I’ve been knowingly reading the work of Stephen Mertz for nearly a decade; unknowingly since I was a teenager—all the way back in the late-1980s and early-1990s—devouring men’s adventure series novels like The Executioner and M. I. A. Hunter. He wrote some of the better non-Don Pendleton titles of the former, and created, writing many of the books, in the latter. In recent years he has broken away from series work and produced several high quality novels in a variety of genres—The Korean Intercept, Dragon Games, The Castro Directive, Fade to Tomorrow, Hank & Muddy, and others.
Mr. Mertz is primarily a novelist, but his career began with the sale of his short story, “The Busy Corpse,” in 1975 to the short-lived The Executioner Mystery Magazine. In the forty years since, and including that first sale, he has published “a mere twelve stories”—his words, not mine—and each is included in his collection, The King of Horror & Other Stories. The stories are as varied as his novels. There is an action story, “Fragged,” three featuring a P. I. named O’Dair, and an old-school pulp adventure yarn, “The Lizard Men of Blood River,” which is aptly dedicated to Lester Dent.
The best story in the collection, and they are all very good, is the title story, “The King of Horror.” In the Afterword Mr. Mertz describes it as “[a] cautionary tale for writers.” It features one Rigby Balbo, an aging writer angry at his irrelevance. Rig believes he is blacklisted by the industry and his fellow writers intentionally ignore the influence of his early work. But he has a plan to get even. A plan that turns blackly ironic for him, and darkly satisfying for the reader. I reviewed this story back in 2009.
“The Basics of Murder” is a straight P. I. story. O’Dair—no first name—is on vacation visiting an old friend who made the Army a career after Vietnam. O’Dair’s leisure time is cut short when an officer is killed on the firing range, and his friend asks him to look into it. What he finds is something altogether unexpected for both O’Dair and the reader.
The Afterword is worth the price of admission alone. It details Mr. Mertz’s thoughts on each of the stories, and illuminates a little of the personal Stephen Mertz. A few of my favorites:
“The King of Horror” was written as “an open letter to” Michael Avallone; a popular writer of the paperback era, and close personal friend of Mr. Mertz, whose markets were gone and who felt some bitterness about it.
Stephen Mertz worked as a touring musician for seven years playing “the beer bar circuit.” He played the harp—“blues lingo for amplified harmonica”—and vocals.
The King of Horror & Other Stories is pure entertainment. It showcases the work of an underappreciated writer whose talent and excitement is present in each tale. The style is quietly smooth, and the plotting is sharp and surprising. Mr. Mertz may not be a prolific writer of short stories, but what he does write is damn good.