Thursday, December 29, 2011

Blogging Sax Rohmer’s The Hand of Fu Manchu, Part Eight – “The Shrine of the Seven Lamps”



“The Shrine of the Seven Lamps” was the eighth installment of Sax Rohmer’s The Si-Fan Mysteries. The story was first published in Collier’s on April 21, 1917 and was later expanded to comprise Chapters 30 - 33 of the third Fu-Manchu novel, The Si-Fan Mysteries first published in 1917 by Cassell in the UK and by McBride & Nast in the US under the variant title, The Hand of Fu Manchu. The US book title marks the first time that the hyphen was dropped from the character’s name, although it was retained within the text.


“The Shrine of the Seven Lamps” picks up the story five months after the events related in the previous installments. This narrative gap proved fortuitous for those who have helped to keep the characters alive after Sax Rohmer’s passing by affording continuation authors an opportunity to craft additional titles set during the classic early years of the series. Dr. Petrie begins the account having concluded settling the estate of a recently-deceased relative. Petrie is returning to London by rail and happens to share a berth with a beautiful and mysterious Eurasian girl. Everything about his silent traveling companion – her eyes, her skin, her perfume - leave Petrie intoxicated. Tellingly, the woman’s beauty and unique eyes evoke memories of both Petrie’s beloved Karamaneh and the insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu. The overpowering mental force Petrie feels invading his mind and fighting to master his will likewise recalls the Devil Doctor. While Petrie feels an understandable sense of relief when this fascinating woman departs the train with her silent and menacing African servants, the reader is positive that Petrie has not seen the last of her.


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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Blogging Sax Rohmer’s The Hand of Fu Manchu, Part Seven – “Ki-Ming”



“Ki-Ming” was the seventh installment of Sax Rohmer’s The Si-Fan Mysteries. The story was first published in Collier’s on March 3, 1917 and was later expanded to comprise Chapters 27 - 29 of the third Fu-Manchu novel, The Si-Fan Mysteries first published in 1917 by Cassell in the UK and by McBride & Nast in the US under the variant title, The Hand of Fu Manchu. The US book title marks the first time that the hyphen was dropped from the character’s name, although it was retained within the text.


“Ki-Ming” starts off with Dr. Petrie burning the midnight oil one night working on his account of his and Nayland Smith’s recent exploits which he has entitled, “The Si-Fan Mysteries.” Petrie notes that Smith has gone to the theater for the night with visiting friends from Burma. Like Poe’s anonymous narrator of “The Raven,” Petrie is disturbed by a repeated tapping at his window for which he fails to discover the origin. Throwing the window open, Petrie peers down into the street and hears the tapping now coming from the front door. Rushing downstairs without puzzling over why his late visitor has not rung the doorbell, he stops to arm himself. He throws open the door and steps into a trap as a pair of dacoits lie concealed on either side of the door and a third (having entered through the open upstairs window) has followed him downstairs. Petrie is quickly bound and a bag filled with hashish is tied over his head.


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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Blogging Sax Rohmer’s The Hand of Fu Manchu, Part Six – “The House of Hashish”



“The House of Hashish” was the sixth installment of Sax Rohmer’s The Si-Fan Mysteries. The story was first published in Collier’s on February 17, 1917 and was later expanded to comprise Chapters 22 - 26 of the third Fu-Manchu novel, The Si-Fan Mysteries first published in 1917 by Cassell in the UK and by McBride & Nast in the US under the variant title, The Hand of Fu Manchu. The US book title marks the first time that the hyphen was dropped from the character’s name, although it was retained within the text.


“The House of Hashish” starts off with a wonderfully atmospheric opening with Dr. Petrie keeping a lonely nighttime vigil in the now abandoned shadow-filled wharf-side Joy Shop with only the sound of lapping waves and the incessant squealing of rats to accompany him. From a window, he watches Nayland Smith approach an old beggar woman and overhears their conversation. The old woman claims to have twisted her ankle and begs Smith to help her to the rooms she keeps in a wharf-side warehouse. Smith obliges and, of course, walks into a ruse as a dacoit leaps upon his back and quickly wraps a cord around his neck and begins strangling him. Fearing he is witnessing his friend’s death and helpless to stop him, Petrie is flabbergasted to see Smith’s apparent twin arrive to the rescue. Smith’s double beats off the dacoit and hurls the man into the Thames.


Regrouping at their apartment, Petrie realizes that Smith’s rescuer was a sailor acquaintance from an earlier episode. The man is noted to bear a strong resemblance to Smith. The old beggar woman was, of course, Zarmi in disguise and unsurprisingly, she managed to escape during the fray. From there, Petrie skips ahead in the narrative to the morning when Smith is summoned to the prison where the Si-Fan’s Greek operative, Samarkan is being held. The prisoner was found dead in his cell. Upon their arrival, it is clear to Smith and Petrie that something is amiss. It transpires that Samarkan’s body is missing. An interrogation of his guard reveals that when Samarkan was first brought in, he expressed that he suffered from heart problems. The guard claims that out of kindness he agreed to retrieve his medication for him. Upon further inquiry, the guard breaks down and confesses to having developed a hashish addiction while stationed in the East. He has known Samarkan and his crowd from the hashish house, the Café de l’Egypte located in Soho. The heart medication was Dr. Fu-Manchu’s catalepsy-inducing serum that Smith and Petrie are familiar with from the past. The first injection convinced prison officials that Samarkan had expired of heart failure and the corrupt guard’s second administration of the serum revived Samarkan enabling him to escape from prison.


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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Blogging Sax Rohmer’s The Hand of Fu Manchu, Part Five – “The Zagazig Cryptogram”



“The Zagazig Cryptogram” was the fifth installment of Sax Rohmer’s The Si-Fan Mysteries. The story was first published in Collier’s on January 26, 1917 (two months after the fourth installment) and was later expanded to comprise Chapters 19 - 21 of the third Fu-Manchu novel, The Si-Fan Mysteries first published in 1917 by Cassell in the UK and by McBride & Nast in the US under the variant title, The Hand of Fu Manchu. The US book title marks the first time that the hyphen was dropped from the character’s name, although it was retained within the text.


“The Zagazig Cryptogram” picks up two weeks after the last installment with Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie joining Inspector Weymouth at the River Depot police station to examine a corpse. A Burmese dacoit has been fished out of the Thames along the wharf where the Joy Shop sits. The coroner’s report reveals that the man was strangled rather than drowned as initially suspected. Smith spies in the Times’ personal column a mysterious message has been posted consisting of nothing more than the word Zagazig written seven times in a row. While Petrie dismisses it as nonsense, Smith points out that Zagazig is a town in Lower Egypt. He is convinced that the mysterious code and the murdered dacoit are somehow connected to the Si-Fan.


Later that day, Smith returns to his and Petrie’s room at the New Louvre Hotel. He bustles Petrie out to attend a rendezvous with Weymouth that Petrie did not recall. As they leave, they are met by Monsieur Samarkan, the hotel manager who invites them to a charitable function the following evening. Smith notes they may not be available and repeats to Petrie that they must hurry if they are going to meet Weymouth. Once outside, Smith reveals that he is convinced that the Si-Fan has infiltrated the hotel with a network of spies.


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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Blogging Sax Rohmer’s The Hand of Fu Manchu, Part Four – “The Queen of Hearts”





“The Queen of Hearts” was the fourth installment of Sax Rohmer’s The Si-Fan Mysteries. The story was first published in Collier’s on November 25, 1916 (after a surprising gap of five months after the last installment) and was later expanded to comprise Chapters 15 - 18 of the third Fu-Manchu novel, The Si-Fan Mysteries first published in 1917 by Cassell in the UK and by McBride & Nast in the US under the variant title, The Hand of Fu Manchu. The US book title marks the first time that the hyphen was dropped from the character’s name, although it was retained within the text.


“The Queen of Hearts” finally gives readers the return of the Devil Doctor they had been so eagerly awaiting since learning Fu-Manchu still lived six months earlier. The story starts with Rohmer’s trademark abrupt beginnings (in this instance Dr. Petrie yells, “Come in!” rather than “Who’s there?” in the opening line) with the unexpected arrival of a telegram from Cairo announcing that Petrie’s fiancée, Karamaneh will reach London by boat the next day. Nayland Smith speculates that the Si-Fan is the cause of her sudden departure from Egypt. That night, Smith awakens Petrie to inform him that Sir Baldwin Fraser, the prominent surgeon has been abducted and the description of the cab driver suggests that Zarmi has resumed her earlier disguise. They are joined by Inspector Weymouth at Sir Baldwin’s home in Half-Moon Street where they interrogate the surgeon’s secretary and learn that a beautiful Eurasian (whose description matches Zarmi) had been an unexpected visitor the prior night claiming her mother needed immediate medical attention. It was only after Sir Baldwin failed to return that his secretary learned the address given was a false one.


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Friday, November 25, 2011

Blogging Sax Rohmer’s The Hand of Fu Manchu, Part Three – “Golden Pomegranates”




“Golden Pomegranates” was the third installment of Sax Rohmer’s The Si-Fan Mysteries. The story was first published in Collier’s on June 24, 1916 and was later expanded to comprise Chapters 10 - 14 of the third Fu-Manchu novel, The Si-Fan Mysteries first published in 1917 by Cassell in the UK and by McBride & Nast in the US under the variant title, The Hand of Fu Manchu. The US book title marks the first time that the hyphen was dropped from the character’s name, although it was retained within the text.


“Golden Pomegranates” opens with two colorful characters, Meyerstein and Lewison appraising the Si-Fan’s sealed treasure chest in Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie’s apartment at the New Louvre Hotel. They identify the chest as a rare Tulun-Nur design dating from the sixteenth century or earlier and explain that such chests are secured using a complicated system of knobs being pressed or turned rather than relying upon a traditional lock and key. Smith refuses to allow them to attempt opening the chest and turns down Mr. Meyerstein’s offer to purchase the chest and pay Smith a percentage on its unknown contents. After the appraisers depart, Smith confides in Petrie that he has recently received a premonition not to open the chest.

Rohmer is drawing from a real-life Tulun-Nur treasure chest discovered by the Younghusband expedition several years before. Modern readers may be offended by the Semitic stereotyping of the appraisers. Such portrayals were common in fiction of the day. Personally, I have always enjoyed both characters tremendously and wish they had been developed further. The Tulun-Nur treasure chest would also influence Robert E. Howard’s similar deadly chest in The Hour of the Dragon. For his part, Rohmer follows the model of his favorite of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” in having Petrie concealed in the otherwise empty apartment with the treasure chest in an attempt to bait a trap for the Si-Fan’s spies in the hotel.


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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Blogging Sax Rohmer’s The Hand of Fu Manchu, Part Two – “Zarmi of the Joy Shop”

“Zarmi of the Joy Shop” was the second installment of Sax Rohmer’s The Si-Fan Mysteries. The story was first published in Collier’s on May 13, 1916 and was later expanded to comprise Chapters 5 - 9 of the third Fu-Manchu novel, The Si-Fan Mysteries first published in 1917 by Cassell in the UK and by McBride & Nast in the US under the variant title, The Hand of Fu Manchu. The US book title marks the first time that the hyphen was dropped from the character’s name, although it was retained within the text.

“Zarmi of the Joy Shop” gets off to a cracking start with Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie bringing the purloined brass box belonging to the Si-Fan to Inspector Weymouth’s office. The Inspector introduces them to Detective Sergeant Fletcher who patrols Limehouse. Fletcher tells them of John Ki’s Joy Shop, a gambling house of ill repute which has recently had two new arrivals: a beautiful Eurasian woman called Zarmi and a mysterious crippled man who walks on crutches who has excited much interest among the gambling house’s denizens. Weymouth associated Smith and Petrie’s mysterious ‘man with a limp” with Fletcher’s mysterious cripple. Zarmi has recently approached Fletcher, who was working undercover, to find another “big strong feller” to help her with a job. Smith agrees to accompany Fletcher to the Joy Shop in disguise the following night after depositing the brass box in a bank safe in the morning.

A sentimental Petrie bids Smith farewell at the New Louvre Hotel where the dreary November weather turns Petrie’s mind to Cairo where he left his fiancée, Karamaneh behind. Rohmer does a wonderful job contrasting the gray London so familiar to his readers with the paradise of sunny Cairo with its domes and minarets that recall Burton’s translation of 1001 Arabian Nights that was so close to the author’s heart. Petrie spends the day visiting a colleague, Dr. Murray, who purchased Petrie’s old practice from him after he moved to Cairo to prepare for his wedding with Karamaneh. Upon his return in the evening, he learns that Smith failed to turn up at Weymouth’s office and failed to deposit the brass box at the bank in the morning. Only then does Petrie recall that the taxi Smith stepped in was driven by an effeminate-looking dark-skinned man. He immediately deduces that Smith has fallen into the hands of the Si-Fan.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Blogging Sax Rohmer’s The Hand of Fu Manchu, Part One – “The Flower of Silence”

“The Flower of Silence” was the first installment of Sax Rohmer’s The Si-Fan Mysteries. The story was first published in Collier’s on April 8, 1916 and was later expanded to comprise the first four chapters of the third Fu-Manchu novel, The Si-Fan Mysteries first published in 1917 by Cassell in the UK and by McBride & Nast in the US under the variant title, The Hand of Fu Manchu. This third serial began only four months after the second concluded. The US book title marks the first time that the hyphen was dropped from the character’s name, although it was retained within the text.

“The Flower of Silence” finds Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie rooming at the New Louvre Hotel in London. Smith has been recalled from Cairo by his superiors. When the story opens on a chilly November night, Smith has returned to their apartment to inform Petrie that he has just leaned the name of the mysterious secret society that the late Dr. Fu-Manchu served; it is the Si-Fan and is based in Tibet. The reason for Smith’s recall to London is that Great Britain’s former Ambassador to Peking, Sir Gregory Hale has recently returned to London following the completion of his expedition to Mongolia. Sir Gregory was to have delivered a report on Tibetan Lamaism to the India Office but has failed to do so. Sir Gregory has not left his suite at the New Louvre Hotel for Sir Gregory has uncovered the existence of the Si-Fan and will only share that secret with Nayland Smith.

Upon arrival at his suite, Smith and Petrie learn from Sir Gregory’s valet, Beeton that the former Ambassador has been struck dumb and can only mutter incoherently. He dies in his bed shortly after Smith and Petrie’s arrival but leaves behind a cryptic message scrawled in a notebook containing the mysterious phrases:


“Guard brass box…Tibetan frontier…Key of India…Beware man with the
limp…Yellow rising…Watch Tibet…the Si-Fan”


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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Behind the Mask: Dr. Phibes – In the Beginning by William Goldstein







Forty years ago, American International Pictures released The Abominable Dr. Phibes starring the late Vincent Price to movie theaters and Award Books published the novel, Dr. Phibes by the character’s creator, William Goldstein. The novel serves as an intriguing variant to the camp classic film in treating the same story with a great deal of reverence and pathos. The following year Price starred in a hastily-produced sequel for AIP, Dr. Phibes Rises Again and Award Books again published a tie-in novel by the character’s creator which expands upon and corrects a number of the film’s flaws. Flash forward to 2011 and William Goldstein’s new novel, Dr. Phibes: In the Beginning has just been published.


I am not aware of any other creator having returned to his seminal work after such a lengthy passage of time. That said Goldstein had never truly abandoned Phibes. Much like the good doctor’s own quest to revive his beloved wife Victoria, Goldstein has had his own never-ending quest to re-launch the franchise with a new film or a television series. He is a rarity among screenwriters in that his literary efforts do not read like little more than movie treatments or as typical novelizations that slavishly follow the source material.

As Phibes’ creator and a fine author in his own right, Goldstein imbued his two Phibes novels of the early seventies with a tragic quality that frequently bordered on the poetic. Like his celebrated character, Goldstein had a vision of showing love as an all-consuming obsession and constructing a self-contained universe where Phibes is free to play God. This is the root of the Phibes universe and why his deranged decision to punish those he holds accountable for his wife’s death by re-creating Biblical plagues seems perfectly rational within the context.


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Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Halloween Treat: The New Death and Others by James Hutchings





The New Death and Others is James Hutchings’ newly-published collection of gothic poetry and short fiction. The title found its way to me through my appreciation of Robert E. Howard’s “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” for it is one of four fantasy stories that the author adapts in verse form. I admit to being skeptical that the quality would not come even close to doing justice to the works that provided inspiration. When I read Hutchings’ poem, I found myself recalling Tolkien’s use of poetry throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Here was a similar approach that uses the beauty of words sparingly to convey complex stories or histories in minimalist form. Hutchings’ work immediately captured my imaginations and left me hungry to sample more of his work.

I humbly admit to struggling with technology. Many are the times I require my kids’ assistance to navigate through the DVD’s remote in order to access special features or skip chapters or fast forward properly. The idea of owning an eBook is something that appeals to me as much as owning an iPod or iPhone. That said Amazon has made it hard for me to resist the technology with their free PC for Kindle download. As a reviewer, there are an increasing number of publishers who prefer to send their works as an eBook. The freeware allows readers to enjoy numerous free classics as well as sample other works for literally a fraction of their printed cost and without having to buy an expensive Kindle or Nook. All of this is actually relevant since Mr. Hutchings’ excellent offering is available at Amazon as an eBook or direct from Smashwords’ website for download. Quite honestly, I cannot think of a more perfect Halloween gift than this collection of poems. One could easily see the book becoming a seasonal tradition.

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Behind the Mask: Dr. Phibes Rises Again from Script to Screen


Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) brought back Vincent Price and director Robert Fuest for a second go-round with AIP’s favorite madman. Phibes’ original screenwriters William Goldstein and James Whiton penned the first draft of the sequel entitled The Bride of Dr. Phibes. While the resulting film retained significant elements from this work, AIP chose to hand the writing chores to Robert Blees with director Robert Fuest making final revisions on the produced script. Whiton and Goldstein’s sequel script would resurface several times over the years for AIP as a possible third film titled Phibes Resurrectus and later for AIP’s successor, New World Pictures for a revival titled Phibes Resurrected. Between these attempts, Goldstein came very close to getting a television series, The Sinister Dr. Phibes off the ground with comic book legend Jack Kirby providing the designs for the network presentation. A survey of the development of the sequel makes the film’s international title, Frustration seem all too apt.

The October 1971 draft of The Bride of Dr. Phibes makes it evident that Goldstein and Whiton (like many screenwriters before and since) were cheated of a story credit for the sequel since much of the resulting film’s structure is derived from their unproduced script. Phibes’ carefully planned resurrection and his scheme for reanimating his late wife are exactly as one finds in the finished film. Additionally, the central characters of Emil Salveus and his mistress Daphne Burlingame are virtually identical to the film’s central characters, Jonathan Biederbeck and Diana Trowbridge. Goldstein and Whiton focus the sequel on the Institute for Psychic Phenomenon which houses a Satanic cult led by the now adult Lem Vesalius seeking vengeance against Phibes nine years after the events of the first film. The Scotland Yard stalwarts, Trout, Schenley, and Crow return to good effect. Although Crow’s role seems better suited to his direct report, Waverley who is missing here. There’s a gripping scene set at Wembley Arena that recalls a similar sequence in one of the early Fantomas novels where the detectives think they’ve nabbed Phibes only to discover it is one of his automatons. It is obvious to understand why this script would not die and resurfaced several times under variant titles

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Behind the Mask: The Abominable Dr. Phibes from Script to Screen


The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) starring Vincent Price has long been one of my favorite films. I re-visit it once or twice each year and it always retains a freshness and vitality that separates it from other movies that I love. When asked to explain why it resonates with me to such a degree, I would invariably state that it is the perfect mix of horror and comedy. It never descends into the level of a spoof, but it has a delightfully anachronistic and intentionally offbeat bent with its art deco sets, lurid murders, campy score, and over-the-top performances. The film is a valentine to the mystery fiction of Edwardian England that saw the transition from Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Fu Manchu, but filtered through modern sensibilities that delight in the sensationalistic villainy and the preposterousness of detectives matching wits with murderers as if they were schoolboys playing a game.

While all of the above is certainly true, my attraction to the material runs deeper. Viewing the film as a valentine to Edwardian thrillers sparked a thought about Halloween. For most, it is a time for children to play dress-up and collect candy from their neighbors, but there is another side to the holiday that is decidedly grim. Halloween also evokes sadness and tragedy, lost love, memories of happiness never to be reclaimed, it is fitting it is an Autumnal holiday for it is a celebration of the bittersweet and the tragic. I suspect that is the root of what leads some adults to still cling to the Classic Horror films of the last century before horror became synonymous with splatter films and torture porn. Horror used to be reflective of unfortunate lives, lamentations of those cursed or forsaken. That association is still strong for those who are out of step with the world around them and feel separated from the rest of the world by the weight of their pain. Halloween and Classic Horror are a remembrance of our painful pasts that we transfer to entertainments depicting others’ pain and torment.


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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Blogging Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Part Fifteen – “The Fall of Ming”



“The Fall of Ming” was the fifteenth installment of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally published between January 19 and June 29, 1941, “The Fall of Ming” picks up the storyline where the fourteenth installment, “The Power Men of Mongo” left off with Flash having reached the gates of Ming’s concentration camp in a daring attempt to rescue Zarkov and the other political prisoners held there. Bulon is just about to assassinate Flash when he is captured by Ming’s guards. The traitor quickly reveals Flash’s hiding place. Flash barely escapes with his life, but later succeeds in infiltrating Ming’s “death patrol.”

Dale makes a full recovery and learns from Rena that Bulon is plotting against Flash. The two girls defy Ergon’s orders and set out to rescue Flash. Dale is captured by Sergeant Mordo, one of Ming’s patrolmen while Rena manages to escape. Dale is sent to the concentration camp, but Flash soon learns of her arrival and sets out to rescue her.

Alex Raymond again pushes the boundaries of 1940s sensibilities in the panel showing the muscular and unattractive female guards stripping Dale of her clothing. Likewise, his efforts to show the brutality of German concentration camps proves effective on an entirely different level. The camp’s warden Terro is depicted as a monocled Aryan monster (admittedly, Mongo is also filled with other politically incorrect caricatures from insidious Asians to traitorous Semitic characters as was common in the pulp fiction of the era). Raymond shows many of the prisoners with shaved heads, half-starved, and regularly beaten by the abusive warden. He also depicts a nubile young woman with her back being broken on a wheel. Don Moore’s script notes that prison cells are designed to prevent inmates from standing straight or being able to sit or lie down in an attempt to drive them mad. Raymond was obviously outraged by the War in Europe and was doing the best he could to draw readers’ attention to it by making Ming’s heinous actions strongly parallel Hitler’s atrocities that were recounted in newspapers of the day.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Blogging Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Part Fourteen – “Power Men of Mongo”



“Power Men of Mongo” was the fourteenth installment of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally published between April 14, 1940 and January 12, 1941, “Power Men of Mongo” picks up the storyline where the thirteenth installment, “The Ice Kingdom of Mongo” left off with Flash, Zarkov and Katon speeding by rocket-engine to Mingo City in a desperate attempt to rescue Dale. The rocket-engine is hijacked by Logun and the remnants of the Freemen who happily rejoin the battle to overthrow the Emperor of Mongo. They succeed in infiltrating the city, but one of the Freemen, Pital betrays Flash for the reward promised by Ming. The Emperor sets a trap to capture Flash and the Freemen when they meet in a warehouse at night. Dale starts a chemical fire in the warehouse to warn Flash of the danger. Ming leaves her to burn. Unable to remove her from the blazing warehouse, Flash settles for putting out the fire and then making a daring escape.

Flash successfully infiltrates Ming’s royal guard and very nearly succeeds in rescuing Dale, but Ming outmaneuvers him. Hunted by the police, Flash is rescued by Katon who leads him to the underground electrical works where the Power Men of Mongo are employed. Ergon, head of the Lodge of the Power Men has already befriended Zarkov and is eager to have the Power Men join the rebellion against Ming. The Power Men cause a blackout in the palace during which Flash and Zarkov (disguised as Power Men) eventually succeed in rescuing Dale. It is interesting to note that Flash’s Power Man outfit makes him look suspiciously like DC’s superhero, The Flash. Zarkov is given more of a chance to show his heroism. A turning point comes when Flash finds many of his former Freemen working in Ming’s munitions factory. Flash orchestrates a workers’ revolt and has the men turn on their foremen and seize control of the factory.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Blogging Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Part Thirteen – “The Ice Kingdom of Mongo”



“The Ice Kingdom of Mongo” was the thirteenth installment of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally published between March 12, 1939 and April 7, 1940, the epic-length “Ice Kingdom of Mongo” was the first story whose continuity lasted more than a year. “The Ice Kingdom of Mongo” picks up the storyline where the twelfth installment, “The Tyrant of Mongo” left off with Flash, Dale, Zarkov and Ronal rocketing their way to explore the frozen North. The freezing temperatures (100 below zero) cause their rocket ship to crash. While Zarkov and Ronal use heat guns to carve a shelter in the glacier, Flash goes off to hunt an ice bear for dinner unaware that a snow dragon is stalking him. Flash slays the snow dragon, but his shoulder is badly injured in the process. Ingeniously, he severs the dragon’s broad tail to use as a makeshift sled to transport the ice bear’s corpse and himself back to the glacier.

The four of them are quickly apprehended by Queen Fria of Frigia and her troops who are patrolling the area on skis. Taken captive, the group is set upon by a snow serpent. Flash saves the Queen from the monstrous beast and earns a place driving her snowbird-drawn chariot on the ride back to her palace. This earns him the enmity of Count Malo who turns off the heat to Flash’s bedchamber while he sleeps that night knowing that the freezing temperatures could kill him. Flash’s life is saved only by Zarkov’s timely arrival and superior medical knowledge. Determined to succeed, Count Malo disguises himself as Flash’s doctor and attempts to murder him in his hospital bed. Flash’s life is spared thanks to Dale’s intervention. Malo escapes with his identity still hidden from Flash and Dale.

His third attempt on Flash’s life occurs while a recovering Flash is getting some much-needed exercise in the pool with Dale. Count Malo again tampers with the heating mechanism causing the pool to instantly freeze. Flash and Dale barely manage to escape alive. While hunting snow oxen with the Queen’s hunting party, Flash saves Malo’s life from a ravenous ice worm. Ashamed of his actions, Count Malo confesses to his crimes and is stunned when Flash forgives him without demanding retribution. Of course, Malo’s comeuppance is close at hand as the hunting party fall prey to a tribe of primitive giants. Flash and Fria escape from their clutches, but Dale and Ronal are taken as slaves. While setting out to rescue them, Flash and the Queen come upon the frozen corpse of Count Malo which the giants have left behind as a grim warning.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Blogging Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Part Twelve – “The Tyrant of Mongo”



“The Tyrant of Mongo” was the twelfth installment of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally printed between June 12, 1938 and March 5, 1939, the epic-length “Tyrant of Mongo” picks up the storyline where the eleventh installment, “Outlaws of Mongo” left off with Flash and the Freemen having sought refuge in the tombs of Ming’s ancestors. They befriend Chulan the caretaker who joins the Freemen. The flooding of Mingo City has thrown the kingdom into disarray. Flash and a group of Freemen storm the Navy’s flagship only to find its captain only too willing to join the fight against the Emperor.

Emboldened by their success thus far, Flash and Captain Sudin lead the growing ranks of Freemen in a daring prison break to free Ming's political prisoners. Naturally, they have walked into a trap. Scores of Freemen are decimated by Ming’s forces. Flash and an injured Sudin manage to escape with their lives. Unexpectedly, Flash and Sudin bombard the prison from their rocketship and rescuing those survivors they can reach attempt to make good their escape.

Crashing into the sea, Flash learns they are short one oxygen tank and heroically stays behind with the sinking ship while everyone else makes their way to freedom. Dale and Zarkov succeed in rescuing Flash, but Zarkov doesn’t believe his chances for survival are very strong. Of course, thanks to Zarkov’s surgical skill Flash does survive and recovers sufficiently to design and construct a complex series of underground tunnels to house the Freemen. Naturally, their new-found tranquility is short-lived as Ming visits the island to bury his recently-deceased uncle (who Ming had killed when he learned he was plotting against him). A word should be said about Alex Raymond reaching new heights with his artwork in this installment. Raymond’s work was constantly evolving and it retains its power nearly 80 years later.

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Blogging Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Part Eleven – “Outlaws of Mongo”



“Outlaws of Mongo” was the eleventh installment of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally printed between August 15, 1937 and June 5, 1938, the epic-length “Outlaws of Mongo” picks up the storyline where the tenth installment, “The Beast Men of Mongo” left off with Barin, Flash and Dale returning to Arboria. The traitor, Grombo collapses while crossing the desert, but is saved from carrion birds by Ming’s Desert Legion. Ming rewards Grombo by appointing him a Captain. Ming confronts Barin and demands that he hand Flash and Dale over, Barin refuses. Fearing the situation will quickly escalate to a war that would devastate Arboria, Flash decides to flee to the jungles of Arboria so that Barin can report his escape to Ming. The Emperor, of course, demands Barin hand Dale over and when he refuses, Ming orders Arboria destroyed by his air fleet.

Don Moore and Alex Raymond’s stories were growing more complex and as a consequence, Mongo and its lands and peoples were becoming more detailed. The two also clarify the point that the kingdoms of Mongo are denied the technology that Ming’s forces command to ensure they cannot successfully revolt. Moore’s script also specifies that Barin views Flash as a savior who has come to Mongo to liberate its kingdoms from Barin’s tyrannical father-in-law. Flash stumbles out of the jungles of Arboria into the desert and discovers Ming’s tanks are rolling in. Flash singlehandedly commandeers a tank, overpowering the crew and turns its gun on the rest of the fleet as well as the infantry. Meantime, the air fleet has launched and is en route to bomb Arboria.

Barin orders the evacuation of Arboria. Aura and Dale remain behind helping to evacuate the hospital as Barin has unconscionably made no arrangements to help the infirm. While at the hospital, Dale discovers Zarkov and learns from Aura that his mind is gone and he’s been left in a vegetative state. The air strike demolishes Arboria leaving Dale and Aura trapped with the helpless patients when the hospital collapses. The tank Flash commandeered is also bombed. An unconscious Flash is captured by Ming’s infantry led by Captain Grombo. Barin and his men clear the rubble and find the unconscious bodies of Aura and Dale. Recovering his senses, Flash strikes Grombo who has him dragged through the desert by horse as punishment.

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Blogging Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Part Ten – “The Beast Men of Mongo”



“The Beast Men of Mongo” was the tenth installment of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally printed between April 25 and August 8, 1937, “The Beast Men of Mongo” picks up the storyline where the ninth installment, “The Tusk Men of Mongo” left off with Flash and Dale led by Captain Truno to Prince Barin’s kingdom. Truno explains that it is necessary for them to live in treetop homes because of the many dangers of the forest. They ride a vine-propelled elevator to an amazing network of highways that link the trees four hundred feet above ground to Prince Barin’s stunning snow-white castle.

Barin and Aura give Flash and Dale a royal welcome. Alex Raymond’s artwork is gorgeous in these panels. Aura still carries a torch for Flash and greets him with a passionate kiss that leaves Dale fuming. That night as Flash gazes out the window he spies an intruder entering Aura’s chamber via the balcony. Flash heroically swings down on a vine and surprises the intruder. The man surrenders Aura’s jewels and claims he was reduced to thieving because of his sickly wife. Flash takes pity on him and lets him go free. Aura emerges from her bed chamber and discovers Flash who returns her jewels and claims the thief escaped. Leaving Aura’s room, Flash is met by Dale who is suspicious when Flash claims he chased a thief away. The adult themes in this storyline (though tame by modern standards) were quite sophisticated for their day. Don Moore’s dialogue lets Raymond’s artwork tell the story for him. This was always true of their partnership, but the point is driven home even more when Raymond turns up the heat of sexual tension between Flash and Aura.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Blogging Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Part Nine – “The Tusk Men of Mongo”



“The Tusk Men of Mongo” was the ninth installment of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally printed between February 7 and April 18, 1937, “The Tusk Men of Mongo” picks up the storyline where the eighth installment, “The Forest Kingdom of Mongo” left off with Flash and Dale unknowingly venturing into Tusk Men territory. The Tusk Men are a Neanderthal-like race of blue-skinned men with prehensile tails. They live in tribes and have fashioned crude tools such as axes. One of their scouts spies Flash and Dale and despite Flash carrying a makeshift spear, they are quickly overwhelmed by five of the Tusk Men.

Flash and Dale are bound and led many miles away to a vast network of caves where the Tusk Men dwell. There, we learn that the Tusk Men can speak a simple form of English as well as their own bestial language, and that they are cannibals who have captured Flash and Dale to devour them. The tribe is ruled by One-Tusk who claims Dale for his mate. Dale pleads for Flash’s life is to be spared to no avail. Just as he is about to be pitched into the flames, Flash breaks free of his bonds and fights against his captors. The Tusk Men greatly outnumber him and the Earth man is quickly recaptured. Death appears unavoidable.

A predatory tigron (a tiger with a single horn on its head) attacks One-Tusk just as Flash is about to be burned alive. Taking advantage of the distraction caused by the tigron’s attack, Flash rescues One-Tusk by lassoing the tigron and throwing it into the flames. His actions win him a reprieve. One-Tusk offers Flash the chance to hunt with the tribe. If Flash is successful in providing for the tribe’s feast, his life will be spared. If he fails, Flash will be eaten instead.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Blogging Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Part Eight – “The Forest Kingdom of Mongo”



“The Forest Kingdom of Mongo” was the eighth installment of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally printed between October 25, 1936 and January 31, 1937, “The Forest Kingdom of Mongo” picks up the storyline where the seventh installment, “The Undersea Kingdom of Mongo” left off with Flash, Dale, and Zarkov winging their way to Prince Barin’s kingdom when they are ambushed by Ming’s air fleet. Their rocket ship is shot down and crash lands in an unknown forest near Mount Karakas. Ming orders Lu Chao, the commander of the air fleet to recover Flash’s body while Flash, an injured Zarkov, and an unconscious Dale stagger off into the forests.

Flash and Zarkov seek shelter in a nearby cave where Dale recovers consciousness. Lu Chao and his fleet arrive at the scene of the crash to discover the stolen rocket ship has been consumed by flames. Taking no chances that Flash might have survived, Lu Chao orders his men to set fire to the forest before they depart leaving the trio cut off by flames at every turn.

Flash, Dale, and Zarkov flee before the flames. Entering a clearing they come upon a number of prehistoric beasts who are also fleeing the spreading forest fire. Flash scrambles up a tall tree and spies a nearby river. The trio takes to the water clinging to a felled tree when a carnivorous ursodile surfaces and approaches them.
Thinking quickly, Flash breaks off a branch from their floating tree and dives into the water to tackle the ursodile head on. As the creature lunges for the kill, Flash jams the branch between its jaws, rendering it helpless. Reuniting with Dale and Zarkov, the trio sees they are completely cut off from coming ashore by the raging fire. Lu Chao reports to Ming that no one could have survived the forest fire and the rocket ship’s explosion. At long last, Flash Gordon is dead.

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William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press). A sequel, The Destiny of Fu Manchu is due for publication in December 2011. Also forthcoming is a collection of short stories featuring an original Edwardian detective, The Occult Case Book of Shankar Hardwicke and an original hardboiled detective novel, Lawhead. To see additional articles by William, visit his blog at SetiSays.blogspot.com

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Blogging Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula, Part Thirteen



The Tomb of Dracula #65, “Where No Vampire Has Gone Before” starts off with Rachel Van Helsing returning to Quincy Harker, Frank Drake and Janus to tell them that Dracula is no longer a vampire. Frank is skeptical, but Janus and Quincy believe that Satan has stripped him of his supernatural powers and left him in the 20th Century as a mortal man out of time. Quincy and Rachel point out the ethical dilemma they face. They have no right to hunt and kill Dracula if he no longer is a vampire despite the many murders he committed when he was undead. From there the scene switches to a cemetery where the unnamed bounty hunter (who with his Stetson and western dialogue is also a man out of time) digs up a vampire and interrogates him with a fiery cross held to his forehead until the vampire confirms that Dracula is in Boston. We then find Dracula, homeless in an alleyway where he meets a junkie prostitute named Harriet. Dracula innocently (for once) accepts her invitation to go back to her apartment where a couple of her dealer’s hired muscle break in and rough Harriet up for having stolen heroin. Dracula gallantly defends her and though mortal (as he is reminded after he is shot in the shoulder), he is still the fierce warrior of old and easily hurls one of the goons threw a third storey window to the street below. The former vampire is arrested along with Harriet and one of the hired guns, but is later released and declared a hero and has his picture taken by a newspaper photographer. Back on the streets, Dracula finds himself, homeless, penniless and hungry for food for the first time in five hundred years. After running into trouble on the streets again, he resolves to seek out his daughter, Lilith and ask her to turn him into a vampire once more. Meantime, Quincy, Rachel and Frank learn of his recent exploits when the 11:00 news carries the story of an anonymous hero who saved a woman from a mob hit. The next morning, Dracula hijacks a private plane and forces the pilot to take him to New York as he is aware his daughter is living in Greenwich Village currently. A witness to the hijacking recognizes him as the hero seen on television the night before and reports the hijacking to the police. The issue ends with the bounty hunter picking up Dracula’s trail in the police station and realizing his quarry is no longer a vampire. Content that his job has just become easier, the nameless bounty hunter checks out of his hotel and heads for New York.

Issue #66, “Showdown in Greenwich Village” starts off with Dracula in Greenwich Village at winter. He is cold and lost with no way of finding his daughter. He mugs a husband and wife hoping to find enough money for food and shelter, but is run off by an angry mob. He seeks shelter in a church, but refuses a priest’s offer of help having forsaken God as a child centuries before. He wanders into a disco bar and has just enough money to buy his first hamburger (which he dislikes) when he is picked up by an attractive divorcee named Ann Keats. Dracula humorously chooses the identity of Drake and tells her he is in Greenwich Village looking for his daughter. Ann has friends in the village who trace runaways, but Dracula is unable to provide a photograph or any information on Lilith. He and Ann are accosted by a street gang upon leaving and Dracula easily beats them off, but is stabbed in the process. Dracula goes back to Ann’s apartment and tells her his true identity. While Ann thinks he’s delusional, he places a long distance call to Boston to check on Domini, but refuses to tell his wife where he is. Just then, Francis Leroy Brown, the bounty hunter breaks in and a violent battle ensues that ends in Brown’s death, but not before he shoots Dracula several times. The former vampire slips into unconsciousness as Ann calls for an ambulance. The issue ends with Lilith reading a New York Times article about her father surviving a fatal encounter with Brown as she realizes he is now a mortal and is obviously looking for her.

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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Blogging Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula, Part Twelve




The Tomb of Dracula #59, “The Last Traitor” starts off with Quincy Harker, Frank Drake, Rachel Van Helsing, and Harold H. Harold feeling uneasy that Anton Lupeski has armed them with rifles and silver bullets as the group plots to assassinate Dracula at a feast in honor of his son’s birth to be held that weekend. Gene Colan’s depiction of Lupeski is eerily lifelike. The group is conflicted by their contempt for Lupeski and their desire to end Dracula’s reign of terror. Marv Wolfman gets in some nice digs about Freedom of Religion protecting Satanists as well as Christians with Lupeski saying that one day they will see whose God is stronger. We then switch to a brief domestic scene between Dracula and Domini as the vampire expresses his awareness that Lupeski seeks to undermine his power at the upcoming feast in his son’s honor. The vampire then sets out to hunt and picks as his victim an attractive night school teacher whom Dracula saves from an attempted rape by one of her students only to attack her himself. From there the action quickly shifts to the night of the feast in Janus’ honor. Lupeski, clad in his ceremonial mask and robes, proclaims the infant Janus the New Leader of the Dark Church just as Quincy, Rachel, Frank, and Harold burst in and the gunplay begins. Lupeski’s bloodlust gets the better of him and he brandishes a rifle as well and in the ensuing battle, Janus is inadvertently struck by a bullet and killed. Dracula is overcome with rage as he knocks Lupeski to the ground and crushes his face with his bare hands, killing the treacherous high priest. Domini turns in prayer to the portrait of Christ that hangs in the deconsecrated church and declares there are to be no more deaths. She orders Quincy, Rachel, Frank and Harold to depart quickly. She then informs Dracula that she acts on Christ’s commands and beseeches her husband to turn aside from his dark path and embrace her Savior. Dracula’s anger gives way to bewilderment as he transforms into a bat and flees from the church telling Domini he cannot do what she asks of him.

#60, “The Wrath of Dracula” is simply a stunning character study of an enraged lost soul in his darkest hour. Dracula drives Domini off and proceeds to destroy the deconsecrated church (with the exception of the painting of Christ that he is unable to touch). As his anger subsides, his grief turns to introspection as he recalls his cruelty to his first wife and his misogynistic behavior toward his female servants and finally his broken relationship with his daughter, Lilith. Overcome with emotion, he flies to the top of a building in downtown Boston in the midst of a terrible storm and declares that his entire life has been a lie that must finally end. Filled with all of the pain he and his family have endured, he swoops down to attack an attractive woman braving the rain far below only to check himself when confronted by her young son. Climbing atop a church tower in the heart of the storm, Dracula begs God to strike him down and end his suffering. When the lightning fails to kill him, he is once again enraged believing that God mocks him because he is already damned. Dracula vows to end God’s power over mankind and transforming into a bat, he flies off into the night. The issue ends with a brief epilogue showing Domini at Janus’ grave at dawn as she promises her son to find a means of resurrecting him.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Blogging Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula, Part Eleven



The Tomb of Dracula #55, “Requiem for a Vampire” is highlighted by the stunning artwork of Gene Colan and Tom Palmer, which is exceptionally beautiful even by their high standards. Marv Wolfman’s script cleverly builds on the conflict between Dracula finding marital bliss with his wife and their infant son and the nagging doubt that he was capable of siring a child in his undead state. Adding to his concerns is the fact that his son resembles the angel he battled several issues earlier. Only the vampire’s lust for power distracts him from pondering this further. Anton Lupeski’s growing awareness of Dracula’s madness convinces him he must remove him once and for all before the vampire turns on him. Meantime, Quincy Harker is recovering from his heart attack and meets with Frank Drake, Rachel Van Helsing, Harold H. Harold and Aurora Rabinowitz to discuss their next move. Harold successfully infiltrates the Satanic christening ceremony held in the Dark Church where Lupeski christens Dracula and Domini’s son, Janus and declares the child is the promised anti-Christ. Dracula realizes that Lupeski is setting up his infant son as the focus of the cult to minimize the vampire’s influence and rebukes Lupeski publicly, abruptly departing the ceremony with his wife and son and leaving the High Priest fuming over his humiliation. What follows is a wonderful piece of writing with husband and wife alone together, bearing their scarred souls to one another. Dracula opens up about his fractured relationship with his daughter, Lilith and Domini goes into greater detail about how she fell into the Church of Satan. Wolfman is as bluntly honest as the censorship of the day would allow in depicting real life sexual abuse by cult members. The literate, moving dialogue combined with Colan’s realistic artwork combine to make this issue a landmark installment in this fine series. It seems impossible not to be moved by these two lost souls whose one desire is to find peace after living lives of degradation and abandonment. Of course, moments of peace are short-lived in broken lives and Lupeski is overheard by another vampire plotting with one of his cult member to kill Dracula once and for all. The loyal vampire reports Lupeski’s betrayal to Domini who chooses to pay a clandestine visit to Lupeski herself rather than inform her husband that the High Priest is plotting his murder. The issue ends with the vampire prowling the night skies in bat-form ruminating as he had at the start of the issue over the points that continue to cause him unrest. His melancholy mood is tempered by the belief that he has a loving and devoted family and has finally found some semblance of peace.

#56, “The Vampire Conspiracy” is the title of Harold’s fictionalized account of his encounters with Dracula. This is really just a humorous filler issue which neatly summarizes the Boston-based storyline thus far and wrings some humor out of the contrast between Harold’s narration (where he depicts himself as capable, heroic, and distinctly Sherlockian) and the reader’s recollection of what has occurred in the narrative up to this point. It is interesting to note that Harold portrays Rachel and Aurora as helpless damsels in distress in a fashion that is very familiar to those who grew up on a steady diet of Universal and Hammer horror. Most intriguing is a purely fictionalized encounter between Dracula and Satan who appears in the form of a black panther. While no such event has occurred, it does prefigure the direction Wolfman is about to take with the storyline in coming months. As it is, the issue remains a diverting time-filler.

#57, “The Forever Man” starts with an intriguing prologue depicting the curse that befell Gideon Smith in the 18th Century which left him doomed to a series of violent reincarnations which deny him peace. We follow Smith through the generations to the present (Boston in the mid-1970’s). A brief segue sees Domini confronting Anton Lupeski over his plans to assassinate Dracula, but the High Priest of the Dark Church succeeds in intimidating her into remaining silent for the time being. Meantime, the storyline picks up with Dracula hunting the streets of Boston when he runs into a series of unfortunate encounters that lands him in a hospital room next to Gideon Smith. Gene Colan’s artwork in this issue is impressive from beginning to end, but certainly reaches its peak with Dracula’s rampage through the hospital. The issue ends with poor Gideon Smith reduced to a catatonic state after witnessing Dracula’s frenzied reaction to being mistaken for an accident victim when discovered unconscious. A sidestep is necessary before we cover the next issue. The reader should first acquaint themselves with several solo adventures for Blade that were published in a couple different magazines (free from interference from comic censors) prior to enjoying the character’s solo spotlight in the pages of the next issue of the main title.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Blogging Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula, Part Ten



The Tomb of Dracula #49, “And With the Word There Shall Come Death” is an intriguing issue which nicely develops Anton Lupeski’s ambition to see the Church of Satan grow into a cult that could become a One World government. Of course, Lupeski sees Dracula as both his means of achieving this goal and an obstacle to remove before he vampire is firmly entrenched as the head of the church. Dracula returns home to his pregnant wife, Domini, but is almost immediately mystically spirited away to another dimension. The subplot with Blade and Hannibal King battling Blade’s vampire doppelganger ends with Blade disappearing into his undead twin leaving only the vampire Blade to confront King. Meantime, Frank Drake and Harold H. Harold are captured by Lupeski’s followers when they infiltrate a Black Mass. Rachel Van Helsing is seen about to attempt their rescue while Dracula materializes in the library of a woman named Angie Turner who possesses the apparent ability to summon literary figures to life from her library. The vampire lord finds himself encountering the likes of the Frankenstein Monster, Zorro, D’artagnan, and Tom Sawyer. Dracula is confused as to the nature of Angie’s powers. When she burns Bram Stoker’s novel, the real Dracula is returned home to Domini and the reader learns that Angie Turner is a mental patient locked in a padded cell in a nice twist ending worthy of Rod Serling or Richard Matheson at their peak. Marv Wolfman’s concept of comic book/literary reality vs. the real world the reader escapes from raises what would otherwise be considered mere filler to genuine delight.

#50, “Where Soars the Silver Surfer” is yet another crossover with a more mainstream Marvel character. The interconnected Marvel Universe concept is one I always enjoyed, but felt it never really worked outside of superhero books. Happily, Dracula’s meeting with the Silver Surfer comes off more satisfying than expected. The story gets off to a strong start with a predatory Dracula scared off by an angry crowd who come to his helpless victim’s rescue. We then switch to Anton Lupeski explaining to four unseen guests his plan to kill Dracula once Domini gives birth to his heir. From there we switch scenes to the ongoing fight between Blade’s vampire doppelganger and Hannibal King and then we view Lupeski and his four unseen cohorts performing an occult ritual to summon the Silver Surfer to their dimension. Dracula is finding life as head of the Church of Satan to be frustrating. Writer Marv Wolfman does well in portraying Satanists as regular folk and high-ranking politicians and not just stereotypical occultists. The ongoing subplot involving the portrait of Christ in the deconsecrated church is developed further. The Surfer enters and exits through the portrait as a portal between dimensions and understands that Christ has a plan for Dracula that involves both Domini and their unborn child. The decision to have the mystical Surfer possess an understanding of Christ is as effective as the suggestion that both the Church of Satan and God are using the Surfer for the same purpose. Wolfman was walking a tightrope in these portrayals and offended more than a few readers along the way. Ultimately, it is up to the individual to decide whether his bold experiment worked or failed, but I found his integration of mainstream religion with supernatural fiction to be a highly effective one that harkened back successfully to the vampire’s literary roots in Stoker’s Victorian classic.

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Friday, July 15, 2011

The Black Coats: An Introduction



Les Habits Noirs is a series of seven landmark novels in pulp fiction history that have sadly been neglected outside of their native France. A fair degree of skepticism among modern readers is to be expected. Translations of obscure French novels can be a spotty affair and the verbose literary style of Victorian literature with its lengthy philosophical or historical passages are often wearying for a 21st Century audience. For every Fantomas that still captures modern imaginations, there are countless Dumas or Hugo pastiches whose only redeeming quality is their historical value to the avid student of fantastic fiction. Happily, Les Habits Noirs is one of those rare treasures that are as enthralling today as it was 140 years ago.

Paul Feval wrote all seven books in the series. He was an amazingly prolific author who turned out swashbucklers, vampire tales, crime fiction and religious works of vastly varying quality. Brian Stableford has spent much of the last decade translating his works into English for publication by Jean-Marc Lofficier’s Black Coat Press, a pulp specialty publisher who chose the English-language title for Les Habits Noirs for their imprint. Many critics have compared Les Habits Noirs to Mario Puzo’s Godfather series. My own best comparison would be to consider it the antecedent to Norbert Jacques’ Doctor Mabuse, the Gambler and especially the three films Fritz Lang made from that seminal work. Like Lang’s three masterpieces of crime, Les Habits Noirs bridges the gap between Pulp and Art.

The seven books in the series were published between 1863 and 1875 and concern members of a secret society headed by a crime family led by the patriarchal Colonel Bozzo-Corona. The first book, entitled Les Habits Noirs in France, was re-titled The Parisian Jungle by Black Coat Press for their English translation. The book introduces the criminal brotherhood, The Black Coats as a cross between the Mafia and the Illuminati. Modern readers weaned on Dan Brown’s intriguing if hopelessly hackneyed neo-pulp thrillers will marvel at what a true master of the conspiracy thriller sub-genre is capable of crafting. Colonel Bozzo-Corona is as intriguing a criminal mastermind as any fiction. A feeble grandfather figure that can strike as quick as a cobra, Bozzo-Corona is always portrayed as displaying an uncommon brilliance. His fatal flaw is his borderline Messianic complex which promises to be his ultimate undoing. Feval’s fatal flaw was his inability to maintain the high standard of quality he demonstrated with this series. Too much of his non-series work was derivative and, after leaving his fiction works behind following a dramatic religious conversion, he doomed his reputation to be little more than a literary footnote. From that perspective, Black Coat Press and Brian Stableford’s work seems little short of evangelical in its mission to bring Les Habits Noirs to a wider audience who will appreciate this seminal work for its richness and mesmerizing tone.

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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Blogging Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula, Part Nine



The Tomb of Dracula #44, “His Name is Doctor Strange” kicks off the series’ crossover with Marvel’s flagship occult title, Doctor Strange. The crossover was a natural choice given the characters and the fact that artist Gene Colan had a past association with Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts. Admittedly, the physical resemblance between Colan’s rendition of Stephen Strange and the Lord of Vampires is a bit too close for comfort, but Marv Wolfman delivers a solid script that makes the crossover fun despite failing to live up to the potential of what the meeting between these two characters might have been. The story gets underway with Strange retrieving his faithful manservant, Wong from the crystal ball he had mystically disappeared into only to find his valet has been bitten by a vampire. Strange enters the crystal ball and visits the past to see Wong interrupting Dracula’s attack on an innocent woman and then watches through Wong’s eyes as the vampire turns on his manservant. This intriguing set-up sets Strange off to put an end to Dracula’s reign of terror. From here, we segue to a largely pointless comic relief subplot where tabloid journalist Harold H. Harold is incensed to learn that his publisher’s sexy, but dimwitted receptionist Aurora Rabinowitz has sold her story about their encounter with Dracula and earned a byline. From there, we move to the much more interesting subplot involving the white-haired vampire who is being sought by both Blade and Hannibal King. The actual conflict between Dracula and Dr. Strange comes off rather well with the sorcerer tracking the vampire to his coffin and entering an astral battle with the vampire in 15th Century Wallachia. Unsurprisingly, Strange underestimates the vampire’s hypnotic powers and is attacked and bitten by Dracula. The issue’s real climax sees Blade and Hannibal King meeting for the first time on the trail of the white-haired vampire who ruined both of their lives.

Doctor Strange #14, “The Tomb of Doctor Strange” concludes the crossover with Steve Englehart’s script fitting as seamlessly into Wolfman’s storyline as Wolfman did with his in the first part. This uncommonly effective crossover can be contributed to the fact that Wolfman edited both titles. As the story gets underway, we learn that Strange’s astral form is still free while his physical body has fallen victim to the vampire. More significantly, Dracula first stumbles upon the deconsecrated Boston church in this issue which will play such an important role in the next story arc. Englehart also begins a continuing storyline with Dracula being pursued by an unseen spirit who taunts him with visions from his past. Dracula returns to feast on Strange and the magician’s astral form re-enters his body, awakening him. Strange calls on Jehovah and creates an astral cross which causes the vampire’s death. The effects of Strange and Wong’s vampire bits are reversed with Dracula’s death at the issue’s rushed conclusion.

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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Blogging Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula, Part Eight



The Tomb of Dracula #38, “Blood-Rush” continues the more light-hearted vein for the series with the change of setting from London to Boston as the comic relief characters of the Woody Allen-inspired Harold H. Harold and the ditzy bombshell Aurora Rabinowitz set out to score some blood so that Harold’s house guest, Dracula doesn’t die. The scene shifts to Dr. Sun’s Boston headquarters where he is monitoring, via closed circuit television, a meeting between Quincy Harker, Rachel Van Helsing and Frank Drake. The issue ends with Dracula, Quincy, Rachel and Frank captives of Dr. Sun and his murderous henchman, Juno with the unlikely duo of Harold and Aurora setting out to rescue the vampire who has promised Harold an interview so that he can meet his publisher’s deadline.

Issue #39, “The Death of Dracula” is highlighted by a gripping battle between Dracula and Juno. The hook-armed Chinese assassin seems to have stepped right out of Marvel’s Master of Kung-Fu series. The move to include offbeat comic relief supporting characters also seems influenced by Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy’s acclaimed series. Both titles were unique for Marvel for eschewing the superhero formula and offering surprisingly modern updates of what were considered tired and perhaps exhausted literary properties (Dracula and Fu Manchu, respectively). Dracula is killed by Juno with a spike through the heart. The villainous henchman then uses a flame thrower to cremate Dracula on the spot. Quincy, Rachel, Frank and their new acquaintances, Harold and Aurora manage to escape Dr. Sun’s headquarters and alert the military to his scheme for world domination. The issue fades out on the maniacal Dr. Sun observing their meeting with the military, improbably via his ubiquitous closed circuit cameras, as the talking brain in a fish tank gloats over his seeming omnipotence.

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Blogging Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula, Part Seven



The Tomb of Dracula #33, “Blood On My Hands” starts off with aged, blind wheelchair-bound Quincy Harker facing his greatest dilemma: if he lets Dracula die as the vampire deserves, then he forfeits the life of Rachel Van Helsing, held captive across town by Dracula’s brides. Quincy is tormented by the memory of his daughter Edith. He thinks back thirty years to the night Dracula abducted his wife and flung Quincy from his balcony seat at the opera leaving him crippled by the fall. Quincy’s wife survived another decade after Dracula’s attack, but never fully recovered. Faced with the tragedy of his life, Quincy spares Dracula to save Rachel. In gratitude, Dracula grasps the urn containing Edith’s remains and scatters them across the room, literally throwing her ashes in her father’s face. Leaving the reader feeling nothing but contempt for Dracula at his cruelest, writer Marv Wolfman shifts the setting to India where Taj Nital and his wife stand by their son’s grave. The pain of two grieving parents has reunited them. The issue rapidly picks up speed again as Dracula realizes Dr. Sun is the person who must have poisoned him and sets out to find him. Meantime, Inspector Chelm is on Dracula’s tail while the reader learns that the mysterious white-haired vampire sought by both Blade and Hannibal King is also seeking Dracula. Gene Colan’s artwork maintains the high level readers had come to expect as he and Marv Wolfman deliver another excellent issue that keeps the suspense raised as the storylines appear to be headed toward another major development.

Issue #34, “Showdown of Blood” sees the action shift to Brazil where Guest Star Brother Voodoo saves Frank Drake from the zombies. While in London, Inspector Chelm and his men bungle their attempt to slay Dracula. The reader learns that the mysterious white-haired vampire has been stalking Dracula for some time. A final interlude in India sees Taj make a bittersweet departure from the series as he writes a letter to Rachel Van Helsing explaining he will not return to London. Rachel rejoins Quincy, eager to hunt Dracula down. Wolfman then introduces us to embittered fashion designer, Daphne Von Wilkinson who encounters a weakened Dracula and begins providing him with the fresh blood he needs in the form of her enemies.

Issue #35, “Hell Hath No Fury” sees Daphne Von Wilkinson barter with Dracula. She will locate Dr. Sun using her fashion model contacts if he kills four of her enemies. The setting shifts to Brazil where Brother Voodoo and Frank Drake fight their way out of the army of zombies and determine to find Danny Summer. Dracula kills each of Daphne’s four remaining enemies in a series of vignettes. Von Wilkinson provides Dracula with the information he needs: Dr. Sun has set up base in Boston. Wolfman and Colan end the issue with a conclusion straight out of an EC horror anthology of the 1950s as Dracula unleashes his four undead victims to exact their vengeance on Daphne Von Wilkinson.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Blogging Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula, Part Six



Giant-Size Dracula #3, “Slow Death on the Killing Ground” offers another strong script from Chris Claremont. It is a pity that Marvel’s Curse of Dracula series (as the Giant-Size quarterly companion title was listed on the splash page of each issue) did not continue longer for Claremont and artist Don Heck actually made a good B-team to stand alongside Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan with the monthly title. The story concerns Lady Elianne Turac, a 15th Century Wallachian noblewoman whose father fell victim to Dracula. Elianne swore eternal vengeance on the vampire and thanks to her becoming an Adept of the Black Arts, she was granted that immortality (bizarrely at the cost of her vision). Flash forward to 1974 and Elianne is now a blind Romanian militant who leads her band of terrorists in an unexpected raid on a society party in London. Their purpose is to abduct Quincy Harker to gain access to the Montesi Formula and wipe all vampires from the face of the earth. Being terrorists, Quincy should not be surprised when they gun down all of the dinner guests to insure no witnesses survive. As events transpire, Dracula ends up saving Quincy from the terrorists and only the timely arrival of the quarterly series’ protagonist, psychic investigator Kate Fraser saves Harker from ending up a vampire himself. Quincy ends up hospitalized yet again while Dracula sets out to end the threat posed by Elianne by destroying each of her associates and then draining her blood. The post-script sees Inspector Chelm and Kate Fraser arrive on the scene in time to put a stake through Elianne’s heart.

The Tomb of Dracula #29, “Vengeance is Mine, Sayeth the Vampire” is exactly the story readers should anticipate next. Having had time to brood over Sheila Whittier’s decision to leave him for David Eshcol, Dracula is at his most sadistic in this issue starting with a truly terrifying attack on an innocent woman and the crowd that tries to save her as the story opens. Sheila knows Dracula well enough to fear retaliation and for his part, David resolves to seek the vampire out in daylight and put a stake through his heart. From there the story transitions to India where Taj Nital and his wife relive the painful memories of Dracula’s visit to their village several years before with a legion of the undead. Before all was said and done, Taj had been left mute, his vocal chords slashed by the vampire’s bite. But for the timely arrival of Rachel Van Helsing, Taj would have fallen to become a vampire like his son. Through the tragedy of their lives, Taj and his wife reconcile and declare their love for one another as best they can. Meantime, poor David Eshcol finds Dracula not so easy to kill as he imagined. Wolfman and Colan depict the vampire at his most malevolent as David flees for his life only to find the vampire waiting at the door for him, laughing maniacally. From that horrifying scene, we cut back to Sheila as she answers the doorbell to find David’s bloodied corpse in the doorway and Dracula behind it, taunting her to welcome him home. It is a jarringly effective scene that drives home the point that a woman who ignores a predatory male’s nature believing she is the exception is doomed to find she is just another victim in the end. That is precisely how the story concludes with Sheila hurling herself through her bedroom window after Dracula has backhanded her. Colan’s artwork is simply stunning showing Sheila and the broken glass falling ever closer toward the “camera” in three succeeding panels as an anguished Dracula tries and fails to reach her in time. This is simply the comic medium at its most effective and rises above the standard set by nearly every Dracula film ever produced. Stunning work that is as effective then as it is now.

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Friday, June 10, 2011

Blogging Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula, Part Five



The Tomb of Dracula # 24, “A Night for the Living, a Morning for the Dead” sees the series make a quantum leap forward in terms of the sophistication of Marv Wolfman’s script. The story begins with Frank Drake and Rachel Van Helsing on the same bridge Frank nearly jumped off when he was rescued by Taj Nital two years before. Believing Dracula dead, Frank has come to both a physical and symbolic bridge in his life and feels lost. The promise of a blossoming romance with the equally damaged, but far more capable Rachel Van Helsing is the only thing that pulls him from the depths of despair. Of course, Dracula is alive and preying on innocent women on the streets of London at night while his mortal lover, Sheila Whittier sits at home alone awaiting his return and doing her best to deny the reality that the man she loves is a ruthless killer.

The complexities of Wolfman’s script only grow as the story shifts to Blade who returns to his and Safron’s apartment to find her being menaced by a vampire. While Blade quickly dispatches the vampire in particularly bloody fashion for a 1974 mainstream comic, the bigger shock is the more adult turn the book takes in content. After fading out on Blade and Safron kissing, the scene picks up later that night and we see Blade dressed only in pajama bottoms with Safron dressed only in his matching pajama tops. If this wasn’t going far enough, they are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Trudy, a fellow exotic dancer who works at the same club as Safron. She tells of her near-miss encounter with Dracula which Gene Colan illustrates via flashback. The sequence alternates between sexy and terrifying as Dracula is portrayed at his most predatory yet by having him attack a character who readers find both desirable and sympathetic. The fact that Trudy is saved from her attack by wielding a cross is nothing for Wolfman has Dracula continue to pursue her as she runs through the streets of London clad only in bra and panties and an open overcoat while Dracula savagely taunts her until she wields the cross a second time and finally drives him off. Wolfman and Colan clearly enjoyed making the series more adult in terms of story structure and certainly content.

Blade subsequently sets out to hunt for the vampire lord he believed dead and his rematch with Dracula on the streets of London is quickly underway. Their skirmish is intercut with Taj Nital’s anguished reunion with his estranged wife in India. This time we learn the conflict between them involves their son who Taj learns is dying. The battle between Dracula and Blade concludes uneventfully, but Blade is injured both physically and psychologically by how easily Dracula defeated him. This remarkable issue concludes with Dracula returning home exhausted and paying scant attention to Sheila while Frank makes a tearful break with Rachel determined that he must find himself before he can commit to a relationship with her. The entire issue is a marvelous example of strong characterization and demonstrates how to best achieve dramatic scope in a story. Nearly four decades later, comic standards have loosened considerably, but the quality of writing does not compare with the level achieved by this title in its prime.

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Friday, June 3, 2011

Blogging Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula, Part Four



The Tomb of Dracula # 19, “Snowbound in Hell” is a sentimental favorite for me. This was the unlikely choice for Power Records to package with a 45 RPM record dramatizing the story, but it gave me my first taste of the series as a kid. This issue is a great character study with a snowbound Dracula and Rachel Van Helsing battling the elements to survive after their helicopter crashes in the frozen Alps. The ongoing subplots continue to build toward future storylines with Dr. Sun (still unseen) putting the vampire Brand through his paces while Quincy Harker learns Blade’s secret immunity to vampire bites. The story’s finish has Frank Drake successfully rescuing Rachel just seconds before she is about to fall victim to a starving Dracula who has been keeping her alive as a blood reserve. A nice change of pace issue that works well in developing the characters while advancing toward the inevitable showdown with Dr. Sun.

Issue 20, “The Coming of Dr. Sun” has Frank and Rachel hunting Dracula across the Alps by helicopter. Rachel reveals her traumatic childhood encounter with Dracula when he murdered her parents as part of his vengeance against the Van Helsing family. She reveals how Dracula was about to kill her until Quincy Harker’s timely arrival saved her. Dracula is captured by Dr. Sun’s minions who bring him to a secret hideout where Dr. Sun is revealed as a disembodied talking brain floating in a fish tank straight out of a 1950s B-movie. Clifton Graves survived the explosion aboard the ship and has been stitched back together and physically augmented by Dr. Sun. Graves attacks Dracula. Frank and Rachel stumble into the hideout and Graves is inadvertently killed by Rachel when she fires her crossbow at Dracula. The issue ends on a cliffhanger with Dracula, Frank and Rachel held captive by Dr. Sun.

Issue 21, “Death-knell” is the long-awaited finale to the Dr. Sun storyline. Sun’s origin as a Chinese scientist who fell victim to a twisted Communist plot to create a super-brain is revealed via flashback. Dr. Sun finally pits Brand against Dracula for a vampire battle royale. The ongoing subplot sees Blade break from Quincy Harker’s vampire hunters to resume his vampire hunting on his own. Dr. Sun successfully drains off some of Dracula’s powers and gives them to Brand, but it makes the vampire biker unstable and he turns on Dr. Sun. The evil doctor uses a matter transporter to teleport to safety while setting his base for self-destruct. Dracula, Frank and Rachel escape before the base explodes, leaving Brand to finally perishes for good.

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Friday, May 27, 2011

Blogging Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula, Part Three



The Tomb of Dracula # 13, “To Kill a Vampire” really delivers on the promise of Marv Wolfman’s continuing storyline. Quincy Harker , Rachel Van Helsing, and Taj Nitall are overcome with grief over the loss of Edith Harker. Frank Drake is consumed with rage for his hated ancestor and Blade has no patience for their grieving and is eager to take the reins of the group or resume the hunt for Dracula alone. Clearly the group will continue to have issues functioning as a collective thanks to Frank and Blade’s respective personalities. Meantime, Dracula continues his reign of terror in London while an unseen Chinese criminal genius, Dr. Sun dispatches his minions to the morgue to reclaim the body of the vampire Brand.

There is a nice bit where Dracula attends a prize fight and is sickened by the spectators’ reactions to violence as entertainment. He fails to appreciate boxing as a sport from the perspective of the medieval conqueror he once was or the predator he has become. Following Edith’s cremation, there is a quiet interlude among the group of vampire hunters where Blade reveals his origin. His mother was killed by a vampire while giving birth to him. That one brief flashback provides all the information the reader needs to understand the character, his anger, and what drives him to obsessively hunt vampires. Again, Wolfman’s masterful skill with characters combined with Gene Colan’s stylish art sets this series well above the standard maintained by most comics of the era.

The issue races to a breakneck conclusion with Harker and his band of vampire hunters following a lead that takes them to Dracula’s hideout. The ensuing battle is particularly vicious. The vampire apparently has the upper hand thanks to his strength and supernatural powers when suddenly and unexpectedly Blade puts a knife through Dracula’s heart and kills him as the issue comes to an abrupt finish.

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Blogging Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula, Part Two



Marv Wolfman took over scripting duties on Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula with Issue 7. Despite the name, Wolfman was an unlikely choice for a horror title as he had never been much of a horror fan and had limited exposure to the character outside of Stoker’s original novel. Nonetheless, the decision to pair Wolfman with artist Gene Colan and inker Tom Palmer elevated the series to classic status and insured its reputation for decades to come.

Issue 7 quickly sets the stage with the introduction of Quincy Harker and his daughter Edith. Quincy is the son of Jonathan and Mina Harker born at the end of Stoker’s novel. Here he is a nearly blind old man confined to a wheelchair with his daughter and faithful dog Saint as his constant companions. He functions as a mentor to Rachel Van Helsing and Taj Nital and has welcomed Frank Drake into the fold. Quincy is an amateur inventor whose vampire hunting gadgets give the story a Bondian edge that works very well. Wolfman’s sense of history and character instantly deepens the story and gives the reader a reason to empathize beyond the immediate sense of good vs. evil.

His innate understanding of people as an amalgamation of family history, mistakes, joys, and tragedies is Wolfman’s greatest strength as an author. Even his Dracula, for all of his cruelty and savagery, is imbued with such humanity and dignity that one can’t help hoping all of them can find peace. Wolfman may be the first writer since Stoker to successfully treat the characters as real people that readers recognize as something other than stereotypes. Finding the key to that empathy is what elevates his take on the property above so many others.

The issue itself builds to a truly terrifying climax with the vampire hunters having a confrontation with Dracula that far exceeds simple cat and mouse games between hunter and prey. Dracula hypnotizes a group of school children earlier in the story and turns them into an attacking army that no adult would want to fight against is a masterstroke of evil and a harbinger of the level of writing to come from the series.

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