I guess this is a sort of sequel to Itching and Scratching, except this is more about things I DID actually finish but haven’t returned to in decades. For some reason I’ve come across several of them in recent weeks and thought I might as well build this week’s column around them.
Roy Thomas has a new book out. Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian.
The title is a little misleading; it gives the impression that it’s a sort of definitive fictional biography of Conan, incorporating not just Robert E. Howard’s works but all the additional pastiches in prose and comics. (Honestly, I’m not sure that such a book is even possible at this point, but if it was, Roy Thomas would probably be the guy to attempt it.)
But that’s not what this is. No, this is an issue-by-issue behind-the-scenes look back at Roy’s first tenure on Conan comics at Marvel. For those of us that read those comics when they were coming out and are interested in that history, it’s fascinating. Especially since back then sword-and-sorcery was still relatively new to the Marvel comics audience, and would not come to dominate paperback spinner racks until a couple of years later, Roy had to spend a lot of time explaining to his colleagues what he was doing. You can make the case that the later omnipresence of those paperbacks was about equally because of the work of Frank Frazetta and Roy Thomas each did in the early seventies, and it’s interesting to hear what Thomas himself has to say about it all.
For those wanting gossip, I’m sorry to tell you he always takes the high road, though he gets a trifle defensive at times (There was a Comics Journal interview with John Byrne once where he jeered at Thomas for being the “Super-Adaptoid,” incapable of doing anything but adapting other people’s work, and clearly Thomas is still smarting over it.) Volume One covers the first fifty-one issues of the monthly color comic, with an occasional detour to Savage Tales and Savage Sword, but generally the magazine comics are not mentioned much here; this is mostly about the Thomas originals. Definitely check it out if you’re a fan, though despite the back cover copy, I don’t know that it’s worth it if you aren’t. I certainly am, so I’ll be back for Volume Two.
Of all the Westlake books Hard Case has sent me over the last few years, this is far and away the funniest. The blurb: What will a group of monks do when their two-century-old monastery in New York City is threatened with demolition to make room for a new high-rise? Anything they have to. “Thou Shalt Not Steal” is only the first of the Commandments to be broken as the saintly face off against the unscrupulous over that most sacred of relics, a Park Avenue address.
But that doesn’t really do it justice. Hero and narrator Brother Benedict is a monk in the (fictional) Crispinite order, one of only sixteen monks in all. Their monastery is a building in midtown Manhattan, built by the original monks on leased land. Benedict is horrified to discover that the building will be demolished along with the rest of the block they live on. This order has a prohibition against travel unless absolutely necessary, so the thought of moving creates all kinds of chaos. They have a legal right to stay, according to the lease, but the lease is suspiciously missing. They hatch increasingly frantic plans to somehow stop the demolition but are thwarted everywhere they turn. Finally in desperation Brother Benedict tries to appeal directly to the millionaire that owns the land, traveling all the way to Puerto Rico, and falls in love with his daughter Eileen. Hilarity– and mayhem– ensues, as Benedict falls prey to worldly evils. “A week of sex had awakened a hunger in me that had been dormant for a long long time….married sex is sanctified, and adulterous sex is condemned …. that leaves much of the world’s sex in Limbo.”
The story seemed vaguely familiar to me and finally I remembered that my old friend Anne-Marie had been after me about it in college. I think she even bought me a copy at one point. The time would have been about right… this is another one of Hard Case’s ‘forgotten classic’ entries. The original hardcover book came out in 1975 and it certainly deserved a wider audience.
The Mysterious Press did another re-issue in the 1990s.
That didn’t get a lot of traction either; for that matter, I can’t tell you why I never got around to reading it myself although the covers really aren’t selling the idea very well and that might have had something to do with it. I much prefer the latest one.
Despite its new home at Hard Case, it’s not that pulpy. There is a fair amount of action and mystery, but the comedy is what drives the thing; and the love story, despite the biting satire, is rather sweet. It would make a wonderful movie and honestly I can’t figure out why it never became one; something in the vein of Sister Act, maybe, but way, way better. Two thumbs way up.
The last one is a little involved. Some of you may recall how, in elementary school, I first fell in love with mystery fiction through the juveniles sponsored by Alfred Hitchcock (as described here for those that missed it.)
There is a little sidebar to that literary excursion. At the drugstore, next to the comics spinner rack, nine-year old me often saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.
Well, after falling swooningly in love with the Hitchcock offerings in the school library, I was intensely curious about the magazine. Hitchcock’s was one of the digest anthologies that were the last gasp of the old pulps, one of the character/celebrity-based ones you used to see like Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine and The Saint Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Since I already was familiar with the Hitchcock brand from the books, or so I thought, I figured I’d try the magazine. I risked sixty cents on one and it blew my mind.
For one thing, it was a lot nastier than the grade-school books I’d seen. Clearly, the editorial mission statement was to emphasize stories concluding with a vicious E.C. Comics-style zinger, often more horror than mystery. The first story in the magazine was about a husband whose wife joins a demon cult and when he tries to prove it’s all a put-on it turns out that it’s real. There were a couple of short tales that featured criminals accidentally murdering the wrong person instead of the intended victim. There were hard-edged police procedurals with ironic twists at the end. I knew that all this was a little over my head and not intended for kids, but I hadn’t quite realized HOW not-for-kids it was until Mom found it and angrily threw it away. She never did that even with my comics, and she hated those. But Hitchcock’s she treated as though it was porn.
I’d already read it, and it had creeped me out a little, so I wasn’t as bitter as I might have been. The memory of the stories stuck with me over the years, and I even ended up stealing a gimmick from one of them: one of the police stories had turned on tracking a fugitive based solely on a thirty-second gap in a travel schedule. I didn’t remember ANYTHING else about the story but the incredulous question at the end, “And all you had to go on was that thirty-second gap?”
Last year, trying to come up with a Sherlock story for the MX anthologies, for whatever reason that little half-memory came back to me and that ability to extrapolate from a schedule struck me as a very Holmesian skill to have. So I built a story around it and The Adventure of the Vanishing Diplomat appeared in the collection that came out a few months ago.
The mystery I wrote ended up turning on a completely different gimmick, but that vague memory of the cop and the thirty-second gap was what triggered it. (Book available here. End of self-serving plug.)
The whole episode got me remembering that old magazine and wondering if I could find it. All I remembered was that it had a green cover. But I had a moderately limited range of years that it would have had to be available for me to have found it while I was in third or fourth grade. It was a monthly, so figure at most thirty-six possibles.
I had a couple of other clues… I remembered the title of the nasty cult story, something like Shadow in the Reflection or something like that. And the cop one was probably Edward D. Hoch, one of the Captain Leopolds.
Finally this idle curiosity grew to the point where it became active. I decided to Google around and see if I could find it. Took about half an hour trying different search terms, but by God, I turned it up. March 1971. Green cover.
By now I really had the bit in my teeth over this, so I started looking to see if any back issue dealers had it for sale. One did, and for less than ten dollars. It arrived a few days ago. Almost fifty years later, but I got it back. Take that Mom!
I read it all again, cover to cover. My memory was better than I thought. The mistaken-murderer stories, one set on a golf course with an adulterous couple, and the other with a man taking out a blackmailing mistress, were essentially as I recalled them. The creepy cult story was “The Shadow in the Mirror” by George Chesbro.
And it was quite chilling, despite the vaguely dorky, cartoony illustrations.
The ending was, I am certain, what Mom found so vile that she threw it away. The skeptical husband, John, ends up bound and helpless on the cult’s sacrificial altar.
“It’s so unfortunate that you would not listen,” Lazarus was saying. The man did not limp as he walked over to John, and he was not wearing his glasses. His eyes were black pools of ink, with no pupils, and shadows moved there, sisters of the shadows on the table. He motioned to someone just beyond John’s line of vision… Joanna was naked, her body glistening with sweat and some foul-smelling ointment. The shadows in her eyes writhed and danced as she raised the knife into the air above his chest. A scream bubbled soundlessly in John’s throat.
…okay, yeah, that’s probably not appropriate for a nine-year-old.
My memory was pretty good on the other stuff too. There was indeed a Captain Leopold story in the magazine but that’s NOT the one with the time gimmick. That was “Farewell Gesture” by George Grover Kipp.
It’s a completely different story than I remembered; it’s the tale of Detective Doug Temple’s last three days on the job before retiring, and his determination to clear the last case on his desk. Most of it is about dogged legwork and forensics. But the gimmick is still the same, and the quote is almost as I remembered it:
Henderson scratched his head in wonderment. “And the thirty seconds the truck was out of our sight was all you had to go on in the beginning?”
Doug sipped his coffee. “That’s about the size of it. I really wasn’t sure anything had happened, but
I knew that it could have. I just kept checking on the possibilities.”
Anyway, I enjoyed revisiting this particular magazine a great deal. I don’t think I’ll be going after any others– for one thing, it’s a little too spendy, as they are six or eight bucks each even on the low end– but I might look into some of the hardcover Hitchcock’s anthologies one of these days.
And there you have it.
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Back next week with something cool.