(My ability to post pictures was lost midway through today so please picture the covers from ON THE ROAD and the Ballatine Adult Series.
On Sept. 3rd, George Kelley will be hosting the party.
My introduction to Scottish author Alistair MacLean came in high school, when one of my English teachers assigned us all to read The Guns of Navarone, a 1957 thriller centered around the efforts of a specialist team of Allied commandos, during World War II, to silence the notorious weaponry at a German fortress in the Aegean Sea. Most of the books we’d had to read that year were pretty quiet stuff, along the lines of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories. Navarone was something else altogether, an adventure novel that read more like one of the high-stakes action tales in my grandfather’s
Argosy magazines than it did a work that some earnest curriculum planner thought would be healthy grist for the minds of teenage boys. If this was what the future of English classes held in store, I thought, let me at it!
Predictably, though, Navarone was an aberration; afterward, we went right back to reading safe “classics.” But by then I had developed an appetite for MacLean’s edge-of-the-seat yarns. Done with Navarone, I dove into Puppet on a Chain, then Fear is the Key, Ice Station Zebra, Bear Island, The Way to Dusty Death, and finally, during my sophomore year in college, Breakheart Pass.
That last novel, published in 1974, wove MacLean’s traditional, best-selling formula of manifold tight plot twists and a cynical protagonist facing long odds into the tapestry of the familiar American western. Supposedly set in the 1870s, the story takes place primarily aboard an ill-fated Union Pacific train steaming east to west across northern Nevada in the midst of a daunting snowstorm. Among the passengers are the governor of Nevada, Charles Fairchild; his mid-20s, black-haired niece, Marica; a tough-shelled cavalry officer, Colonel Claremont, who’s accompanied by two train cars full of troops; Indianfighter-turned-U.S. marshal Nathan Pearce and his newly acquired prisoner, John Deakin, a taciturn ex-university lecturer wanted on multiple counts of arson and murder; and an expert on tropical diseases, Dr. Edward Molyneux. The doctor’s seemingly inappropriate presence is soon explained by word that the train’s next destination, Fort Humboldt--commanded by Marica’s father--is under epidemic assault by cholera. Molyneux is reportedly taking medicine to the fort, along with coffins.
Things start to go amiss from the first, though. A couple of Claremont’s men disappear even before the train sets off from its final remote town stop. Then the doctor is discovered dead, and the locomotive’s fireman tumbles from a high overpass into a yawning ravine. When the last three train wagons--“the troop-carrying coaches and the brake van”--come uncoupled from the rest of the cars, and careen off backward into a forested gorge, it’s plain that some wicked mind is behind all of these “accidents.” Suspicion naturally focuses on Pearce’s captive, Deakin, who appears unperturbed by the lethal calamities occurring around him. However, the fact that Deakin was shackled at the time of at least one passenger death seems to absolve him of blame. But if he isn’t responsible, then who is? And what do those disasters have to do with mislabeled coffins in the train’s supply wagons, or Deakin’s nocturnal wanderings over the roof of the hustling express, or Paiute Indians being welcomed
at Fort Humboldt?
Author MacLean was allegedly past his prime when he wrote Breakheart Pass. Yet pretty much everything one could want in a historical thriller is found in these pages: rampant deceptions, plots designed to incite fear, abundant greed, calculated homicides, unexpected heroics. (Well, everything except sex: MacLean thought such complications only hobbled the pace of storytelling.) And the whole adventure takes place within a winter that’s as unforgiving as the villains who hope to profit from the carnage. MacLean’s prose may have been more pedestrian than poetic, but he could definitely keep readers on the edge
of their seats.
I will not be the first reader, or the last, I’m sure, to remark on the author’s confusion of historical facts. While MacLean makes clear in the book that America’s Civil War has been fought and finished, and the United States Secret Service (founded in 1865) is active in bringing malefactors to justice, he confuses things by mentioning that “the Big Bonanza strike in [Nevada’s] Comstock Lode” occurred some months ago. Actually, that rich discovery took place in 1859, when Nevada was still part of the Utah Territory. Two more years would pass before Nevada broke away, and it wasn’t until 1864 that it became the 36th state in
the Union. I can only imagine that MacLean decided that such discrepancies were OK if they contributed to his story’s intent.
And reading this book again now, I find myself more able than I was originally to overlook them. The building of tension, not the exposition of historical events, was the author’s purpose in these pages, and he succeeded marvelously. Even today, and knowing how it all ends, every time I sit down with Breakheart Pass or watch the 1975 Charles Bronson film adaptation of that tale, I feel anew the frisson of anticipation, wondering who will survive that dangerous train ride ... and how the men behind the crimes on board will be brought to justice. That’s great storytelling for you!
Ed Gorman is the author of SLEEPING DOGS and its upcoming sequel STRANGLEHOLD.
You can find him here.
ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac
Robert H. Rimmer, THE HARRAD EXPERIMENT (1967)
EAST OF EDEN, John Steinbeck
I was a freshman in college when I read this book. I realized as I reached its end that the feverish pitch of the novel was probably at least partially based on the fact that I was feverish myself—sick in the way that kids that age and away from home get sick. I lay on my narrow bed, skipping classes, skipping meals, and reading EAST OF EDEN. When I was finished, I read four or five more Steinbecks in succession, enjoying them all but not perhaps as much as this one.
It was exactly the kind of book that appealed to me then: a family saga that was long, complicated, sad, over the top perhaps. When I reread it a few years ago, I still enjoyed it but felt a red pencil might have strengthened it.
EAST OF EDEN was published in 1962 and its title refers to the place where the biblical Cain goes after murdering his brother, Abel. The novel begins in
After his release Adam marries Cathy Trask and the couple move to
Adam and his servant, Lee, raise the two boys. One night
This is certainly one of Steinbeck’s best novels and a classic for me. Despite its rigid notion of good and evil—people are mostly one or the other—its rich storyline, the beauty of the writing and its compelling nature, still make it a favorite.
JERRY HOUSE (who once met Lin Carter very briefly) lives in Southern Maryland. He can be reached at house_jerry@ hotmail.com.
THE BALLANTINE ADULT FANTASY SERIES
College. Some hazy memories there. Somehow I was placed in a dormitory with the football team, a number of whom were given a choice by the authorities: college, army, or jail. (The oldest member of the football team was 28 and had accumulated over 350 college credits without even coming close to graduating -- surely some sort of record.) The Viet Nam war was raging and my draft number was 38. So I spent a little time studying and lot of time reading. Richard Farina, Leonard Cohen, Robert Musil, and the Lancer Conan series were great favorites. And Carter Brown; I would devour those slim Signet paperbacks like peanuts, sometimes devouring three or four a day. But there were two series that were at the top of my reading list: Terry Carr's Ace Science Fiction Specials and Lin Carter's Ballantine Adult Fantasy. For this FFB College Nostalgia Extravaganza, I'm going with Ballantine's Adult Fantasy series.
Ballantine had already hit it big with Tolkien, printing seven of his books, including The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy; it was difficult to go anywhere on a college campus without tripping over someone reading Tolkien. Sensing a gold mine, Ballantine soon followed up with E. R. Eddison's four labyrinthian fantasies, Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, and David Lindsay's A Voyage to Acturus, before turning to the modern day fantasies of Peter S. Beagle. The ground had been fertilized. Enter Lin Carter.
Lin Carter was a huge science fiction and fantasy fan who managed to make a career out of selling what was essentially fan fiction to paperback publishers. He was extremely well-read in the field and his novels were homages to Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Doc Savage, Lovecraft, Tolkien, and others. Carter had already published one book with Ballantine (Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings) when he began its Adult Fantasy series, which ran for 65 books.
Carter was a huge fan of Famous Fantastic Mysteries, a pulp magazine which reprinted (often abridged) an old science fiction or fantasy novel every issue. (Some of these novels were good, some were great, and some were terrible; towards the end of the magazine's run they were scraping the bottom of the barrel, reprinting Ayn Rand's Anthem.) This was one of his sources for the series. But Carter also tracked down some early essential fantasies. He reprinted William Morris (he of the chair and the wallpaper design) with The Wood Beyond the World, the 2-volume The Well at the World's End, The Water of the Wondrous Isles, and the Sundering Flood. George MacDonald's visionary Lilith and Phantasies were in the series, as well as Evenor, an original collection of his stories.
Arthur Machen was represented with The Three Imposters, and G. K. Chesterton with The Man Who Was Thursday. There were six books by James Branch Cabell and two collections of Ernest Bramah's Kai Lung stories. Lord Dunsany had three novels and three original collections in the series. There were two volumes of Lovecraft's stories and three of Clark Ashton Smith's. Fletcher Pratt's The Blue Star was the first book in the Adult Fantasy series, followed later by The Land of Unreason, a Harold Shea novel by Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp. Two of Hannes Bok's rare fantasy stories were finally printed in book form. Carter also used the series to introduce Katherine Kurtz, printing the first trilogy in her Deryni series. Another first-timer was Sanders Anne Laubenthal with Excalibur. I believe Joy Chant's Red Moon and Black Mountain was also an original.
Poul Anderson's classic The Broken Sword got its paperback debut; Carter would later publish his Holf Kraki's Saga. William Hope Hodgson's The Boats of the "Glen Carrig" and The Night Land each got their first paperback appearance, the latter in two volumes and slightly abridged. Geroge Meredith's The Shaving of Shagpat, William Beckford's Vathek (printed with The Episodes of Vathek), F. Marion Crawford's Khaled, and Cutcliffe Hyne's The Lost Continent were added to the mix, as were two books by H. Rider Haggard.
The series reprinted Evangeline Walton's The Island of the Mighty, and then continued the series, printing the previously unpublished The Children of Llyr and The Song of Rhiannon. (The final volume, The Prince of Annwn, had been purchased for the Adult Fantasy line and appeared eight months after the line had been killed.)
Carter himself edited nine anthologies for the series, plus a general non-fiction book on fantasy. He published the first volume of Richard Hodgins' new translation of Orlando Furioso. (I wonder if any further volumes were published.)
What a great line-up. To top it off, the series reprinted Hope Mirrlees Lud-In-the-Mist, bringing one of the rarest and greatest fantasies to the attention of the mass market.
Each volume had an interesting, chatty introduction by Carter. The cover art was superb, especially those by Gervasio Gallardo. Each book was a polished gem.
The series ran from 1969 to 1974 (ok, so I had graduated before the series was over); beside the Evangeline Walton book mentioned above, H. Warner Munn's Merlin's Ring had also been scheduled to appear in the series, but was published after the series was closed. If memory serves me, a Henry Kuttner book had been announced about half-way through the series but never appeared.