The Worshipped And The Damned, by William Hegner February, 1975 Pocket Books William Hegner, an unjustly obscure trash fiction master, published several novels in the 1970s, many of them paperback originals for Pocket Books. The Worshipped And The Damned is one of his later Pocket releases, after which he moved over to Playboy Books and then dropped off the map. I think I read an obituary
Festival, by Bryan Hay June, 1973 Pocket Books This slim paperback original details the planning and development of a Woodstock-style rock festival. One thing the front and back cover don’t make clear is that Festival actually takes place in Canada; Toronto and a desolate area of western Ontario, to be exact. Another thing the front or back covers don’t make clear is how much of a bore the
The Bar Studs, by Leonard Jordan March, 1976 Fawcett Crest Books The first novel Len Levinson published under his “Leonard Jordan” pseudonym, The Bar Studs is an awesome trip back to the shaggy pre-disco New York City of 1974. As usual with one of Len’s novels it’s more about the characters than the plot, with the tale recounting the sleazy lives of six bartenders as they variously find
Making U-Hoo, by Irving A. Greenfield
November, 1973 Dell Books
Another of those early ‘70s sex novels Dell Books specialized in, Making U-Hoo is courtesy Irving A. Greenfield, who again delivers a fast-moving narrative that, while not being especially memorable in the plot department, definitely delivers some memorable sex scenes. In the ‘60s Greenfield served as “Vin Fields” for porn imprint Midwood, so he certainly had the experience under his belt (so to speak) to capitalize on the sex novel boom of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s.
The playful title is apt – the characters in this novel “make yoo-hoo” in both the literal and the figurative sense. Sales for a previously-low tier soft drink called U-Hoo (a citrus-lime soda clearly modelled on Sprite) have gone through the roof, basically destroying the profits of larger soft drink manufacturer SDA (read: Coca-Cola). Protagonist and sometimes narrator Bart Sherriff, a consulting ad whiz, is called in by SDA to find out what’s going on.
I say “sometimes” a narrator because most of Making U-Hoo is in third-person, but Greenfield will arbitrarily jump into Bart’s perspective for several first-person sequences. Sometimes it’s when he’s meeting with clients, other times when he’s just walking around (strangely though, none of the actual sex scenes are written in first-person), so there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the perspective changes.
Bart Sherriff is a totally ‘70s protagonist; he’s in his 30s and lives in a swinging bachelor pad in Manhattan complete with a round bed and a stereophonic system that’s hooked into a fancy lighting system, so that various colors will flicker in accordance with the mood of the music. He’s such a successful advertising man that he rents out his services, charging high dollars for his consultations. Just as importantly, so far as the narrative goes, he’s also a big success with the ladies, able to score with ease.
We see Bart handling a few accounts before he’s called in by SDA president Knowles to handle the U-Hoo situation. Knowles states that the problem threatens the national economy, and it’s so bad that people are bootlegging U-Hoo, buying it off shelves and reselling it at a massive upcharge. After accepting the job Bart realizes he’s being followed, and soon discovers that the Feds are on the case, shadowing his every move.
Not that this prevents him from sleeping with the first of three conquests in the novel, this being a gorgeous blonde SDA secretary named Sandy, who just started working at SDA, is happy to go home with Bart, and is obviously an FBI agent (though it takes Bart a while to realize this). In the ensuing sex scene Greenfield takes us completely into the shagadelic ‘70s, with the couple engaging in explicitly-rendered sex on Bart’s round bed while stroboscopic lights flash around them.
Greenfield lazily works up a mystery here, but the novel is moreso in the light humor vein, with no violence or deaths or anything of that nature. In fact when Bart is confronted by a pair of FBI goons he’s easily able to fool them into thinking he himself is a G-Man, and then gets the guys drunk and sends them on their way. This after the trio have watched a televised speech from the President (clearly Nixon, though he isn’t named – and there’s a fair amount of President-bashing throughout the novel, again firmly rooting it in its era), in which the President informs the country of the “soda conspiracy” and requests that everyone buy a can of pop the next day.
It’s his ruse to further throw off the Feds that leads Bart to his next conquest, a brunette model named Lois. The focus of the most sex scenes in the novel, I guess Lois is the closest we get to a female protagonist. Bart calls in a crazy friend to throw a costume party in Bart’s apartment, so Bart can take off in the fray and leave the Feds to wonder what happened to him. He tells his crazy friend to bring along anyone he knows; one of these people happens to be Lois, who offers her place to Bart as a safe place to stay, and thus moments after meeting each other they rush back to her place to screw. Ah, the ‘70s.
Greenfield serves up another pages-long sex scene here, miles beyond the metaphor and analogy-ridden purple prose you’d encounter in say the Baroness series, with graphic depictions baldly rendered…though not with the outrageous aspects of Harold Robbins or the boring, repetitive, and mechanical sex descriptions you’d find in a vintage sleaze novel like Flowers And Flesh. One thing I’ve noticed though about Greenfield is his tendency to always mention what his female characters taste like, if you catch my drift.
Making U-Hoo runs at 251 pages of fairly big print, and I figured most of those pages would be given over to sex scenes, but that’s really not the case. In fact Greenfield seems determined to deliver an actual story, one that’s couched in goofy humor and the occasional sex scene. Most of the novel is focused on Bart’s inner monologues and his thoughts and feelings on various things as he traipses around ‘70s New York City tracking down clues. However the U-Hoo “conspiracy” stuff is not given enough weight or focus to classify the novel as a thriller or anything of the sort. Again, it’s more of a comedy.
In fact the whole mystery angle is rendered moot in the reveal, when Bart meets Flosie, a black masseuse. While giving Bart a handjob she casually informs him that she’s behind the “conspiracy,” having spread the word that the black community should “get whitey” by buying up one brand of soda and then gouging the market with inflated resale prices. Bart thanks her by paying to have sex with her, having already broken off his days-long relationship with Lois. In fact the women just abruptly drop out of the narrative once Bart’s done with them, and Greenfield intentionally or not builds ill will against his protagonist, as it’s clear that these women develop feelings for Bart, particularly Lois, but he could care less.
I’m sort of on the fence with Making U-Hoo; I enjoy Greenfield’s writing and the dialog he gives his characters, but the plot is middling and forgettable. However the book works as a nice capsule of early ‘70s New York and the fashions of its hipper denizens, which always results in high marks from me. I guess I’d end by saying you should maybe check it out if you come across it for cheap, but it’s not worth going to great lengths to hunt it down.
Astarte, by Alberto Readstone
April, 1973 Dell Books
In the early to mid 1970s Dell Books cornered the market on sleazy paperback originals, usually featuring a nude photo cover and lots of explicit sex, Sexual Strike Force being one such example. Astarte is another, and storywise it’s along the same lines as Island Paradise in that it’s about a group of glamorous people going to a remote island for lots of sex and sin. And just as Island Paradise took a huge misstep into island politics, Astarte commits nearly as big a wrong by striving to be overly literary, sometimes painfully so.
I thought I was in for a nice sleazy read when the first page screamed “SEX SLAVES,” with a rundown of the characters provided beneath (the hooker, the movie star, the hippie, etc), but unfortunately Alberto Readstone (surely a pseudonym) dilutes the sleaze with some of the most pretentious writing I’ve encountered since Eric Lustbader’s The Ninja. Style-wise the novel has more in common with the post-hippie literary craze of the time, like The Stones of Summer or CenterForce, and that’s a damn shame.
Anyway, the island in question is “no place,” just the first of the author’s many annoying touches – throughout the book he strives to be as vague about time and space particulars as possible. (Another incredibly annoying habit is his constant reference to “the center” of the male characters – ie their manly parts.) The island, only a few miles large, is owned by Dana, a bisexual and debauched fop, and his stunningly beautiful daughter Philana, a self-centered narcissist of the first order.
Not that we get any detail or much background, but what Philana does is have “the Captain” fly in small groups of people on his Lear jet so that Philana can engage them all in a group orgy. (How often does she do this? Monthly? Weekly?? Who knows.) Her latest group arrives as Astarte opens, and they’re all archetypes from the Book of Trash Fiction.
There’s Moira, a brunette hooker who only retains high-society clients; Lark, a pretty but undiscovered actress who constantly worries about keeping her breasts toned and firm; Valentine, a high-fashion model of black and white descent; The Athlete (seriously, that’s his name), a good-looking stud who knows his years of being a gigolo are growing short; and finally Poet, an annoying hippie who has ended up here on the island after a failed attempt at immigrating to mainland China.
These characters have no room to live or breathe beneath the pretentious cluster of Readstone’s prose. Also he spends more time cutting away from this island to another island, where 15 year-old Kory is vacationing with his mother, Evelyn. This entire segment is pretty weird, as Kory is something of a freak, and Evelyn apparently is trying to keep him away from society, women in particular. (Not that Evelyn is doing much good for the kid; Readstone hints that she’s a bit too intimate with the boy.) At the expense of many, many words we eventually discover that Evelyn is Philana’s mother and Kory is Philana’s half-brother.
I mean, it takes about 80 pages to even get to “the good stuff,” and even then the sordid shenanigans are lost amid the high-falutin prose. Smoking some high-grade hash, the group gets nude and calls Philana in, putting her up on a mirrored surface and fondling her; eventually one of the guys (who?) screws her, but during this Moira realizes that Philana needs “more than just fucking” so begins to whip her with a custom-made glove. But the scene is so brief and so “poetically” rendered that you don’t know if you’re supposed to be turned on or nodding your head at man’s inherent inhumanity to man and the inescapable ennui that is life among the jet-set, etc.
Meanwhile, in an infuriatingly vague sequence, we learn that Evelyn dies (Readstone leaves how it happened vague, saving it as a surprise revelation for the end of the book), and Kory, after somehow ending up in New York where he checked out some dirty books in a Time Square bookstore before being kicked out, is on his way to the island. Great, just what we needed to further louse up the trash potential of this novel, a fucking kid on the island.
Just before Kory arrives, though, the majority of the party leaves, save for Athlete and Moira, and right afterwards Patrik, a clinger-on from a previous party who has been living with Dana, decides to kill himself. Before Philana’s taunting eyes Patrik cuts off his “center” (that damn annoying term again!!) and bleeds to death. Now Philana’s left a catatonic wreck, and the sleaze element is in further danger; there’s not much room for lurid hijinks when your protagonist is left a fragile shell of herself.
Young Doctor Pearson arrives on the island to care for Philana, who meanwhile is acting like a child with an intrigued Kory. Pearson instantly falls for the raven-haired goddess (I too assumed Philana was a blonde due to the cover). But Philana is instead falling for Kory, ie her half brother. Thus begins a bizarre sort of love story where these two half-siblings share pretentious conversations while sunning on the beach, while meanwhile Dana implores the good doctor to use shock treatment to zap Philana back to her old, cynical self – he’s disgusted with her childlike, naïve mentality.
Dana pulls further sordid tricks, like employing Athlete to attempt to rape Philana, but she manages to fight him off. Finally though Dana convinces Doc Pearson to use some heavy drugs and shock therapy on her, and soon enough Philana is back to her aloof, bitchy self. She claims to not remember any of her romance with Kory, who of course is upset. The novel ends with the revelation that it was Kory who killed his mother, shooting her with a spear gun while they were scuba diving; Readstone leaves us with the once-again vague hint that Kory is about to do the same thing to Dana, as the two go scuba diving together.
Anyway, Astarte had lots of promise, but squandered it all. Dammit, first Island Paradise and now this. Surely it can’t be that hard to write a trashy novel about a group of horny characters on a remote island, can it??
Yellow Peril, by Richard Jaccoma
December, 1980 Berkley Books
(Original hardcover edition, 1978)
I’m not sure how I discovered this obscure book, but I’m glad I did. It has all the makings of a trash fiction masterwork, only it’s a bit hamstrung by the author’s agenda. Perhaps this is what undermined the book’s success. Regardless though I’m surprised Yellow Peril is so unknown, as it has practically everything one could want from trash fiction, including a great sense of humor. It also very clearly foreshadows Raiders of the Lost Ark in that it’s about a globetrotting adventurer in the pre-WWII years. Unlike Indiana Jones, though, our hero Sir John Weymouth-Smythe has tons of sex and kills a bunch of people along the way.
Smythe also serves as our narrator, and Jaccoma has a sure handle on the prissy tones expected of an Edwardian-era British adventurer. Smythe is pompous and as expected racist, though this latter element is part of the author agenda I referred to above. In a preface that amounts to character assassination, Jaccoma, speaking as himself, claims that Smythe’s manuscript was recently found and apologizes for the man’s racist diatribes. You see my friends, Jaccoma plainly states that Smythe is a bastard and that we should hate him for all of the racist ideals he stands for; even the jacket copy of the original hardcover edition intimates that Smythe is a prick and that we should root against him. But Jaccoma’s biggest failing is that he makes Smythe such a character to root for…I mean, Smythe spends the entire novel reacting to the horrors he witnesses, and he reacts much the same way as anyone else would. Jaccoma never gives the guy a chance.
To be sure, the author agenda doesn’t really show up until well into the tale. Before we get there (and even for the most part afterward) Yellow Peril is a very enjoyable read. (And it’s only this annoying agenda that has kept me from placing it in the Hall of Fame!) Anyway it’s 1932 or thereabouts and John Weymouth-Smythe is an agent of the British Empire; he currently resides in Thailand, where he’s been investigating the growing concern over “the yellow peril,” ie an Asia-wide revolt.
Meanwhile Smythe experiences love at first sight when he meets the half-Chinese daughter of his crusty British superior officer; the lady is named Beth-li, and Jaccoma lets us know what kind of gloriously trashy read we’re in for when he writes an explicit sex scene between the two shortly after they meet. This only proves to be the first of many such scenes; a recurring joke is that any time an attractive lady is introduced to the narrative, Smythe will have (elaborately detailed) sex with her. In a way then the book is like the Flashman series, only better, in that it incorporates mysticism and supernatural elements, even verging into full-on fantasy with an appearance of several Yetis, late in the tale.
Jaccoma also has a talent for sadistic scenes, something he also proves early on; Smythe stumbles upon the fact that a mysterious “Chinaman” with apparently supernatural powers is behind the Yellow Menace: Chou en Shu, who is of course Fu Manchu in all but name. As Smythe watches in horror he sees his world fall apart during a bizarre, Chou en Shu-headed ritual in which both Smythe’s superior and Beth-li are involved, the latter in a very personal way. This scene as well is a glimpse of more to come, as the rituals used by Chou throughout are heavily sex-based. Also here Jaccoma displays his James Robert Baker-esque gift for dark comedy, starting out a paragraph that has us thinking it’s going one way, only to suddenly have it go another, as Beth-li is raped by a massively-endowed Chou en Shu:
After a few moments, her cries had subsided. For Chou en Shu had inched the worst portion of his member into her. He paused in his onslaught now, and Beth-li, her grimacing face half crushed against the pillows, whined softly. Then, with a sudden sadistic twitch, he plunged the entire length of his flesh-rod deep inside her! Her entire body stiffened with shock and she let out one long and blood-curdling shriek…a shriek which went on and on, but which finally ended with the revolting, half-coherent words:
“More… Give me more! Oh, GOD!!” And my beloved Beth-li collapsed, gasping and shuddering…in a climax of the most disgusting intensity!
Smythe’s life further spirals into chaos, as his superior commits suicide and then, most shocking of all, Smythe receives Beth-li’s severed head in a package sent by Chou en Shu! Of course, this means that Smythe (and we readers) now hate Chou and want to see him get his comeuppance…which makes Jaccoma’s later “revelations” about what’s “really” going on and who are the “real” villains so misguided, not to mention so stupid. When a guy sees his “true love” get raped by a demonic being who later mails the dude the girl’s severed head…well honestly, how in the hell are we supposed to root against the poor guy??
Despite this nonsense, I should repeat that Jaccoma (unintentionally?) makes us so root for Smythe that we can, for the most part, overlook the later reveals and enjoy the book as a porn-fueled tribute to ‘30s pulp. Swearing vengeance upon Chou, Smythe has further adventures in Thailand, not to mention more sex, this being another Asian gal who throws herself at him, only to later reveal she is a vassal of Chou’s. Eventually Smythe moves on to India, where Jaccoma well captures the twilight era of the British Empire. Here Smythe meets with his new superior, Sir Denis, a man who is waging his own secret war upon Chou en Shu and thus recruits Smythe for the cause.
Denis sends Smythe into the Assam region of India, an arduous river journey where, on the well-appointed crusie ship, Smythe meets his new associates: Nazis! In these pre-war years Sir Denis has ties with the National Socialist Party, whose fascist and white power views he much appreciates. (Yet Smythe very clearly does not agree with the Nazis, and in fact hates them…yet, again, we’re supposed to hate the guy??) Another feather in the book’s trash fiction cap is that one of the Nazis is an actual Nazi She-Devil! This is “blonde German goddess” Clara Schicksal, who co-leads the group of Germans alongside her brother Julius. These two are straight out of The Occult Roots of Nazism, as Smythe stumbles into their cabin while they’re indulging in one of their rituals:
In the red, guttering glow of some brass oil lamps, I saw Clara Schicksal kneeling naked on her cabin’s floor. Five greasy candles had been set at the points of a pentagram on the floor itself, illuminating her grisly work. Her Valkyrie’s body was glistening with oil and traced all along with finger-dabbed symbol…double spirals, yinyangs, sinistrogyrate swastikas, inverted cruciforms… She was pressing down with her hands at the ankles of a frail body within the pentagram…a young lad of some eleven or twelve years, and was performing upon his vainly struggling form…a particularly exuberant fellatio!
I should mention that the “young lad’s” throat has just been slit. These Nazis are here to track down the infamous Spear of Destiny, which Smythe actually held in his hands back in Thailand; an old acquaintance happened to have acquired it, as related in a long but entertaining story. However again due to supernatural chicanery, Chou en Shu has now gotten hold of the Spear. This is something Sir Denis and the Nazis want to correct – they claim that a supervillain like Chou will destroy the world with such a powerful relic. Thus, Sir Denis has chosen to work with the Nazis – “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and all that.
The occultic Nazi stuff soon fades into the woodwork, as does the Nazi She-Devil herself; after such a memorable opening Smythe hates Clara, not that this stops him from the occasional hate fuck. (I’d quote one of these sequences as well, but they might be too much, given that Smythe will only sodomize Clara, and brutally so...and yeah, she loves it…) However the supernatural stuff comes to the fore as the group engages the aid of an Indian mystic who is at war with Chou en Shu; this entails a raid on a remote Assam temple in which those aforementioned Yetis appear, they too serving the Nazi cause in the battle against Chou.
But towards the end it all begins to unravel, mostly because here Jaccoma belies his intentions. Various characters previously thought dead return, and all of them are not only willing servants of Chou en Shu, but they keep banging Smythe over the head about how “stupid” he’s been! Most belligerent of all is a rabbi in New York City who takes special delight in telling Smythe how much of an “idiot” he is. But again it all just comes off as so stupid and misguided, because throughout the novel Smythe has just been reacting to the horrible things he’s seen. And the “racist” claims are also stupid, because throughout Smythe has gone out of his way to fight against his Nazi “allies,” even killing one of them and snarling, “Here – a gift from the Jews,” as he slits the murdering bastard’s throat.
Jaccoma plunges on, though, destroying not only the entire novel but also any further enjoyment, as he relishes in trotting out various characters who tell Smythe how stupid he’s been and all the mistakes he’s made. Let me ask you, though…if you saw the love of your life ritually raped and then received her severed head in the mail, would you pause and ask yourself: “Wait a second. Am I getting the full story, here??”
Because this is exactly what is implied…that the events of the novel have mostly been Smythe’s “fault,” mainly due to his “racism” and his inability to see the “truth” behind things. In other words, Jaccoma attempts to pull the narrative carpet out from under us in what he hopes is a shocking reveal but instead comes off like, well…like one of the dumbest damn things I’ve ever read.
And it really is a shame, because for the most part Yellow Peril is one hell of an entertaining and enjoyable read.
By the way, the hardcover edition features a photo of Jaccoma; is it just me, or does this guy look like a 1970s version of Robert from Everybody Loves Raymond??
Masked Dog, by Raymond Obstfeld
August, 1986 Gold Eagle Books
Raymond Obstfeld is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. Masked Dog isn’t as great as his Invasion U.S.A. novelization, but it’s a lot of fun, filled with vibrant dialog, strong characters, and plenty of suspense. It’s to the novel’s disservice that it was published by Gold Eagle, lending the impression that the novel’s just another SuperBolan or something. In reality it’s a melding of the suspense, spy, and horror genres.
“Masked Dog” is the code name of a CIA project that has been going on for the past decade: an agency scientist has been injecting a volunteer prisoner with a battery of experimental drugs that have removed all traces of fear from the test subject and have also granted him with superhuman strength. Gee, what could go wrong?? As you’d expect, the test subject, a pedophile pediatrist named Gifford Devane, has broken free and is now loose and looking for a little revenge.
Devane’s main target is a former rock superstar named Price Calender, who now lives a low-level life playing revival concerts and the like. Price worked for the CIA a bit in the previous decade; in a backstory that doesn’t quite ring true, we learn that Price got involved with the agency after a run-in with the law and in exchange for his freedom he agreed to act as a courier during his global tours. Price also eventually married a gorgeous lady named Liza R (no last name), a lady who turned out to be a Commie spy who insinuated herself with Price because he was a CIA goon and because she wanted to get to Devane and the Masked Dog program.
Liza R was a package deal; she came with a daughter from a brief, earlier marriage, a toddler named Rebecca who Price eventually adopted. But again, Liza’s marriage to Price was all just a ruse, and after an aborted attempt seven years ago to break out Devane, Liza carried out a running battle with the CIA, even using her own daughter as a human shield. (The end result being an errant bullet that shattered Rebecca’s knee, so that she now walks with a brace.) Price himself killed Liza…or so he thought. As Masked Dog opens, we learn that due to some commie subterfuge Liza’s death was merely staged, and now she is here with a fellow KGB operative, tracking down the loose Masked Dog.
Again, all this is backstory and it’s doled out gradually and masterfully in the narrative. Price is not your typical Gold Eagle protagonist by a longshot – he’s not a trained agent, and doesn’t even know how to handle a weapon. This is taken care of by Jo, one of Obstfeld’s typically-great female characters, a CIA agent who Baroness style was a woman of high society but grew bored of the jetset life and became a secret agent. Price and Jo have a great “meet cute” and Obstfeld really plays up on the comedy, banter, and relationship that grows between them. And when the expected sex scene comes, late in the tale, it’s unexpectedly explicit – yet another divergence from the typical Gold Eagle fare.
Obstfeld works up the tension and suspense; there isn’t much action in Masked Dog until the end, other than Devane’s brief encounters with old friends and the criminal underworld. Also graced with a quicker mind and photographic memory, Devane wants to advertise himself to the highest bidder as an assassin, so he announces that he will murder a famous East German dignitary, despite the massive amount of security which will surround the guy. Devane’s assassination too is carried out in more of a suspenseful nature than the pyrotechnics you’d expect, and Obstfeld makes it even more tense with Jo being caught in the fray.
Devane also has superstrength and can tear people apart. Obstfeld plays up the dark comedy with Devane coming off like a superpowered Hannibal Lecter, though without the serial killer aspect – his taste veers toward adolescent girls, and over the course of the narrative he catches a few of them, the ensuing grisly deaths only vaguely hinted at. But Devane gradually realizes that something is going wrong…his memory is clouding, he has lost his sense of taste, and it dawns on him that though he can’t feel pain, he can still be killed.
Obstfeld takes his time with the narrative, so that it all comes off as very character focused. All of the characters are given depth, save for maybe Liza R. I love pulpy female villains, but Liza R is just too inhuman, too much of a cipher. Obstfeld provides a backstory that attempts to explain at least a little how she could be so cold blooded (she was raised by leftist American parents who emigrated to the USSR but then abandoned her at a young age), but still she is too cold, too robotic. Obstfeld to his credit makes Liza thoroughly despicable; several times she “tests” herself to see if she might give a damn about her daughter Rebecca, finding each time that she doesn’t care if the little girl lives or dies.
Action scenes here and there liven things up…Devane’s assassination attempt of the German dignitary, or Devane’s scuffles with hoodlums. Suspense takes center stage throughout, particularly a tension-filled scene where Devane sneaks into Price’s empty home and poisons his cigarettes; throughout the ensuing scene with Price, Obstfeld keeps toying with us, mentioning the cigarettes lying there, Price picking one up and about to light it but then getting distracted. Then Jo shows up and the suspense really mounts – all told, a masterful scene. But just one of many.
The action heats up toward the end, like when Liza R and her KGB associates corner Devane, who manages to take out the redshirts and then engages in a duel to the death with a martial arts master, all while Liza coldly watches. The climax takes a page from Stephen King with Devane kidnapping Rebecca and stashing her in an empty fitness center, with Price venturing in solo and taking on Devane by himself. He’s easily outmatched, getting his arms and fingers broken by a nude Devane who swings from the shadows to torment him. All of this actually reminded me of the climax of Blade Runner, where Harrison Ford’s character was similarly tortured by his superpowered foe.
I guess the only problem I had with Masked Dog is it’s a little too long for its own good. The novel is over 300 pages and a lot of it could be cut. In particular the suspense of the climax is a little destroyed because, as Price sneaks through the darkened and creepy fitness center, Obstfeld somehow decides to inform us what the place is like during the day and what Price’s usual workout routine is like. But stuff like this is rare and for the most part the novel moves at an assured pace, really getting us to like its characters to the point where we are emotionally invested in the outcome.
Perhaps due to its publisher, Masked Dog didn’t make much of a dent, it appears…it only had this one printing, and like the other Gold Eagle titles of the time it was probably pulled off the shelves when the next bi-monthly shipment of Gold Eagle stock came in. It’s too bad, because this is a very good novel, one that should have had a larger audience.
And the cover by the way is a die cut, something I’ve never seen from Gold Eagle. Here’s the inner cover:
Rambo III, by David Morrell
May, 1988 Jove Books
It’s usually dismissed, but Rambo III is my favorite of the Rambo movies. I place it up there with Schwarzenegger’s Commando as the pinnacle and epitome of ‘80s action movies. People usually complain that Rambo III is too unrealistic, a complaint which I find strange; I mean, who wants realism in an action movie? They should be all about escapism and fantasy, and Rambo III delivers in spades.
However I will admit that storywise the film has less substance than the average men's adventure novel. Rambo creator David Morrell felt the same way; in a recent ebook edition of Rambo III Morrell provides an introduction (which you can read here) where he states that the early scripts the producers sent him featured a more epic storyline, a sort of “Rambo of Arabia.” As the production went on and the script went through more and more changes, Morrell found himself swamped with conflicting revisions and plot changes. He decided to just push forward with his novelization of that earliest script, the final film be damned.
Whereas Morrell’s novelization of Rambo: First Blood Part II offered new and different layers to the iconic film, but still featured the same basic story, his Rambo III is radically different from the actual movie. In the ebook intro Morrell states that his novel was even significantly different from the early script he based it on. The end result is a pretty interesting book, only sharing the same template as the film, but playing out much differently. I don’t think it’s as good as the actual film, but it works fine as a novel, and in fact provides the Rambo character with a fitting end. (Well, about as fitting an end as when he got his head blown off in First Blood.)
The novel opens with Rambo living in Thailand, and Morrell informs us that it’s a year after the events of the previous book/film. Still mourning the loss of Co, still trying to avoid the truth that he’s a natural born warrior, Rambo gains admittance to a Buddhist temple and works in a forge. One of the more iconic (and parodied) scenes in Rambo III is that epic stickfight with the burly Thai martial artist, and it’s here, too, only in the novel it’s Rambo’s first time in the ring. He’s been inexorably drawn here, passing by the arena each night on his way to the forge, until finally he can’t help himself and gets in the ring to fight.
However he’s not here to win. Truly showing the depths to which Rambo has fallen, Morrell has it instead that Rambo only engages in the fight so that he can be punished. He wants to be beaten around, and is in the process of getting thrashed good and proper when he spots Colonel Trautman out in the audience. Trautman instantly figures out what Rambo’s doing – he knows Rambo could easily beat his opponent – and starts yelling stuff like, “Jesus Christ, John!”, just catcalling and jeering Rambo, which I found pretty funny.
Anyway this spurs Rambo to beat the shit out of his opponent, after which he meets again with Trautman, openly acknowledged as his “father” in the previous book. Trautman’s here because he wants to helm a CIA-backed operation in Afghanistan, running guns to the moujahideen warrior-tribes and teaching them how to fight off the invading Soviets. He wants Rambo to co-lead the mission with him. Rambo instantly says no, and that’s that. Just like in the film, Trautman is captured by the Russians a few weeks later, being ambushed after crossing over the Afghani border.
Rambo storms into the US embassy and demands to see the CIA agent in charge of the operation; unlike in the film, Rambo already knows something went wrong due to a strong case of foreboding. He demands that the CIA equip him for a solo mission to rescue Trautman. Once Rambo gets to Afghanistan the novel begins to significantly differ from the film. Hooking up with local contact Mousa, Rambo heads into the desert, where Morrell plays up on the adventure fiction angle he excels at, with the pair up against the elements. One gripping scene here is when Rambo and Mousa are almost buried alive by a massive sandstorm – a scene Morrell states was in the earliest scripts but was later jettisoned.
Rambo’s acceptance by the Afghani moujahideen warriors is more gradual here. First he must prove himself to them in a number of challenges reminscent of John Eagle Expedtior #4, including the mandatory bit where one of the tribal leaders instantly hates and distrusts this foreigner and thus challenges Rambo to a potentially fatal contest. And, as is mandatory, Rambo not only wins the contest but also wins the dude’s lifelong friendship and trust. Interestingly enough this tribal leader, Mossad, bears an eerie resemblance to Osama Bin Laden, described as tall and lanky and with a long, gray and white beard; he’s also the Soviets’s most wanted rebel, and is notorious among them for his terrorist activities.
Trautman meanwhile is getting beaten to death by his Soviet captors who are convinced he’s been sent here by the US government. Whereas the Soviet villains Morrell delivered in Rambo: First Blood Part II were mostly sadistic ciphers, the ones he gives us here are more three dimensional. Only one of them comes off as your basic flat “bad guy” type: Major Azov, who is willing to go to extreme lengths to get out of this “hell” of Afghanistan. But in addition Morrell also gives us Major Zaysan, who is disgusted with Azov’s inhuman torture of prisoners and openly fights against him, as well as Sergeant Kourov, Azov’s chief sadist who himself gradually becomes sick of following Azov’s orders.
Another character Morrell introduces (one that was supposed to be in the film) is Michelle, a “mannish” female doctor from the Netherlands who lives among the moujahideen and tends to their wounded. She develops a non-romantic bond with Rambo, and with the loss of this character Rambo III the film thus had zero female characters – that’s how much of an ‘80s action movie it is! Michelle though doesn’t add much to the storyline, and only plays a central role in the climax, where she endures a grueling escape across Afghanistan and to the Pakistan border alongside Rambo.
After a handful of taut action scenes where Rambo helps the Afghanis defeat small Russian forces, Rambo finally heads to the Soviet fortress to free Trautman. Here Morrell introduces yet another character, a young Russian soldier who has gone turncoat and wants to help Rambo and Mousa get into the fortress. I should mention that in this novel Rambo mostly fights with an M-16/M-203 combo, ironic given how he dismissively referred to it as “something out of Star Wars” in the previous novel, when Murdoch tried to equip him with the gun for his mission into ‘Nam. He also has his customary bow with explosive arrows, which Morrell runs down for us, but thankfully not in the excessive detail of the previous book. And of course he has his knife, which this Jove edition provides an illustration of in the text.
The fortress assault is where the film begins to fire on all cylinders, becoming an endless actionfest from there on out. In the novel the fortress assault occurs a little over midway through, and while it’s very exciting and gripping, it lacks the relentless nature of the film version – though I do like how in the book Rambo covers his face for the night assault with “leopard grease mixed with lampblack;” leopard grease because its scent will scare away the Russian guard dogs. Throughout this scene Rambo silent-kills a bunch of Soviets with his arrows and knife, until the sequence goes full-tilt with Rambo’s timed explosives going off and him mowing down soldiers with his gun.
I can imagine that Richard Crenna was pleased with the many changes the script went through; the role he was given as Trautman in this version of the story is pretty thankless, with Trautman reduced by his torture to a shell of himself, unable to walk or even speak, wholly in need of Rambo’s care as they make their escape. Actually it would’ve been an easy day on the job for Crenna, as all Trautman does from his escape on through to the end of the novel is lay on a stretcher while Rambo carts him around!
Morrell greatly expands the climax. While a maddened Azov gathers his soldiers and moves out in retaliation, the moujahideen split up in different groups and escape. Rambo, who spends this entire portion worrying over and caring for Trautman, insists that the Afghanis leave without him, as he’d slow them down. Mousa and Michelle however stay behind to help. Here the adventure/survivalist fiction stuff comes again with the group trekking across rough terrain as Soviet gunships and tanks gain on them. The situation Morrell describes though is much more hopeless than what Rambo encounters in the film, all of it compounded by the fact that he has to lug along a stretcher-bound Trautman.
As in the film it all leads to a final spectacular battle, with the moujahideen swooping in to assist their brave warrior-brother Rambo, but also Morrell weaves together all of his subplots about the bickering Soviet characters. Rambo himself doesn’t see much action here, too busy struggling to get Trautman to safety, only whipping out his machine gun/grenade launcher at the very end and blowing away some Russians. There is though a great bit where, overcome with battle lust, Rambo hops on a horse and charges down one of the main villains, hurling his knife right through the back of the bastard’s head.
So then, as for what’s in the film but not in the novelization…well, basically everything! The little kid who clings to Rambo and is given Co’s Buddha charm isn’t in the novel, nor are most of the action scenes. The action Morrell does give us is well done and entertaining, but again lacks the fantastic onlsaught of the film. And most unfortunately the novel doesn’t feature my favorite scene in the Rambo franchise, where Rambo takes on the nightvision-equipped Spetsnaz commandos in the caves. There’s absolutely nothing like that in this book, and Rambo’s “one man army” attributes are greatly toned down.
So while there is action, Morrell is more focused on Rambo’s internal struggles, in particular the torment of his soul. Religion is much played up in Rambo III, with Rambo starting off as Buddhist (which the previous novel informed us he learned from a Montagnard soldier during ‘Nam), but slowly coming to “think like a Muslim” due to his time with Mousa and the moujahideen. It seems to me though that Christianity, more particularly Catholicism, is the biggest theme here, with the constant stressing of Rambo’s suffering for others. There’s also a curious focus on how Rambo is always cutting his palms, how they bleed and are then cleaned and bandaged, all of which struck me as a sort of Christlike vibe. (I mean, he did die, after all…he is arisen!)
So could Rambo III be the world’s first action novel/holy text? Probably not, but Rambo does achieve a sort of divinity or at least savior aspect here, coming to this realization after his narrative-long soul struggle. Whereas the film also deals with Rambo’s aversion of his true nature, but then blows it all off at the very end with a witty exchange between him and Trautman (“John, I hate to admit it but I think we might be getting a little soft.” “Maybe just a little, sir.” – Wouldn’t be hard to take that exchange out of context, would it??), the novel follows the theme through with Rambo finally and fully accepting who he is and what he shall become:
The answer came at once. God had fated him to be a warrior. As long as innocent people were brutalized, he had a meaning. He served a purpose.
This actually sets the scene for the sequel, twenty friggin’ years later, where Rambo saves the group of missionaries in Burma in the 2008 film Rambo. One can only wonder what other adventures he had in the meantime (surely the Rambo: The Force of Freedom cartoon series doesn’t count…or does it?). And speaking of that 2008 film, Morrell unfortunately didn’t write a novelization for it; in the Rambo III ebook introduction he states that novelizations are mostly a thing of the past and thus a Rambo novelization would be unnecessary in this age of Blu Rays, DVDs, and etc.
I’d argue though that a novelization by the character’s creator would not be unnecessary. I would’ve enjoyed seeing how Morrell filled out the barebones storyline of the 2008 Rambo. And given that he’s recently been epublishing his novels, I wonder why Morrell never considered doing this latest Rambo film as an ebook-only novelization.
In fact in the ebook intro Morrell states that he was brought in by Carolco early in the production of Rambo III and came up with his own storyline for the film, with Rambo journeying down to the jungles of South America to save Trautman, complete with “a dramatic scene in an eerie Mayan ruin.” It would be great if Morrell just went ahead and wrote this story and published it on its own, but I’d imagine rights issues would be involved, and plus he’s probably not interested in writing yet another story about a character he killed off 40 years ago.
While this was my least favorite of the three Rambo novels (my favorite was actually Rambo: First Blood Part II), it was still great, providing a fitting and satisfying conclusion to the saga.
Rambo: First Blood Part II, by David Morrell
May, 1985 Jove Books
In my novel First Blood, Rambo dies. In the movies, he lives.
With this pithy introduction David Morrell launches into the novelization of the sequel to the 1982 film First Blood. It might sound obvious, but it’s worth noting that this truly is a sequel to the film and not Morrell’s original 1972 bestseller. Beyond the fact that Rambo is still alive (he got his head blown off by Trautman in the book), even the minor details are taken from the movie and not the novel. It should also be noted that this novelization is an excellent piece of work, and shouldn’t just be disregarded as a quickie cash-in.
In a recent ebook edition of Rambo: First Blood Part II (hereafter just Rambo for reasons of laziness…but then, that’s how everyone referred to it until the 2008 Rambo really confused things), Morrell provides an introduction where he explains how he came to write this novelization (you can read this introduction here). Finding that he still had more to tell about Rambo, Morrell crafted this novel from the workprint (he was given a video tape of the already-completed film by the producers), James Cameron’s original script, and his own ideas. Morrell’s intent was to make it seem that the movie had actually been based on the novel, as was the case with First Blood. And he succeeds in every way.
To put my bias out front, I much prefer Rambo to First Blood. In fact First Blood is my least favorite of all four Rambo films. Rambo though is just one of the best action movies ever made, and it’s hard to imagine now the excitement that overtook kids my age when it came out in the summer of 1985. Sure, I was seven or so years younger than the R rating permitted, but as fate would have it my brother’s seven years older than me, and so was able to get me in as my “guardian.” I can still recall the excitement that rippled through the audience in that Frostburg, Maryland theater, and promptly after the film I went out and bought this Jove mass market paperback at a WaldenBooks store.
I read the book then, and about the only thing I remember about that reading is that I got pissed off over the differences from the movie! I guess I was expecting a straight-up transcript, who knows. But anyway I still have my original copy, one of the few books I still have from my childhood (and it’s in practically new shape, a testament to my lifelong book nerdishness). I had a blast reading it again, all these years later. I’d even go so far as to say I enjoyed it more than First Blood itself.
Morrell’s writing here is leaner, tighter. First Blood was tight, too, but parts of it were very literary, very much of its time. Rambo on the other hand is straight-up men’s adventure fiction (obviously though of a higher literary caliber than the genre norm), with none of the John Gardner-esque soul-plumbing of the original novel. Unfortunately it also tones down the metaphysical bent of First Blood, though Morrell does manage to work a bit in with descriptions of Rambo’s Zen-based meditations, where he sort of transfers his consciousness onto inanimate objects.
The novel of course follows the template of the film, with additional characterization and extra incidents. Rambo is sprung from prison by Colonel Trautman and sent to ‘Nam, where he is tasked by shady “spook” Murdoch with collecting photo evidence of American prisoners of war, with specific orders not to engage the enemy. Instead Rambo and his female guide Co basically take on every Vietnamese and Russian soldier in sight and save the prisoners, while finding the time to fall in love. Morrell though had nothing to do with the creation of this storyline, and so was limited to adding extra layers to the material in Sylvester Stallone’s revised script and James Cameron’s original draft.
In the intro to the ebook Morrell enthuses over Cameron’s script, which I’ve read (you can too; it’s available online), and I have to say, I don’t get this revisionist appreciation of Cameron’s Rambo. It just feels wrong, and I’m not just talking about its buddy-cop aspect (originally Rambo was to have a partner on the mission, to be played by John Travolta!). If anything reading Cameron’s script made me appreciate Stallone’s writing all the more, as practically all of the memorable moments from Rambo came from Stallone’s script.
Anyway, as I mentioned this novel is really a sequel to the film. Trautman is clearly identified as a father figure for Rambo, the man who trained him, whereas in the original novel it seemed as if the two had never actually met. And also when Rambo reflects back on the incidents in “the town,” it’s always to things that happened in First Blood the film and not the novel, like stitching himself up after getting injured and, you know, not killing everyone. And Rambo himself is clearly described as Stallone, not the “nothing kid” of the original book; he’s also more charismatic, while at the same time indulging in a little self-pity, all just as in the film.
Probably everyone knows Rambo and what happens in it, which means I can avoid my usual digressive rundown of events. It all goes down mostly the same, only with some changes here and there…dialog moved around, scenes rearranged, more backstory, more description. For example, Rambo’s introduction, which Morrell takes from Cameron’s script, has Rambo in a mental institution when he first talks to Trautman. Morrell also adds a bit that informs us early on that Rambo can pilot a helicopter, with his escaping a CIA tail in Thailand and flying a helicopter himself to Murdoch’s command center.
The biggest improvement Morrell makes to the film is adding a wholly relevant subplot that Rambo is returning to the POW camp from which he escaped, back during the war. This was bizarrely downplayed in the film. Morrell has Rambo actually nervous about going back to this hellhole, and he sets up a boogeyman from Rambo’s past, Sergeant Tay, a sadist in the camp who tortured the prisoners and gave Rambo most of his scars. Morrell has it that Rambo has fantasized about getting vengeance on Tay for all these years, and guess what, turns out Tay’s still here, stuck in the camp for allowing Rambo to escape so long ago! In the film, Tay is the thin, moustached Vietnamese soldier Rambo kills with the exploding arrow, and he has none of the backstory of the character in the novel. This was a missed opportunity on the part of the filmmakers; they should've played up more on the fact that Rambo was returning to this hell from which he once escaped.
Morrell also improves on the Rambo/Co romantic storyline. Again using elements from Cameron’s script, Morrell makes Co a widowed mother in her early 30s, rather than the 20-something of the film; her husband killed in the war, her 12 year-old son in America (having been there since he was 5 or so), Co is a battle-hardened warrior-woman who works for the American “spooks” and has a master’s degree in Economics. Her chacter is a lot more fleshed out here than in the film, and her latching on to Rambo doesn’t seem as contrived. You easily understand why Rambo gradually falls for her. Also Morrell makes it clear that Rambo is not a ladies man…we get lots of detail on how he hasn’t been with a woman in several years because he is unable to get close to anyone, and we also learn the fun fact that Rambo sometimes masturbates! See, you’d never learn that from the movie!
Morrell also adds more gore than was in the actual film. During the bit where the river pirates betray Rambo and Co, Rambo chops off one pirate’s head with his knife, then literally blows another in half with a shotgun. (All of which is like the 2008 Rambo, actually.) Morrell also adds a few horror-esque sequences, like having Rambo and Co walk across a ravine filled with the skeletons of American POWs, and a very squirm-inducing scene where Rambo, being tortured by Tay and the other Vietnamese, is dunked in a “slime pit” filled with slugs that crawl over his skin and up his nostrils. The whole scene is as unsettling as the “Rambo walks across a ledge of bats” sequence in First Blood.
The Russian characters are also given a little more depth. The leader, Podovsk (Podovsky in the film), is himself a sadist, and becomes sexually excited in the scene where a captured Rambo is strapped to a bed frame and electrocuted. Podovsk’s dialog with Rambo is more fleshed out, and his fate in the novel is superior to that in the film, with Podovsk, the last Russian standing, attempting to barter the life of the POWs in exchange for his own.
In fact Morrell changes the majority of the finale, again taking much from Cameron’s script, like Co’s fate and Rambo’s destruction of the Soviet gunship. This scene is certainly the most ridiculous in the film, with Rambo blowing the helicopter away with a missile launcher…while the POWs sit right behind him in the enclosed space of the Huey. In reality they would’ve been killed by the RPG’s backblast! Morrell changes it to Rambo using a passenger-safe “Dragon” minigun.
The action however is a bit more toned down in the finale. In exchange though you get more dramatic thrust, in particular Rambo’s long-held desire to kill Sergeant Tay, and also his gaining of vengeance upon Yashin, the Russian hulk who kills Co in the novel. But the novel misses a lot of the film's iconic action moments, like Rambo coming out of the mudbank and slitting the throat of a Vietnamese soldier, or in fact any of his solo war against the Vietnamese search party. Morrell covers this entire sequence in relayed messages that come back to Murdoch and Trautman, or from the point of view of Tay as his soldiers are killed by an unseen Rambo. This adds a thriller sort of tension, true, but it would’ve been nice to see more action from Rambo’s point of view.
Otherwise Morrell’s writing is just as strong as in First Blood. Lots of vivid description mixed with a skill for getting into his characters’s heads. There is however an excessive bit where he baldly exposits on archery and Rambo’s hi-tech bow (which Morrell actually has Rambo think of as a “Ram-bow!!”), including for some reason an actual drawing of the bow inserted into the text. But this is minor and in reality what Morrell has done here is great, taking an archetypal film and adding new elements to it.
I can’t say though that I prefer Morrell’s novel to the actual film; as I say, it misses too many of the iconic scenes. But in exchange you get better characterization, better plotting. And a better finale; in addition to the already-mentioned stuff with Podovsk and the prisoners and Rambo taking on the Russian gunship, Morrell also wisely has Murdoch playing an extra card, sending his henchman off to ambush Rambo as he escapes in the damaged Huey with the POWs -- this too is adapted from Cameron's script. In the film Murdoch just sort of waits for Rambo to come get him. Also with this added (and improved) scene Morrell gives Trautman one of the best moments in the book, saving Rambo before Murdoch’s henchman can launch their ambush (he’s hidden in their chopper and puts an M-16 to the pilot’s head). In fact this scene gives justification to Trautman’s presence; in the film he doesn’t do much except trade banter with Murdoch and promise that Rambo will come back for revenge.
Anyway, Morrell’s Rambo is a definite success, adding new layers to a well-known classic. It isn’t just a great novelization, it’s a great novel.
And in a savvy bit of cross-marketing, this Jove paperback features an ad for the MIA Hunter series! Too bad Morrell never wrote an installment of that…I’d love to have seen Rambo team up with Mark Stone and his POW-rescuing pals.
First Blood, by David Morrell
September, 1982 Fawcett Crest Books
The cover of this Fawcett mass market paperback obviously ties in with the 1982 film, but the Rambo of David Morrell’s novel (originally published in 1972) bears no resemblance to Sylvester Stallone. We learn in the first paragraph that he’s “some nothing kid” with shaggy hair and a mangy beard, and in fact looks more like a hippie, enough so that conservative chief of police Wilfred Teasle is appalled by the sight of Rambo wandering through his little kingdom of Madison, Kentucky and promptly kicks the “vagrant” out.
Teasle’s hassling of Rambo is enough to make even the reader uncomfortable, as within the first few pages you’re already sympathizing with “the kid.” But the reader already knows that Rambo isn’t some hippie; he’s just back from ‘Nam, where he was a Green Beret who won the Medal of Honor. But Rambo was also captured and spent some time as a POW, finally managing to free himself and escape to American territory. During this ordeal though he sort of lost his marbles, and thus was discharged back to the States.
Now he wanders around the country, living off the land, unsure what to do with his life, barely into his twenties. Getting kicked out of small towns by redneck cops is nothing new to him, but this time with Teasle sets off a chord and Rambo vows that he’s not going to back down again. This time he’s going to fight back. Teasle keeps picking him up along the road and driving him to the town limits and Rambo keeps turning around and walking right back in.
Teasle could obviously just give in and talk to Rambo, but he’s a stubborn redneck bastard. Actually he’s more than that, as Morrell will later prove, but the novel hinges on Teasle’s stereotyping in the first pages, and the mistakes he makes thereafter. Actually Teasle comes off as more of the protagonist of the novel than Rambo himself does, with more of the “character meat” one would expect – more backstory, more subplots, more character growth, and more scenes from his point of view.
When Teasle forces Rambo to get a haircut before putting him in a cell, Rambo snaps back to his POW days, grabs hold of a knife, and guts a cop. From there it’s on, Rambo easily escaping the redneck cops and getting out into the woods. Morrell must be an outdoorsman at heart, because there is a lot of forest-life detail here, with vast portions of First Blood coming off like adventure/survivalist fiction as Rambo lives off the land, including a cool part where he kills an owl, hollows it out, and roasts its carcass on a spit! Every once in a while I hear an owl hooting out behind my house, and this novel now has me thinking…
My favorite part of First Blood has always been this opening section of Rambo in the woods, using his superior training and skills to take out Teasle’s cops. The movie neutered all of this. Here in the source novel Rambo is a true killing machine; there’s none of the “I just want to be loved” stuff of the film. He’s here to make a point, and he’ll kill as many cops as he wants. It’s not until later that he begins to regret it. But for now it’s very personal and he wants Teasle to get the message. The novel trades on the personal war that develops between these two men.
First Blood comes off like an action-adventure take on Moby-Dick, with Rambo and Teasle acting as both Ahab and the whale for one another. It operates on that vibe that powers Great Literature, with multiple readings possible in what is presented as an oridinary story of two men in a battle to the death. In Morrell’s hands this becomes a masterful theme, especially in how he makes neither Rambo nor Teasle the hero or the villain.
Teasle gets the majority of the narrative time, and as the story progresses you see more and more the nightmare he’s unleashed. As the bodies rack up Teasle begins to, correctly, realize that it’s all his fault. And yet you also feel sorry for the stupid old hick. He loses men he’s worked beside for decades,he loses his foster father, and he’s just lost his wife, who’s moved out and gone to California. But after escaping Rambo in the woods, Teasle becomes so obsessed with Rambo that it’s all he can think of, the wish to see “the kid” brought to justice being pretty much the only thing keeping him alive.
The middle half of First Blood is very heavy on the adventure/survivalist fiction vibe. One of the more memorable scenes in the novel has Rambo figuring out he can escape down into an abandoned mine – making this discovery just as he’s about to surrender himself to the National Guard – and then working his way on and on into the pitch-black shaft. Morrell proves his mastery with prose in a squirm-inducing scene where Rambo must get over a ledge filled with flesh-eating beetles, “putrid goop” all over the ground, and swarms of bats looming above him.
An interesting thing to note is that the character Trautman is much different in the novel. He has none of the “father figure” quality that Richard Crenna brought to the character. In fact, it’s implied that Rambo has never even met Trautman – Trautman was just the trainer of the trainers, not Rambo’s direct trainer. There are no moments where Rambo and Trautman meet face to face, and Trautman comes off as more cool and aloof, very much the professional soldier. As in the film he’s been brought here to help, but he doesn’t offer much assistance – Morrell understands his characters well enough to know that Trautman would in fact be proud of the hell “his boy” has unleashed, and indeed he is. It isn’t until the very end that Trautman sees that Rambo has gone too far, and thus decides to step in.
I think it’s pretty common knowledge that the novel has a vastly different ending than the film. Would it be considered a spoiler to give away the ending of a 41 year-old novel? In case it would be, I’ll leave it that both Rambo and Teasle have different fates here than in the film, the only fates Morrell has left possible for either of them. One thing I forgot to mention is the metaphysical bent Morrell also gives the tale, with Rambo and Teasle becoming so in tune with one another that they gradually find themselves dipping in and out of each other’s minds, with both knowing what exactly the other is thinking. This progresses to the point where Teasle even feels that he can see out of Rambo’s eyes. The metaphysical aspect finds its fullest realization in Rambo’s final moments, a scene which is downright touching.
Obviously the film version changed the majority of the novel. For one, Rambo doesn’t kill everyone in the movie, let alone the different fate he experiences. The film version of the character is also thoroughly softened around the edges. There’s no argument that the film version of Rambo is more charismatic and human. Not to say the novel version isn’t charismatic, but he’s been honed into such a killing machine that he operates most of the time on pure training, with none of the mercy the film version would show. Even toward the very end of the novel, when Rambo shoots a guy in the arm and doesn’t kill him, it turns out that it’s just a mistake – Rambo was really aiming for the guy’s chest, but his aim was off.
As for other stuff in the film but not in the novel…well, Rambo doesn’t stitch himself up here, so there goes that memorable scene from the film. In fact he suffers from swollen and possibly broken ribs throughout, and does nothing to repair them. He doesn’t have a survival knife, and there’s no point where he commandeers a National Guard truck or appropriates an M-60. No soul-barring moments between Rambo and Trautman, no protracted “man to man” dialog between Teasle and Trautman. In fact the entire second half of the film is different from the novel, and you guessed it, the novel is superior in every way. But then the two are wholly different animals and should be treated as such.
Morrell’s writing here actually reminds me of now-forgotten author John Gardner (of Mickelsson’s Ghosts and The Sunlight Dialogues, among others). Maybe it’s due to Morrell’s talent for getting in the heads of his characters, or how he brings to life Small Town, USA. But then even the style itself reminds me of Gardner, from the topical detail to the way the story unfolds. The only difference though is that if Gardner had written First Blood, the book would’ve been a bloated excess. Morrell is skilled enough and smart enough to keep it at a lean and mean 250+.
In the “you’ll never believe this” department, Morrell was actually contracted to write the novelization of the 1985 film sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II. I bought that one fresh off the racks at a WaldenBooks store in 1985, and still have my copy, which I will be reading next. I guess it would be a re-read, as I read it back then, but given that I was ten years old at the time I don’t remember much about it.