Gloriously Awful

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.

Comics, it’d be stuff like Son of Satan or Vampire Tales or oh, the entire output of Warren Publishing. The hot mess that makes up Essential Marvel Horror volumes one and two pretty much covers it.

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.


…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.


  1. M-Wolverine

    Jack Lord McGarrett in an Ian Fleming plot immediately makes me think about the original film series if it was made with modern time marketing sensibilities. You just know after Dr. No, not only would we have gotten From Russia with Love, but we’d have gotten a Jack Lord Felix Leiter movie….because today you couldn’t have a strong franchise without spinoffs!…which sounds like it would basically be a Sam Durell movie.

    1. “These days” is the operative phrase there. Lots of that stuff got respectable in hindsight. Corman is regarded as a visionary today but for most of his career he’s been seen as a hack and a cheapskate. Ditto his contemporaries and imitators. I love Vanishing Point but I am certain that it was never sold as Art, not to its audience, not to its investors. It was a car crash movie. That’s what got it into theaters. The art in these things usually happens in spite of everything, not on purpose. That’s what makes them interesting to me. The inadvertent artistic achievement, the mirror it holds up to the culture.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    For the comic book equivalent, you can head straight to neal Adams and Continuity, though he started his trip to awful at Pacific. Skateman is ten kinds of horrible, yet you can’t turn away from what comes next. I love Neal’s art; but, his writing was a whole level of bad.

  3. Jazzbo

    Man, I just ordered Son of Satan Classics earlier tonight. Wish I would have read this first so I could have given you guys the referral money. I’ll remember that for next time.

    This article does have me even more excited for it, now. I was debating between a bunch of Stan Lee/Jack Kirby type Epic Collections, and decided I wanted to go with something that would hopefully be a little more trashy and under the radar. Hopefully it lives up to expectations.

      1. It is impossible to overstate the ridiculous level of satisfaction I felt at finally acquiring this particular piece of forbidden fruit about a decade ago. Saw it on the stands back in the day, but I knew if Mom found it she’d have a hemorrhage and I’d probably never be allowed comics again, so I regretfully put it back. Killed me because it was Steve Gerber writing it and he was doing The Defenders at the time, which I loved. It was an itch in my collector brain for thirty-some years. Finally scored it.


        As it happens it’s become quite the collectible because it’s the first appearance of Rocket Raccoon. (In the backup story, not with Satana. Though the latter would be pretty amusing.) The Satana story, but not the backup with Rocket, is included in Essential Marvel Horror volume one.

          1. M-Wolverine

            Huh, I pretty much thought the same thing, so I checked, and there actually appears to be some controversy over it. (You know, in comic book nerd fight ways that we love). A “Rocky Raccoon” set in the future or something appears first in Marvel Preview. He looks like Rocket, even if he doesn’t sound or act like him much. But Rocket Raccoon, in continuity, first appears in the Hulk. Marvel itself seems to acknowledge the Preview.

            So maybe that should be the final word. But the fan wiki, which acknowledges all the different Earth versions of him has him as separate from the 616.


            So I guess the answer is both. He first appeared in Marvel Preview but the version still around first appeared in the Hulk. It’s almost like Deadshot where he appeared one way then came back completely different. Except maybe these are separate still. I’m actually surprised with all his comics now no one has tried a “why the Hulk was gray” explanation story where he travels to the future or wherever that story took place for him to be there, and then come back. The first appearance is “future Rocket” or something.

            Still amused this has been a debate I’ve never heard about until now.


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