Monday, April 22, 2019

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "The Flight"

The Flight, by C. F. Runyan, was published as a trade paperback by Bantam in 1991. The edition that caught my eye was Bantam Falcon’s 1992 mass market edition. The shadowy and cold-colored cover art is simple with a Twilight Zone-like mysterious appeal. The artist: Unknown (to me at least)

The opening lines:

Somewhere in the large Georgian house a phone rang.
Brigadier General Scott Armitage entered his study, tossed his briefcase onto a side table, and cocked his head peevishly at the insistent ringing.
The Flight was C. F. (Clair) Runyan’s only novel. It’s a big and intriguing thriller with a science fiction element—time travel from 1994 to wartime Philippines in 1942. When I read it as a teenager, it captured my imagination with its intricate plot and the bleak rendering of the Pacific War. Runyan was a historian and retired Marine Corps Infantry officer. He served from World War II to Vietnam. He died in 2010 to little fanfare as his obituary in the San Diego Tribune attests:
RUNYAN, CLAIR F. Lt. Col. USMC, Ret. Dec. 19, 1919 to Feb. 4, 2010. No services held. Cremation with ashes scattered at sea.
My snooping around the internet also found a letter-to-the-editor Runyan wrote in the same newspaper about a critical review of the terrible Bruckheimer / Michael Bay film, Pearl Harbor (2001):
I guess we should cut critics some slack when it comes to history, and (critic-at-large) Welton Jones in his critique of “Pearl Harbor” could use some (“Echoes of yesteryear in ‘Pearl Harbor,’” May 27). Much of what he wrote was good, such as his description of World War II as “the most turbulent conflict in human history, a cruel and monstrous and capricious maelstrom. . . .” That’s a welcome counterpoint to the sappy “The Good War” we hear about. Tell the millions dead how good it was.    – Clair Runyan

Thursday, April 18, 2019

"Hawksbill Station" by Robert Silverberg

I’m a new arrival to the school of Robert Silverberg. I read The Book of Skulls in 2005 and I’ve made a point to read at least some Silverberg every year since. A few weeks ago I found a TOR Double—No. 26—that featured “Press Enter” by John Varley on one side and Robert Silverberg’s “Hawksbill Station” on the other. The TOR Double contained the text of the original story published in Galaxy in 1967. The story was expanded and published as a novel in 1968. A novel I have not yet read.
Hawksbill Station is a penal colony used to segregate political dissidents from the general population. It is much like the Soviet gulags of the mid-Twentieth Century, except there are no guards, no fences and no returns. A wall of time, two billion years long, separates Hawksbill and the society that created it. It is on an Earth that has yet to witness its fish crawl from the sea. The camp’s only connection with the future, what the men call “Up Front,” is a device called the Hammer and Anvil—a time machine that only operates from the future to the past. And it is the lifeline of the small penal colony. It is where the new inmates, and the meager supplies arrive from.
“Hawksbill Station” is an intriguing story. It alters the Cold War prison tale into dystopian science fiction. While the model of the prison is clearly based on the Soviet-style gulag, the story is as much about capitalism as it is about communism. The idea: oppression is oppression no matter its wrappings. With that said the politics of the story are less important, much less, than the story itself. The setting, as dark and desolate as it is, has a beautiful surreal sense—picture an Earth with no mammals and no flora inhabited by trilobites, a wild ocean, and several dozen men.
The story is only 86 pages in mass market, but Silverberg, with a sparse and wonderfully simple prose, is able to create both the world and the characters in a detail that many writers are unable to do in three- or four-hundred pages. He makes the characters, all of them, sympathetic and likable. The antagonist is two billion years from where the story is told and is really nothing more than the shadow of a bogeyman.
“Hawksbill Station” is the real deal. It is a science fiction story that tells something of who we are as a culture, and more importantly, what we are as individuals.  It is a truly excellent story.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Echoes: SFBC Advertising Insert (1980s?)

A few weeks ago I posted an image of an old Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC) newsletter—click here—and while I was cleaning out a desk drawer a couple days ago, I found this cool advertising insert to join SFBC (probably from the late-1980s). I have no idea how it came into my life, other than as a bonus found inside a used book I purchased in the last few years.

If I could still order “Any 5 Books For $1 (with membership)” I would, and, these are the titles I’d pick:
·         Highway to Eternity, by Clifford D. Simak
·         Star of Gypsies, by Robert Silverberg
·         Across Realtime, by Vernor Vinge
·         Soldier of the Mist, by Gene Wolfe
·         The Shattered Sphere, edited by Robert Lynn Aspin and Lynn Abbey
In fact, just thinking about filling out the order form—no postage necessary—gives me a little thrill. Click on the image to see them larger.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "The Steel Mirror"

The Steel Mirror, by Donald Hamilton, was published as a hardcover by Rinehart & Company in 1948, but the edition that caught my eye was Fawcett Gold Medal’s 1966 paperback reprint (d1889). The cover painting is a perfect bleak mystery. Its blues and grays, the hard mattress, and small steel mirror attached to the cold wall, all lend a touch of despondency, almost hopelessness, without giving anything away. The artist: Unknown (to me at least)

The opening lines:
He came back from the railway station with his tickets through the hot late afternoon sunshine; and at the door of the Ford garage he had to step aside for a fawn-colored Mercury convertible just driving in. He caught a glimpse of the face of the girl behind the wheel, rather slight and fragile beneath a hat that turned back from her forehead in a ruffled halo of pale straw.
The Steel Mirror, was adapted as the 1957 film, 5 Steps to Danger, directed by Henry S. Kesler and starring Ruth Roman and Sterling Hayden. And, a little trivia, Werner Klemperer, in a pre-Hogans Heroes role, played Dr. Simmons.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Another suspect decision...

A poor condition mass market paperback followed me on Thursday, Sleaze, by L. A. Morse. I’ve heard people speak well, and poorly, about this novel featuring private eye, Sam Hunter. And when I ran across this copy everything about it said—Take Me Home! From the warning inside the book:
“This book contains numerous scenes of gratuitous sex and violence, as well as a lot of bad language and worse jokes. If you don’t like that sort of thing, this is a good place to stop.”
To a blurb from a review in the Los Angeles Times:
“I’d cross the street to avoid him.”
To this sweet piece of descriptive prose on the second page:
“It was the receptionist. If her goal was to look like a cheap Vegas hooker, she’d succeeded pretty well. She had a tangled mane of thick black hair. Her eyes were so darkly and heavily made up that they looked like the after effects of a broken nose.”
To the price: $1
There were two Sam Hunter novels published, The Big Enchilada (1982), and Sleaze (1985). Morse won an Edgar Award for his novel, The Old Dick (not featuring Sam Hunter). And I’ve never read any of his books, so…

And, amazingly, it's available as an ebook.

Monday, April 01, 2019

"The Double Whammy" by Robert Bloch

Rod has been a pitchman for a carnival sideshow—“a lousy mud-show that never played anywhere north of Tennessee”—for three seasons and he’s good at the spiel, convincing marks to split with their money for a chance to see the geek bite off a chicken’s head. Rod’s never been bothered by the show before. It’s “just a lousy chicken.” 
But lately, Rod’s had a problem.
“[S]omething was spooking him. No use kidding himself, he had to face it.
“Rod was afraid of the geek.”
The trouble is, the geek isn’t a monster. His name’s Mike, and Mike is the same as all the other geeks. A wino with an addiction and luck bad enough for him to play the geek, raving and biting chickens for a few dollars and a bed.
“The Double Whammy” is classic Robert Bloch; atmospheric, frightening, and clever. Rod, the tale’s narrator, is a touch unreliable and there is more happening than the reader knows (maybe). But what the reader knows is enough, and what the reader doesn’t know. Well, that makes the story that much better. And I enjoyed its every word.
* * *
“The Double Whammy” was published in Fantastic (February 1970) and I read it in the uneven, but enjoyable, anthology, The Wickedest Show on Earth, edited by Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini (Morrow, 1985).

Thursday, March 28, 2019


Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain—small town lawyer and investigator—is at the top of my list for private eye serial characters. He is charming, sarcastic, funny, and cool in an off-hand if worried manner. He is an outsider. He grew up in the poor section of Black River Falls (a fictional rural Iowa city) called The Knolls. A place he escaped with a law degree, but a place he can never leave behind because he understands the people. The struggles. The poverty and hopelessness. But mostly, that scared little boy from the wrong part of town is still in him. Worrying. Doubting. 
There were ten Sam McCain novels, and the final, published by Pegasus in October 2014, is one of the best. It’s also the darkest. Even its title, in honor of the song by The Doors, is dark—Riders on the Storm. It’s a direct sequel to Ticket to Ride, and it finds an older, more world-weary Sam McCain in 1971, America. Vietnam is full-tilt, and, as Bob Dylan wrote a few years earlier, “The times they are a-changin’.” Sam, in a short stint with the Army, is involved in car crash and for five weeks doesn’t know his own name—
“My name is Sam McCain. There was a time eight months ago when I didn’t believe that. When both a neurosurgeon and a psychologist visited me every day and tried to convince me of it.”
There is a mystery, and a good one too, but the story is Vietnam—not the shooting and killing in Southeast Asia, but rather its impact at home. Will Cullen, a veteran who struggles with his actions in the war, is accused of killing a local businessman and budding politician named Steve Donovan. Donovan publicly, and maliciously, beats Will Cullen at a political event because Will signed on with the antiwar organization “Vietnam Veterans Against the War.” The next day Steve Donovan is found murdered, and the most likely suspect is Cullen. A suspect both Sam and Will’s wife are dubious of, and Sam spends the rest of the novel trying to clear Cullen as a suspect.
But proving Cullen’s innocence is less than easy. Gone is the incompetent and laughable Chief of Police Cliffie Sykes Jr. and in is the professional and competent, “please call me Paul” Chief Foster. Foster is certain of Cullen’s guilt, but he is seemingly fair and uncomfortably considerate of Sam and Cullen’s wife Karen. But Sam is equally certain of Cullen’s innocence and proving it becomes very personal.
Riders on the Storm is Sam McCain, but darker and more intense than the earlier entries in the series. Mary Travers is back with two young daughters from her failed marriage. Her return is good for both her and Sam. Jamie Newton, Sam’s cutely incompetent secretary is also back, but different. Older, very competent, and, unfortunately, no longer referring to Sam as “Mr. G.” There are more characters than Cliffie Sykes Jr. missing—Judge Esme Anne Whitney is nowhere to be seen, and Mrs. Goldman, Sam’s landlord, is AWOL, as are all the colorful Sykes’ relatives. In their place is a darker, more introspective Sam McCain whose youthful exuberance is tempered by time and experience. He is no longer a young man, but he is a more complete man.
Riders on the Storm is different from the previous Sam McCain novels, but as any good character and series, the change is inevitable and welcome. It is the Seventies after all. The age of well-earned cynicism—big government, big business, and all the rest. It’s Sam McCain’s arrival to maturity. Deep with meaning, disappointment, and paradoxically, fulfillment. Even more, it is a very fine private eye novel.