The Shadow #97 – The Voodoo Master

shadow_magazine_vol_1_97So having gone on at length as to how Shiwan Khan–who, having a positive gluttony for punishment, just kept coming back to New York to receive his due whalloping for four books in a row–is a decidedly unimpressive supervillain and deserve no such credit as “archrival” or “nemesis,” here is a rundown of the first appearance to a character who does make a worthy rival to The Shadow: Doctor Rodil Mocquino, the Voodoo Master.

In brief, my thesis is: this book is perfectly executed to show that Mocquino is a supremely dangerous, intelligent, ambitious enemy–and that The Shadow is more powerful, insightful, and and deadly than he….while still retaining suspense, interpersonal danger, and plenty of excitement.

The plot begins with the police acquiring a zombi, not that they know what he is exactly or how to spell it. Ace Inspector Cardona, who has something of a clew now and then, calls in Doctor Rupert Sayre–who calls for his sometimes-client, sometimes-superior, Lamont Cranston, whom he believes to be The Shadow. Yes, it’s out of the ordinary for an M.D. to call in a civilian to make a diagnosis, but then Dr. Sayre doesn’t have that much experience with West Indian superstition, crime lords, methods of subtle and unsubtle psychological torture, and fiendish plots.

Our heroes soon learn details of the last item: a voodoo cult in the very heart of New York, figuring highly placed members of society–who have been programmed or lured into observing with fiendish glee the voodoo deaths of their own close relatives, their friends or employers…. deaths in effigy which are soon duplicated mysteriously in the flesh, leaving said cultees in the possession of, often, great wealth. More to the point, the former zombi, Stanton Wallace, fears for the life of his employer, Texan millionaire Dunley Bligh. Bligh’s situation is set up for a pretty seamless murder. He is on board an ocean liner that has already left port, there to receive a consignment of jewels from the ship’s purser; he has heart issues and takes daily medications at a clinical dosage that is just barely below the fatal one.

Observe how there is a greater but currently immobile threat–The Voodoo Master and his ring of minions (currently numbering about twenty. Keep an eye on that number, because it declines over the course of this novel, heh)–and also an innocent in immediate danger, elsewhere. Standard stuff, obvious, sure: but where The Shadow shows his superiority is that he doesn’t rush headlong to the rescue, committing his full strength in one single, less important, direction. (As, for instance, Tarzan, John Carter, Batman, or Feanor would.)

The Shadow has already located the Voodoo Master’s cult headquarters; he leaves it under close observation by his most competent agents (cough, not Harry Vincent, cough.) Mocquino cannot move without this information reaching The Shadow; and via Burbank and a wireless radio, any such move can be traced or countered. While not negated, the greater threat is controlled. This leaves The Shadow clear to move to the rescue of Dunley Bligh. An artificial crisis is not created by having the hero completely withdraw the field and leave the villain free to act.

Needless to say, the other way The Shadow > other heroes is that he also succeeds when he sets out to rescue the innocent bystander. One of the cheesy but utterly endearing parts of the early to mid-stage Shadow novels is the author’s fullhearted intention to make his hero awesome by any means necessary, even if it was offscreen. The Shadow reaches the outbound ocean liner with the cover story of participating in an aeronautic stunt flight to land an autogiro on a moving vessel, and the audience, like Dunley Bligh, learns from the ship’s purser that “The landing was perfect!” Because of course it was. 

Meanwhile, while an artificial crisis has been avoided, a genuine one results: Stanton Wallace sends Cardona and a posse of headquarters detectives into a trap. Doctor Mocquino’s men get the drop on the detectives and hold them at gunpoint just long enough for everyone to evacuate the voodoo cult headquarters.–Just time enough for Hawkeye to put a call into Burbank, and a strange, swift, wingless plane to swing wide of the Newark airport and drop a passenger off on a rooftop (the landing, again, perfect, although we don’t get to see how well Miles Crofton handles the take-off. Honestly, poor Crofton has like the most thankless job of all The Shadow’s agents, considering how he gets shown up almost every time he’s on screen.)

The Shadow manages to save Cardona and the detectives (remember: not like other heroes), and to thin out Mocquino’s minions–but, the Voodoo Master manages to completely vanish.

This section of the novel is where Mocquino begins to show his own quality–by managing his disappearing act in the first place, smoothly enough that the police never do figure it out; by continuing on the offensive and defensive;  and by maintaining enough firepower to continue to be a threat, even to The Shadow and his agents.

Doctor Mocquino traces the source of the leak to his organization backwards–to Stanton Wallace–but also forwards, placing preemptive countermeasures in the house of the next most likely cultist to be spotted and interrogated by either the police or The Shadow. What’s more, those countermeasures are effective. (Mind you, if Dr. Sayre had more experience at the spy game, and Sergeant Markham wasn’t a moron, Mocquino would have had much less success. Alas. Note, however, that Cardona is allowed to show his intelligence by calling Markham out for the blockhead he is.)

Anyhow, the tension remains high, because The Shadow is physically injured while making his escape, and Doctor Sayre’s combination of over-caution and inexperience prevents him from taking the correct measures. Also, (sigh) Harry Vincent has walked directly into a trap along with Stanton Wallace and needs to be rescued, but never mind. You’d think that these are straits dire enough in themselves, but no: Mocquino continues on the offensive, sending minions to capture Doctor Sayre (they escape with their lives only because The Shadow is too physically weak to pursue them, and are terrified by the notion that an actual sorcerer ghost is after them.)

“The Shadow is not human!” he gasped. “He is what I say—a ghost! Bullets pass through him like a vapor! We do not doubt your power, master. But The Shadow, too, has power—”
Manuel was nodding. Arilla kept on: “At the old house!” he panted. “I have talked with those who fought there. No bullets could harm The Shadow! He advanced in the face of guns! At Rathcourt’s—I have talked with Manuel—let him speak—”
“I saw The Shadow at Rathcourt’s,” put in Manuel, promptly. “I saw guns pointed toward his heart. I saw those weapons fired. One would have thought that the cartridges were blank—”
“And to-day,” added Arilla, “I fired point-blank. My aim was perfect! My bullet did not even stop The Shadow’s laugh!”
Mocquino was glowering. Sayre, turning, saw the fearful expressions on the faces of the Voodoo Master’s minions. Harry and Stanton were looking on, elated. Sayre saw a chance for a conclusive statement.
“They are right, Mocquino,” expressed the physician. “Scientifically and from a medical standpoint, The Shadow is superhuman.”

And while this doesn’t fool Mocquino for more than a few minutes, there’s a wonderful moment where he’s definitely worried.

Anyhow: the plot therefore continues to a satisfactory climax, with another voodoo ritual upcoming and Harry Vincent and Stanton Wallace making guest appearances therein; with the police still officially and unofficially at a complete loss; and with The Shadow’s remaining agents also definitely worried about their chief’s physical ability to participate in the upcoming fight. 

(Mind you, Doctor Mocquino has now lost so many minions he can’t afford to post an outside guard. Heh.)

And so it goes.

I’m all out of things to say, but it’s one of the best. Even if the guy on the cover does look like he got stung by a bee.

QuikReview: Oblivion (2013)

So I watched Oblivion, a 2013 movie scifi movie starring predominantly Tom Cruise.

Now, I’ve opined at length as to the fact that straight scifi movies tend not to be very good. This is because a) filmmakers are stupid, b) they think their audiences are stupid, too. Most SF movies only achieve greatness synthetically, by cribbing off other genres, especially Westerns, but occasionally also horror, or even war-stories. (Pssst, has anyone noticed that Aliens is actually a Western? Everyone thinks it’s an action movie, but it’s got the Red Injuns, the cocky cavalry detachment with the inexperienced leader and the experienced and knowledgeable civilians….)

Anyway, much to my surprise, Oblivion is a straight scifi movie, and it’s….good! It has a simple and unexceptional but solid plot, and it relies on its characters and worldbuilding to reveal that plot point by point and–crucially–twist by twist (there’s a reveal about halfway through that made me actually sit up and grin.) Now, at a certain point it largely gives up on the thoughtful, measured approach and leans hard into the by-golly-I-have-an-explodey-things-budget-and-I’m-gonna-use-it syndrome, but please note I said “leans” not “dives” and entirely omitted “headlong.” The second half of the movie had more than enough built-up good will to keep my attention, but the thing with scifi movies is that they should never try to explain themselves out loud. See a), above. This movie did very, very well when it showed its protagonist–and its audience–what was going on; it only started to fumble when it switched over to telling.

What is there to show, then? Well, Tom Cruise is Jack Harper, Tech-49, who with his communications officer/lover/partner Vika, are the last humans left on Earth after an absolutely devastating war with the alien Scavs that, among other things, destroyed the moon. Most of the human population is on Titan, and some of it is on the orbital space station, the Tet. They have been mind-wiped prior to their mission, because….

Jack maintains the drone fleet that protects the ocean-water-sucking thingies that are destroying what’s left of the earth for power. (Why not just mine some comets, asks no screenwriter ever.) There are still some remnant Scavs on Earth that attack the drones and the power platforms. Vika is his mission control and interface with Command. The two are an effective team, but there are still some conflicts. Jack has dreams of the future and thoughts of the past; Vika resolutely suppresses such things. Jack has a relaxed view of orders and is fully aware that Command has them on a very long leash; Vika has a much stronger belief in regulations.

And then, a signal beamed from Earth brings an ancient spacecraft back to ground….a spacecraft containing living human crewmembers. Living, that is, until Jack’s own drones destroy all but one of the sleep-pods, utterly ignoring his orders to stand down. The sole survivor is Julia, a woman who refuses to reveal anything more to Jack, Vika, or Command until she retrieves the flight recorder from her ship…and shows them the truth. At about this point, Morgan Freeman also enters the picture, and I do have to ask: if Earth is that destroyed, where’d his cigars come from?

And so it goes with the movie, having accumulated this many questions, starting to tip over into revealing the answers (except the one about the cigars.) And so it goes, with the one problem that it reveals rather too many answers and in rather too bald-face a manner for my views.

Other good stuff: the cinematography of this film is really good. Like, I watched it entirely on my phone and I was watching for those little triggering points that normally break my suspension of disbelief (s/a: mysterious, additional light sources when there should not be light sources), and I noticed how good it was. Apparently a chunk of the movie was filmed on location….in Iceland, lending a barren, surreal, beautiful backdrop that works very well indeed. The sets and designs are also very good. Tom Cruise does an expert job as the personable, handsome hero; Morgan Freeman, well, Morgan-Freemans his way through dialogue that is 99% exposition as only Morgan Freeman can or could. Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko are incredibly outmatched in this movie, talent-wise, which is a shame, but they do their best and, in Riseborough’s case, mostly match up to the challenge.

Okay so, although I’ve spent a long while in this review complaining about the movie when it shifts focus to the action, I will also state that the action scenes themselves are largely quite good….at first, when they don’t involve humans. The drones are an incredible threat / weapon / ally, and  it’s an annoying waste of potential that the movie ends up ultimately wimping out and choosing the cheap (explodey) way of making those bits be exciting. That being said, the cinematography still makes everything look good, the characterization makes them be tense and engaging, and, yeah, it’s pretty good.

Overall, I do think that the movie could have been better if it maintained a better balance between its initial, more thoughtful tone and the faster-paced finale (honestly, delete half the expository dialogue and you wouldn’t have to change another thing else), I still have to admit straight-up that, yeah, it’s pretty good.

Rated: Oh wow, you’re in luck, Julie. There’s two of them for you now!

ReReview: Tactics of Mistake – Gordon R. Dickson

tctcsfmstb1981Trouble not the scholar among his books, for if he also has a pulse rifle and jump troopers, Mark V underwater bulldozer tanks, favorable local terrain, and an incompetent commander, he can make things very hot for you indeed.

So, the book begins with the introduction of Cletus Grahame, a new-bird Colonel with three months’ active duty under his belt–and a Medal of Honor–testing out theories for the fourth volume of his series on tactical applications. He plans on writing twenty of them. He does not explicitly plan on becoming the founding father to a nation of warrior gods, but, y’know, sometimes things just kinda happen….

This book is about his manipulations of the socioeconomic and social cosmos to provide both the material for his next sixteen volumes, and to guarantee that they will be used and read…by people who can use them and know how to read them. Cletus Grahame’s goal is to create a world of people who can think thoughts the same way he can does, fight the same way he fights, and plan the same way he plans. A world of warrior-scholars, invincible.

Yep, quite an ambition. No, no one else takes him seriously either….until he starts winning.

What’s the secret? Quite simple, really. Cletus’ titular tactics are a way of applying tactical logic to a broader strategic goal. It’s pulled from Scaramouche’s game-breaking fencing strategy–engage your enemy in a series of conflicts, not with the aim of scoring a kill on any of these, but simply to focus his mind on those engagements while simultaneously drawing him further and further out of his defenses–until you have prepared the strike. Yeah, it takes a damn’ good fencer and a damn good general. You have one guess as to what Cletus is. (Hint: he’s the protagonist.)

The overwhelming question I am left with is: why? Why Cletus? Why Dow deCastries? What the heck is the Alliance or the Coalition? Or Earth? Why are the Neumann colonists attacking, anyway, that the Exotics need to hire mercenaries? I don’t think I’m being unfair to point out that the worldbuilding isn’t all that great. So that’s a small mark against it. Mind you, most people aren’t reading the book for details on imaginary history or clever linguistics. They’re in it for the Mil-SF action, and this is one of the classics for a reason.

I may have mentioned this in the Necromancer review, but Gordon R. Dickson is one of my own personal Big Three SF authors. I read his stuff extensively and absorbed a lot of his characteristic tropes. The loner hero–who is not alone because of some personality quirk, but because he holds an identity or point of view entirely separate from the rest of humanity. The Leader who can impose his will on others because he combines the intelligence and erudition of a scholar, a warrior’s martial prowess, a poet’s eye, and a psychologist’s ability to understand and exploit of human nature. The Danger: Human attitude–that there is nothing in the cosmos so great as a human, and no force on Earth or among the stars that can can stop a Man who has accepted its challenge.

All of these are showcased in this book, and it’s a damn good book.

(Now I kinda want to read the crossover fanfic, terrible as it inevitably will be, of Cletus Grahame and Lelouch vi Britannia playing chess together. Or perhaps rock-paper-scissors (jumptrooper-mecha-dropship? Ohhhh boy, I wonder what havoc Miles Vorkosigan could wreak if he went up against Cletus. Or worse…if they joined forces….)

Other notes:

– Cletus spends considerable time of this book passed out.

– Cletus is kind of a smug bastard, isn’t he?

Rated: Soldier, ask not. Especially for more jump troopers.

QuikReview – Top Gun: Maverick

So. I had absolutely nothing better to do with myself this afternoon, so I went and watched Top Gun: Maverick. I’ve never watched the original Top Gun (though it’s stunted baby cousin, Navy SEALS, was, well, it wasn’t good either but I had a crush on Michael Biehn.)

Anyhow, this movie: it took precisely ten seconds for me to start grinning, and I never really stopped. This is a movie that knows precisely, exactly, who it’s audience is, and exactly, precisely what they want. (besides stuff going vroommm vrmmm whooosh sssssshwooooo pchwa!, or, “he’s on my tail he’s on my tail! Aaaaahhhhh!!!” and, “Bravo dagger turn flight alpha heading and take altitude 505!” and, “Copy that Blue Leader!”) And it gives it to them right and proper, and…

….and that’s all it takes, really.

The audience wants to see their heroes win. Yes, heroes have to lose a bit, but. They have to win after they lose, and the audience knows this. Mess with this formula for no good reason and you end up with a disaster on your hands. The audience wants to see their heroes fight, struggle a bit, come back up, and win. They want to see their rivals give them a grudging but heart-felt nod of acknowledgement. They want to see them blazing into the sunset with the girl.

Does this movie have flaws? Sure, but off the top of my head the only one that bothered me was actually turned into an asset. The ever-more-compressed timeline keeps the pace such that when the climactic plot events turn from “dramatic” to “highly improbable,” to “okay, seriously, what?”, we’re still invested, still carried along, still wanting to see our heroes survive and win, and slightly too busy watching them do this to ask questions.

I’ll also give full kudos to the film for having the basic intelligence to answer the question that the audience members (me) was asking, namely, “Why don’t you bomb the hell out of the airbase before the fighters start the Death Star trench run?” (They do. End of story.)

Respect + intelligence = success.

Man, if only the rest of Hollywood could get it….

Rated: VRMMM VRMMM SHHHHHVOOOOOOOSHHHH thudathudathuda BOOOM

The Shadow Magazine #30 – The Death Giver

shadow_magazine_vol_1_30The earlier Shadow is much more a powerful figure of mystery and grandeur, not revealing his true face even to the audience, defeating his opponents coolly, rescuing innocents with swift and awesome competence. Yeah, that means mostly rescuing mostly Harry Vincent, but still…

Story-wise, with The Shadow still a relatively new figure in the underworld, underworld players have not quite yet figured out the correct or necessary countermeasures, i.e., overwhelming firepower, manpower, and muzzlepower. And–this may be an unintentionally brilliant writing strategy, too–the earlier years of The Shadow’s anti-crime reign of terror feature a lot more small-time evil masterminds than the later ones…possibly because The Shadow weeding out the smaller ones left room for the big guys to expand into. Doctor Moquino mentally enslaves wealthy socialites and manipulates them into voluntarily parting with their entire wealth. The Death Giver wants….one. million. dollars., and is none too organized about getting it.

So! Death has struck twice on a commuter train: random people, same place, same time, no suspects, and no detectible cause of death save for traces of poisons and traces of burns somehow occurring unobserved on a crowded morning train. The police are baffled. Commissioner Weston is no less baffled than Detective Joe Cardona, but his higher rank means that at least he has someone else to shove in front of the firing squad of public opinion when, as they inevitably do, the deaths keep coming.

Meanwhile we are introduced to a random millionaire businessman, who has been receiving mysterious notes on postcard. Deciphered, they are a death threat and a warning not to call the police. Except that he does, whereupon his crooked butler toggles a switch that makes his own telephone electrocute him. So now he’s dead and there’s no way to get one. million. dollars. out of him. (The Death Giver, as I have mentioned in previous reviews, is kind of unhinged and frankly also pathetic.) –especially as now The Shadow has sniffed out a new threat, and is on the trail. Except that the crooked butler, mad with terror both of the far-reaching grasp of his true master and the black-cloaked shape looming like Death itself actually in the room right now, snatches madly for what he thinks is a weapon given him by said master….and is promptly killed by it. Leaving no forward trail for The Shadow.

Whilst this thread has been unravelling, the Death Giver’s actually trusted lieutenant has scoped out another potential millionaire victim for the scheme of terror, threats, and eventual death. The Death Giver gives only one reward–whether they succeed or not. 

 And so it goes. 

(Another trick of the early books is that sometimes The Shadow never appears “on camera” at all.–later on, Gibson abandoned the idea, but he at first hinted that The Shadow’s true face was horribly disfigured to the point of not being there. In this book, he does appear to several characters, but his face remains hidden behind his high cloak collar and broad-brimmed hat. When he takes them off, he’s disguised as someone else. He does not use any of his established alter egos in this story, visit the Cobalt Club, or hang out with the Commissioner, either. It’s all business, darkness, vengeance, the gaping muzzle of an enormous automatic, and the trailing echoes of sardonic, ghoulish laughter.)

As mentioned, this is a book fairly light on minions (because they keep killing themselves off) and while there are no all-against-one gun battles or even The Shadow’s signature “leap into a crowd of thugs and start pistol-whipping them” tactic, there’s plenty of high stakes, fast movement, and stuff blowing up. This is one of the stories where The Shadow, ultimately, doesn’t really run into any genuine setbacks (bar having to rush to a location and pull Harry Vincent out of the blast zone), doesn’t make any mistakes, outmaneuvers the villains effortlessly, and, overall, hardly seems to exert himself.

And it’s still awesome, because Walter B. Gibson was just that clever. Gibson never fell into the trap of writing The Shadow as conveniently only slightly more powerful than his current batch of enemies. His power level, intelligence, and ferocity never varies. Sometimes the going is harder, because he’s up against someone with comparable intelligence, or comparable attack, or who can afford more than two minions at a time–and sometimes, well, it’s isn’t. The Shadow always throws himself fully into whatever he’s doing; he’s always fully engaged, always using his full power, mental and physical, to battle against evil.

And the evil always loses.

So the Death Giver himself, despite his evil lair with an agonized living corpse in a glass coffin set in the floor, and (in lieu of a trick floor, because, duh, I have my centerpiece there) trick ceiling, and also a pair of large black retainers, because what evil mastermind’s lair is complete without a couple of big guys just standing around, providing cannon fodder?–is unhinged, and, honestly, my reaction to this story was and remains “squidge him out like a bug.” He is, it transpires, a former chemist specializing in poison gases whose work was rejected by the American government, and who took that rejection very much to heart. Also, he needed money in a bad way. I’m not sure how these two circumstances lead to “imprisoning a man in the floor and starving / poisoning him to death slowly over months” but there you go.

The cover seems to show The Shadow’s agents, but I’m blowed if I can match who any of them are except Cliff Marsland on the right. I’m guessing that’s Burbank in the very back, because he takes after the chief in also liking to hide his face, but if the top hat guy is Rutledge Mann, he’s not chubby enough, and is the blond one Clyde Burke? So who is the second from the left dude?

Rated: I’m with the guy who stomps out criminals like the vermin they are.

Poetry Corner – The Riders of Babylon

The riders of Babylon clatter forth
Like the hawk-winged scourgers of Azrael
To the meadow-lands of the South and North
And the strong-walled cities of Israel.
They harry the men of the caravans,
They bring rare plunder across the sands
To deck the throne of the great god Baal.
But Babylon's king is a broken shell
And Babylon's queen is a sprite from Hell;
And men shall say, "Here Babylon fell,"
Ere Time has forgot the tale.
The riders of Babylon come and go
From Gaza's halls to the shores of Tyre;
They shake the world from the lands of snow
To the deserts, red in the sunset's fire;
Their horses swim in a sea of gore
And the tribes of the earth bow down before;
They have chained the seas where the Cretans sail.
But Babylon's sun shall set in blood;
Her towers shall sink in a crimson flood;
And men shall say, "Here Babylon stood,"
Ere Time forgot the tale.

- Robert E. Howard

QuikReview: Gunman’s Walk (1958)

gunmans-walok-still
(reposted from: Watchlist Update)

This one was actually kind of hard to watch: it’s about a strong and headstrong man who goes his own way and raises his sons to do the same…and how his sons, well, do the same.

Van Heflin is solid and by turns charming and unpleasant as patriarch Lee Hackett, who considers himself one of the boys, except for when he doesn’t, and don’t you forget it, kid. He owns the biggest spread in the state, and built every bit of it up with his own hands at the barrel of a gun, wrestling control from wrestlers and Indians. Only….

…only, that was a long time ago and the place is civilized now. It’s illegal to wear guns in town. (It’s illegal to shoot people, too.) Lee himself skirts around issue #1 by having a thorough understanding of issue #2, but his eldest son…

Tab Hunter (also seen as a juvenile in the George Montgomery flick Gun Belt) is Ed Hackett: handsome, ambitious, sullen, resentful, and generous by turns. (Except the handsome bit. He hangs on to that with great prowess throughout the entire movie.) He’s grown up in the shadow of his father and wants to move out of it, but at every turn keeps finding that Dad is–and indeed, all the other authority figures in town are–just a little ways ahead of him. Like, twenty years ahead of him. And when you’re playing with fire and loaded guns, and even if Dad does keep bailing you out of trouble–you don’t get a whole lot of second chances.

Hunter gives an excellent performance–he considered it his best role, apparently, as it gave him a chance to show he wasn’t just another pretty face. He also rides impressively well, so he’s got that going for him, too.

James Darren as the Good Son and Kathryn Grant as the half-Sioux but entirely civilized love interest whose brother was killed…semi-inadvertently…by Ed, have less material to work with but still serve their parts well as the immovable moral centers around which the rest of the characters circle, orbit, and/or crash.

Another reviewer pointed out that this movie might also be read as anti-gun. I suppose you could make that argument, but I find it more of a condemnation of the people who take on a deadly responsibility, perhaps themselves with a clear understanding of what it is–but who fail to teach their children the same. Lee carries a gun as a statement of power, independence, and self-reliance, not quite understanding why this statement is out of fashion in the modern day, but still somewhat understanding that it is. On the other hand, his son, who has absorbed that wearing a gun means standing apart from people who don’t, is violently confused as to why there still seem to be constraints, and so many conflicting rules about his behavior…when he’s the man with the gun.

The ending is standard and a bit pat, but it’s also what the audience, having grown to understand the characters and know their ways, knows is coming–and wants to see.

Rated: four white mares out of four.

The Shadow Magazine #186 – City of Ghosts

shadow_magazine_vol_1_186Oddly enough, The Shadow’s real nemeses aren’t the fiendish and dastardly masterminds that spring up, have grandiose nicknames that are not nearly as impressive as they think they are (see: The Death Giver and The Python), commanding heaps upon heaps of minions ready to positively leap into the fray against a cackling black-clad figure with two .45s. You’d think that after a while the supply of such minions would lessen, but, well, whatever.

As it turns out, The Shadow’s real and most highly persistent struggles are with: a) standing with his back to open doors and/or windows, and b) country bumpkins with shotguns. No, really, he tends to have genuine trouble with country boys, since they generally aren’t dyed-in-the-wool crooks who already know, fear, and dread the dimmest inkling of his presence. He can’t and won’t shoot innocents, even to spare his own life; and they tend to have numbers, shotguns, and a good reason for aiming both of them towards the nearest and most likely target….which is generally The Shadow, standing between them and the actual bad guys.

Also: it is a truth universally acknowledged that you have Made It as a pulp hero when you have defeated a giant reptile in its own habitat. Tarzan managed it in his thirdmost book, going knife-to-snout with a giant crocodile in the depths of a Deepest African River. The Shadow does similar here, only with the sensible aid of a .45 and also using a wooden post to jam into its mouth while he delivers the killing shots. Come to think of it, though, The Shadow also has previously fought and defeated Koon Woon (giant python) in #137 – Grove of Doom, so that should also count. Admittedly, that is a sample size of two here, but they’re both iconic heroes, so my point stands. If anyone has other instance of pulp heroes fighting giant reptiles, send ’em in.

So.

City of Ghosts begins with a visit by Lamont Cranston (wearing his real estate investor hat) to the extremely depopulated Pomelo City–a place so plagued by bad luck, ill fortune, mysterious plagues, and the extremely localized reappearance of the otherwise-extinct Florida black wolf (seriously, heh)–that only three men remain in the town itself, under the literal gaze of a flock of buzzards, even. Outside of town, there’s a lone big-money rancher, Clenwick, who has taken over the mortgages of many other cattlemen in the area, and only one family of any importance: the Severns. The Severns’ mortgage is also held by Clenwick, but he….lives with them and pays them rent? Or something. And there’s a bunch of ranch hands and country bumpkins (“crackers”) living in the vicinity, too, but they don’t, y’know, count except when it comes to screaming and shooting wildly at things. More on this later.

The remaining three townsmen shortly becomes two after the introduction of a mob crew hiding out in a dilapidated gas station, working for a shifty character named Enwald. There’s also another mob crew, one which works for Tony Belgo, a New Yorker in search of a better business opportunities. Ones that are less…shadowy, you might say.

This also introduces the crackers-with-shotguns angle, as a couple carloads of them come rolling into town just as The Shadow has burst out of a burning building and sledges down a couple of baddies–and it also introduces a central conceit of this novel, which is that The Shadow becomes very, very firmly identified in everybody’s mind as an actual ghost, appearing briefly and then blending weirdly with the roiling smoke and the darkness of night.

Back to the plot: the remaining (two) townsmen actually have a workable plan for developing a local spring into a tourist attraction: a beautiful area with a rock fall and pool where, once, a mighty warrior sacrificed himself by diving into the water below.

Meanwhile, Lamont Cranston saves young Laura Severn from a giant, man-eating-sized alligator. This gets him into the Severn / Clenwick household, where he is introduced to her wheelchair-bound, embittered brother, Roger. He is also able to witness the ingress of Enwald to the group. Enwald, it transpires, is looking for and/or connected with “Terry Knight,” a Texan wildcatter who briefly passed through the area and then moved on, address unknown, current location unknown, status unknown. (He dead, Jim.)

The Shadow–despite sussing out the true players and angles here–is operating single-handed here, and between the ranch hands opening fire whenever they see him, the crackers opening fire (while screaming in superstitious horror) whenever they see him, and the mobsters opening fire (while screaming in entirely reasonable terror) whenever they see him, he’s got his work cut out for him.

An interesting part of this novel–note cover–is the use of fire, somewhat more consistently (thematically?) than other books. The Shadow is first revealed as “the ghost” via a building fire. Later on, he lights a brush fire, only to be revealed again by its light and (remember those screaming crackers with shotguns?) forced to take on the semblance of the legendary Seminole ghost warrior by diving into the rock pools below. But this isn’t where it finishes. There is an all-things-awesome scene later on in the novel, when, during the climactic battle, The Shadow is outnumbered and under hard-pressed retreat. Suddenly, his foes to draw up in baffled shock: he has vanished utterly, black garb shrouding him invisibly on the ash-covered ground burnt by the wildfire. More, as the climax to that final battle, he ignites the slime-filled giant sinkhole with a flare–revealing that it is filled with, not stagnant water, but oil–reason enough for….but that would be telling.

What’s more, this story has somewhat more heart than the usual. Lamont Cranston’s befriending of the winsome blonde isn’t unusual, as he’s always been a (calm, indifferent) charmer; it’s his brief relationship with the crippled Roger Severn that really gains importance.

They were almost at the glen, when Roger broke loose with a bitter outburst that proved a real index to his mood.
“Everybody lets me down,” he grumbled. “Clenwick talked about sending me to a New York specialist, but he’s been too busy to attend to it. Cranston handed me a lot of soft soap that I might have believed, if he hadn’t shown himself a fool, last night.
“He said I’d forgotten how to walk; that if I made up my mind to it, I’d be on my feet again. He said if I couldn’t do it on my own, he’d shock me into it. He argued that the strength of my arms proved that my legs were strong, too.
“So why should you have the weeps? Cranston didn’t promise you anything, then let you down, Laura. But he did just that to me.”

But it soon transpires that The Shadow is as good as his word, and the audience is able to witness an embittered, damaged, helpless young man redeem himself, make amends to his remaining family–and, indirectly, help save the city of ghosts from the man who would make it a city of the dead!

Not bad for a story that’s all of seventy-odd pages long and eighty-three years old.

Rated: I see a knight of ghosts and shadows–I see a soul of iron and flame–

The Shadow Magazine #182 – The Golden Master

shadow_magazine_vol_1_182So among The Shadow aficionados, Shiwan Khan and the stories featuring him are said to be considered among the best of the best–the most challenging villain, the most evocative plots, the most deadly escapades. Shiwan Khan was the only villain to return four times in different novels (Diamond Bert Farwell returned twice, and Doctor Moquino, three.) He’s iconic enough that the 1991 movie cribbed heavily from his stories–including this one–for material.

The only problem is, Shiwan Khan’s introduction is distinctly underwhelming. Shiwan Khan himself is introduced appropriately, built up in standard style, shown to have both a grandiose aim (world rulership, naturally) and practical vision for attaining it (munitions and airplanes), and a deadly and mysterious ace in the hole (the ability to telepathically control certain people in certain circumstances.) He has minions galore, including his own trick taxicab ring. The thing is….

….there’s never really a sense of threat to him.

Possibly, this is a factor of Shiwan Khan just not scoring a very high body count and holding the city in terror, the way Doctor Moquino did. Or, it could be because The Shadow susses out his main trick and the way to counter it extremely early on in the story. Then, too, Shiwan Khan’s blackmail scheme against the civilian proxy heroes of the novel is shown to be compromised almost immediately after it occurs, diluting that source of danger. And then finally, The Shadow recognizes the true danger of the threat in true Shadow style and responds promptly with every single agent he has or can call on in a pinch. (Minus Miles Crofton, who hasn’t been seen since Shadow over Alcatraz, but, of course, including Harry Vincent. Sigh.)

So. Plot. Shiwan Khan can mentally connect with certain people by using a system of flashing lights to hypnotize them and also himself; while under his control, he can order them to do practically anything–such as alter the contracts for a large shipment of airplanes, and then march out to an unknown location, pick up a gun, and shoot someone.–which is where Paul Brent, the civilian-of-the-novel, finds himself after the sound of a gong breaks his trance. A beautiful girl in Chinese dress takes the gun from him, and he books it without stopping to ask too many questions, such as why her eyes are glazed over. It might as well be revealed now that she is actually Beatrice Chadbury, the missing and hypnotically compelled niece of a wealthy munitions manufacturer, who has a new lamp in the corner of his study, a lamp that sometimes flickers and flashes….

Soon after, The Shadow arrives at the scene of the murder, and after a brief game of cat-and-mouse, gets into a tussle with the Mongol minion who was stationed on site to make sure both of the pawns did what they were actually supposed to. The minion escapes, wounded, and The Shadow makes a quick exit while the cops are flatfooting it up the stairs. The police actually uncover the next clue, while Lamont Cranston loafs around with his buddy the police commissioner: a valuable and rare Asian ruby, which can be traced more immediately back to a reclusive and antisocial collector, Twindell, who has recently begun liquidating his jewelry collection in lieu of ancient, priceless porcelain dragons….sourced from Tibet.

Meanwhile also, mobbie Flash Gidley has acquired a fancy new radio set, with colored lights that flash in a weird, enticing manner….And so it goes, with the caveats that I mentioned before: despite Shiwan Khan’s best efforts, he just doesn’t seem like very much of a threat. He’s the sort of villain who gloats while the going is good and then cuts and runs immediately when it turns against him….which probably does explain why he lives to snivel another day, come to think of it. (Also: he has a swivel mechanism built into his throne, which, PWAH.)

Thing is: The Voodoo Master is a much better story than this, and Doctor Moquino is a stronger villain just on the one-off. Heck, The Crime Master was a better villain than this, and he was basically Dark Helmet playing with his dolls. The way to be a dangerous villain in The Shadow stories is a) to have an impregnable base (note: underground bases are actually more likely to be invaded and destroyed than skyscraper-based ones), b) to have a large enough organization to afford to take massive casualties, c) to be constantly on the aggressive, and d) constantly on the move. The key is forcing The Shadow to defend innocents instead of just tracking you down and shooting you dead, and also staying mobile enough that he doesn’t get a good fix on you and loop the cops in. Shiwan Khan has obviously never read either the Evil Overlord List, or preceding Shadow volumes.

All that being said, this is still a decent mid-tier Shadow story, and there are some additional bits of lore revealed, such as the what’s inside B. Jonas office that The Shadow uses for a contact point, but whose door is cobwebbed shut and which has never been seen to be opened or inhabited. Turns out there’s a secret entrance in the back closet, and The Shadow leaves a spare cloak and slouch hat there so anyone entering will think that they’ve found the way to his sanctum, instead of a mail drop.

Rated: I’m kinda really wanting to get a slouch hat, but….

Poetry Corner – The King and the Oak

Before the shadows slew the sun the kites were soaring free,
And Kull rode down the forest road, his red sword at his knee;
And winds were whispering round the world: "King Kull rides to the sea."
	
The sun died crimson in the sea, the long gray shadows fell;
The moon rose like a silver skull that wrought a demon's spell,
For in its light great trees stood up like spectres out of hell.

In spectral light the trees stood up, inhuman monsters dim;
Kull thought each trunk a living shape, each branch a knotted limb,
And strange unmortal evil eyes flamed horribly at him.
	
The branches writhed like knotted snakes, they beat against the night,
And one gray oak with swayings stiff, horrific in his sight,
Tore up its roots and blocked his way, grim in the ghostly light.
	
They grappled in the forest way, the king and grisly oak;
Its great limbs bent him in their grip, but never a word was spoke;
And futile in his iron hand, a stabbing dagger broke.
	
And through the monstrous, tossing trees there sang a dim refrain
Fraught deep with twice a million years of evil, hate and pain:
"We were the lords ere man had come and shall be lords again."
	
Kull sensed an empire strange and old that bowed to man's advance
As kingdoms of the grass-blades before the marching ants,
And horror gripped him in the dawn like someone in a trance.
	
He strove with bloody hands against a still and silent tree;
As from a nightmare dream he woke; a wind blew down the lea,
And Kull of high Atlantis rode silent to the sea.

- Robert E Howard