. He’s the sort of author who considers what it’s like to cross the surface of the Moon in a spacesuit that doesn’t quite fit.

Lem was fond of the detective genre and this collection has some gems of technological detection in the stories "The Conditioned Reflex" and "On Patrol". The standout in Pirx is the final story "Terminus". Lem had a feel for robots beyond anthropomorphized kitsch or dry techno-babble. Here he creates a haunting story of a robot bringing messages from the dead. It’s a claustrophobic tale that sends shivers down my spine.

Tales of Prix the Pilot has the high quality that made Lem and internationally respected author. Forget the pretentious hype, he could write stories that held you like a bear trap.
-Dave  Hardy