I have been obsessing over my health the last few days because I am up for a new job where I have to pass a physical. Not to the point of Hugh Jackman trying to prep for Wolverine or anything like that, but enough that I am not allowed any junk food or excessive sugar or even any caffeine. Apparently it jumps my blood pressure.
This is depressing, especially since no one has ever suggested there was anything unhealthy about my blood pressure until I went in to be checked out. They told me it was probably my coffee intake– which is admittedly prodigious on Mondays, but hell, that’s the American Way– and to cut out the caffeine and sugar, come back in a couple of days, and they’d check the blood pressure again. So I need to relax. Or else.
Oddly enough, the thing that relaxes me more than anything? Junk fiction.
Specifically, junk ACTION fiction. But it has to be a certain kind of junk. Something really in-your-face and over-the-top and sort of… let’s say gleefully transgressive. Something self-aware enough to be conscious of its basic lack of artistic merit but not quite enough to be out-and-out smirky. And it gets extra points if it happens to be something I was forbidden as a youth. Movies like Vanishing Point or The Sword and the Sorcerer or, more recently, Drive Angry, a movie most people hated… but I adored it just for the vivid flashbacks it gave me to happy memories of similar drive-in fare from the 1970s.
I firmly believe that if Drive Angry had come out in 1974 critics would be talking about it with the same reverence they do films like The Seven-Ups or Dirty Mary and Crazy Larry. As it was, watching it the first time gave me a warm comfy feeling like settling in under a favorite old quilt. THAT’S how you do homage, kids.
Books, it’s usually something with a number on it. Crappy paperback originals.
And by crappy I actually mean awesome. I suppose it’s a measure of my basic immaturity that whenever I pick up something especially lurid– like, say, The Liquidator —
— I get a little extra inner grin thinking about how (speaking of high blood pressure) my mother used to practically choke in consternation when she saw me flipping through one of these at the drugstore back when I was fourteen. If she only knew I WRITE the stuff now.
HA! IN YOUR FACE MOM!!
…uh, digressing. Anyhow, I have two never-fail, go-to series for this kind of thing. The first is Edward Aarons’ Sam Durell books.
We found a bunch of these at a rummage sale in Lynden a few years ago on one of our road trips and I fell completely in love with them. Aarons somehow managed the feat of merging wildly implausible Ian Fleming plots with the no-nonsense relentlessness of a hero like Joe Friday or Steve McGarrett. (Old-school, Jack Lord McGarrett, that is, not the dudebro version CBS is airing these days.) Sam Durell is just as humorless as those guys but he is way tougher. James Bond… if it was produced by Jack Webb.
Think I’m exaggerating? Here are a couple of back covers from the Durell books in their heyday, the swinging spy-fi sixties. Take a look at the plot summaries and compare them with the bored, fedora-wearing CIA operative portrayed in in the headshot.
That’s Sam Durell in a nutshell. Another goddamn mad genius in a hollowed-out volcano? Seriously? Christ what a mess. All right, I’m going. I just love that Durell’s so jaded about it all. The books themselves are tight, well-plotted actioners that get it all done in roughly 140 pages or so.
Really, any of the Gold Medal guys — Aarons, Donald Hamilton, John D. MacDonald, that crowd — fall into this category for me. Any of them are a solidly entertaining good time, and I have to admit that they are not completely without literary merit. MacDonald and Aarons actually got almost respectable towards the end of their careers. So did their greatest illustrator, Robert McGinnis.
But it’s all in hindsight. Back in the day, these were trash. If an adult saw you with one there would be scolding, or at least tsk-ing.
But it wasn’t like we had to smuggle them into the house. The truly forbidden stuff would have been something like the Executioner, or the Destroyer, or, my favorite trash-fiction series simply for the gleeful, unbridled joy it takes in its own awfulness, the Baroness.
Those books were the closest I ever got to consuming actual porn when I was a teenager, though they seem pretty tame today. The Baroness was the creation of book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, who really deserves a column of his own one of these days. He was kind of the P.T. Barnum of the paperback series world in the 1970s, he put together all kinds of series deals (most famously, the John Jakes Kent Family Chronicles just in time for the Bicentennial.) He recruited Donald Moffitt to write the Baroness books under the pen name “Paul Kenyon.”
There were eight of them in all, and they combined a sort of deranged Modesty Blaise sensibility with the leering adolescent soft-core eroticism of the cinematic oeuvre of the young Sylvia Kristel. For example….
I often think that if Sylvia Kristel had done a Baroness movie back in, say, 1977, it would have done really well. In Europe, anyway. Emanuelle as Emma Peel. Oh well. Maybe in some alternate universe.
The books themselves are frankly pretty bad but to me that’s part of their charm. Moffitt is actually a reputable name in SF these days so I think he kind of had to be kidding when he wrote these. But they are an awful lot of fun.
Or, as Leonard Pinth-Garnell would say, “Gloriously bad. Just really, really, not good at all.”
But that’s kind of the point. And weirdly, just writing about the stuff has relaxed me to where I think I might even pass the damn physical.
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Back next week with something cool.