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Enter the Void

Aug 30, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts


I think it takes much greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain. 


I mostly get the question at parties. The answer is something of an icebreaker. Someone will ask me about the craziest, trashiest books I’ve ever read — “the books that made you want to pull your eyes out” — and I relate the following:

I have a thing for bad books. Not just books that are poorly written, incompetently edited, and morally irredeemable, but books that make you question man’s place above the animals. Books that, under most circumstances, would not be missed if they were burned.

Yeah, those books.

My slide into this literary gutter didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t go from reading Wallace Fowlie’s translations of Rimbaud straight to Paul Ross’s Chopper Cop No. 3: Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert.* I was a good kid, a good student. I studied Thomas Pynchon and Donald Barthelme, wrote dense essays on Derrida and deconstructionism. But like the anonymous teen protag of any confessional young-adult memoir, I met a few shadowy people who took advantage of my weakness for pulpy science fiction and European trash cinema. One vice led to another, and before I knew it my bookshelves were filled with titles like Frank Colter’s Death Squad and Phillip Atlee’s Joe Gall, The Nullifier.

I first stumbled across the dreaded “men’s adventure” pulp through a review of the Mack Bolan novels in the back pages of a now forgotten zine. This was the late nineties, and I was looking for anything shocking. Anything outrageous. The Sharpshooter series by Bruno Rossi fit the bill perfectly. Marketed in the mid- to late seventies as men’s crime novels, they were cheap, and most used-book stores had entire shelves bowing under the weight of their gaudy, bloody covers.

Rossi’s Sharpshooter series (after his adoring family is gunned down by mafia goons, Johnny Rock becomes a mobster-eating machine fueled by bullets, pasta, and cheap gasoline)** and its identical twin The Marksman series*** were the gateway drugs. And these Don Pendleton rip-offs soon led to better, more-deranged fare like Marc Olden’s Black Samurai  (“The Black Samurai tangles with a human Satan in a hellish den of torrid sex and deadly violence!”),**** Wade Barker’s Ninja Master (“Japan taught him the world’s deadliest art — now . . . vengeance is his!”), William Crawford’s Stryker (“She was a beautiful coed model . . . until she was forced into heroin addiction, pornographic exhibitionism and a gruesome death!”), and Nelson DeMille’s early, outrageous Ryker/Keller series (“The terrorists splashed the streets with innocent blood. It was Sgt. Ryker’s job to seek and destroy them — one by one!”).*****

Two years into my craze, red-eyed and twitching, I found the non plus ultra of trashy crime novels, the craziest, trashiest books I’ve ever read: Dean Ballenger’s Gannon series.******


But when it’s you that’s on the hurting end of the establishment’s shaft, then you know what money and power can do to a guy with neither.

—Dean Ballenger, Blood Fix

When I talk about the Gannon series, I do it with a sort of reverence akin to talking about the miracle of birth. The little epiphanies I had while watching European trash movies pale in comparison to the mental supernovas that occur when Ballenger hits his stride. The books are simple. In the first one, Mike Gannon, a security expert, avenges the murder of his sister by a pack of wilding college brats. The brats, they’ve got wealthy fathers who’ll do anything to stop Gannon. And Gannon, well, he’s got his fists and more rage than a wounded grizzly.

So far, so good, right? It gets better. Not only does Ballenger let Gannon go nuts in incredibly cathartic and mind-numbing ways, but he also has the audacity to write the novels in the most ferocious manner possible. Presumably written in a liquor- and Benzedrine-fueled frenzy, Ballenger’s perps (hell, even his hero) spit language that would have Eddie Coyle’s friends blanching. And just to take it to that next level (oh yes, he does), Ballenger infuses the text with fifties-era underworld slang. “Shit-shooters” get “scragged,” “buttons” get “grisly,” and ”foxes” “fritz around” and “hang slams” on their “tigers.” Holy shit.


The sudden look of wretchedness in the gunman’s eyes as the bullet roared through his forehead was convincing.

—Bruno Rossi, A Dirty Way to Die

Now the why. Why the hell do I read these books? If you’re a cozy mystery lover, it won’t be obvious. These books are glaringly racist, brutally misogynistic, wildly inappropriate, and soul-achingly stupid. But if you’ve got an iron stomach and an insatiable curiosity, you’ll find yourself hypnotized. Freed from the constraints of writing something that would be considered lasting in value, the pseudonymous authors of these crime novels, under draconian deadlines, have produced paperbacks with more blood, sweat, and tears poured into their cheap pages than a hundred literary novels. This is salt- of-the-earth stuff, gloriously simple and authentically ugly. Forceful stories packed by calloused hands into novel shapes.

Surrealist film critic and filmmaker Adonis Kyrou once urged his readers to seek out and view “bad films” because “they are sometimes sublime.” Dear Reader, I urge you to seek out Bruno Rossi’s Sharpshooter series, Nelson DeMille’s Ryker books, and Dean Ballenger’s brilliant Gannon trilogy. They are indeed sublime.

Now go forth and get your hands dirty.


* I didn’t make that title up either. The Chopper Cop series is a sterling example of Popular Library’s mid-seventies adventure/crime output.

** A house name, Rossi is several authors, most notably Leisure Books regulars Russell Smith, Peter McCurtin, Leonard Levinson, and Paul Hofrichter.

*** Written simultaneously, it is not uncommon to find the Marksman series protagonist Phillip Magellan suddenly become Johnny Rock (from the Sharpshooter series).

**** Black Samurai, the film starring Jim Kelly, was based on the books. It does feature deadly midgets and leopard men.

***** DeMille only wrote the first six books in the series (The Sniper, The Hammer of God, The Smack Man, the Cannibal, Night of the Phoneix, and The Death Squad.) All of them are graphic beyond belief. The first two books, published by Norton, have Ryker as the protag. The remaining four were published by Manor Books, and Ryker becomes Joe Keller. Edson T. Hammill wrote a few of the later books in the series.

****** Bellenger is something of an unknown. He wrote the three Gannon books, a few Westerns, articles for men’s magazines, and some “true tale” naval war stories.

Keith Ryer Breese is the author of the forthcoming novel Future Imperfect (St. Martin’s) and its sequel, Past Continuous (St. Martin’s). As Rayo Casablanca, he wrote two thrillers, 6 Sick Hipsters and Very Mercenary (both Kensington Books). Jason Starr said his writing is “wild, poignant, twisted, [and] bitterly funny.”

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22 Responses »

  1. At first I just read Anne Rice books when I was sick and couldn’t concentrate on more-appropriate-to-English-majors-with-solid-degrees tomes. Then I got hooked. Luckily I’m a very fast reader so as long as I can make it out of the store with the mass market paperback in a bag I can read one in an afternoon and then dispose of it without anyone catching on. But then Diana Gabaldon came along. I resisted for more than a decade. But a Swedish friend had most of the series, and when I was staying at her house and had a very long commute, I started reading them. What can I say? I’m caught up now. I’ll never get those weeks of my life back. My only consolation is that Gabaldon can only write a book every three years. And – well – it’s not exactly pulp fiction. Is it? 😉

  2. The early Mack Bolan books, with his war on the Mafia were my introduction to these kinds of glorious trash novels.

    I think the craziest and trashiest of the bunch would have to be the TNT series from Doug Masters. These books are beyond off-the-wall and a lot of fun. They even hold up to re-reading. They’re mean, rude, and insane. From the series, both out in 1985, I’d pick TNT and THE BEAST as my two favorites.

  3. The Kenyatta books by Donald Goines and The Iceman books by Joe Nazel.

    ‘Nuff said.

    • I had something like the first 50 or so Remo Williams – The Destroyer books. Loved them. I had a teacher who wouldn’t let me read them in study hall. “You should do your homework.” “I don’t have any.” “Well, study hall is for studying.” I was studying — I was studying how to KICK ASS! I may not remember much chemistry (the teacher was also my chemistry teacher), but I can still recite the friggin’ “I am created Shiva. . . . ” line Remo would throw down at least once per book!

      It’s been a long time since I read them, so who knows how trashy they’d seem to me now . . . but I do remember Remo killing lots of people and shagging women left and right. Plus I figure any book a teacher couldn’t abide being cracked open in his classroom must be worth something.

      I read and re-read the original 12 Howard/De Camp/Carter books. Plus all the Horseclans books by Robert Adams (I think?). Someone was even writing a Red Sonja series too that I had. I was big into all that trashy fantasy stuff in small paperbacks back then. Wish I still had them (I do have the Conan ones still), because I would happily still read them.

  4. Nice article, and those book covers are remarkable. My choice would be The Town that Took a Trip, by Deane Louis Romano (Ace paperback original, 1969). “In Eden everyone is thirsty and the water supply is laced with LSD!”

  5. The Doc Savage series, by Kenneth Robeson (Lester Dent?) – reprinted in the late 60s from the Doc Savage magazines my dad had read decades before. I loved them – couldn’t get enough. Loved Doc, “a man of superhuman strength and protean genius” dedicated to destroying evil-doers. Loved his cohorts: Monk, Ham, Renny, Long Tom, John, and cousin Patricia.

    Mind you, it was a giant leap from Anne of Green Gables, and I wasn’t yet 13. And it probably didn’t hurt that my dad was a nuclear physicist and I was growing up in a town built to help construct the atom bomb.

    But then I discovered Travis McGee, and moved on. … Although I still have my Doc Savages, stashed away in bookshelves behind more erudite fare.

  6. That was fun to read. Even the titles of some of these books are both horrible and great in a schlocky sort of way: “Die Killer, Die,” “Scarfaced Killer “and “The Turkish Mafia Conspiracy.” Wow! Those remind me of another schlocky title: “Kill Kill Faster Faster.” Joel Rose’s novel is one of my guilty pleasures, with its in-your-face, filled with cliches, I-don’t-give-a-fuck style that blasts everything in sight. Not exactly Marcel Proust, but not a dull moment from p1 to p212.

  7. Hilarious article! My vote for best/worst pulp aggressor is the Death Merchant (Richard Camellion). Joseph Rosenberger wrote the novels, but fictional character Camellion himself apparently wrote ‘Assassination in Theory and Practice’ (1977, Paladin Press). Goes for 135$ on Amazon.

  8. late to the party but have to give a shout out to THE KENT FAMILY CHRONICLES. I bought the paperback of THE BASTARD for studyhall in seventh grade and rode the series all the way to the 19th amendment and WWI. 20 years on THE BASTARD was one of my first audio books… I don’t even think I realized the writing wasn’t there until I heard someone reading aloud. And yet, they were still great fun for me…

  9. Bad pulp fiction for me started with JANE EMILY by Patricia Clapp. I read it in middle school and moved up to the wickedly trashy PIN, which was made into a feature film in 1988 and featured Terry O’Quinn of LOST fame. (I’ll never forget the scene where the whacko brother’s sister has an erotic encounter with the title character Pin.) All these years later I am fueled by a collectibles bookstore in Ann Arbor where I picked up titles like TO WALK THE NIGHT and WIFE FOR SALE. Forget reading the blurb on the back cover. I choose it by the picture on the front.

  10. I love these books. I’ve got the Gannon trilogy and several of the Sharpshooter/Marksman books. Philip Atlee’s Joe Gall really is a step above most of these, as is Warren Murphy/Richard Sapir’s The Destroyer series, with Remo Williams. John Shirley wrote a number of The Specialist series and you’ve got science fiction author Barry Malzberg who wrote the Lone Wolf series. Even Joe Lansdale wrote some MIA Hunter books and Randy Wayne White wrote a men’s adventure series about Randy Striker, several of which have been recently reprinted. The Bookgasm blog has a weekly feature on this stuff, essential reading.

  11. Beautiful.

    If anyone can enlighten me as to ‘who’ Dan Bannon (the author of my fave trash novel KILLER AT LARGE) is/was, and where I can find more of ‘im, I’d be greatly appreciative.

    KILLER was published under the Pinnacle label. And that’s pretty much all I know.

  12. Great article. Thanks for adding some titles and authors to my “to get” list.

    It’s such a shame these great reads are so hard to come by here in the UK – I’d love to track these down but postage costs would make a millionaire pause for thought.

    May I suggest the KUNG FU Feat. MACE series? Imagine Bruce Lee cast into a “men’s adventure” series – along with all the good stuff that entails – and you have a winner.

    The first 6 (of 8) volumes were written by Death Merchant maestro, Joseph Rosenberger, under the psuedonym “Lee Chang”.

    And boy, are they possibly the most nihilistic, violent things I’ve ever read.

    Obviously, this is a compliment.

  13. I’m looking for a couple of books, perhaps someone here can help. I can’t remember the author’s names on either.

    The first one is a “trilogy” about a Marine named, appropriately, Blood, which was the hero’s name. Basically, his wife was killed by terrorists, so he deserts the Corps to find/kill the people responsible. After that, he sort of wanders into situations that require his help, sort of like Lee Child’s Reacher.

    The second is a couple of books about a SFPD cop who’s “partner” is an Irish Wolfhound named Croc. He gets involved in a case which involves a hooker and the newly-elected President of the US. Has an interesting turn which is kinda funny.

    Any help on either of these would be greatly appreciated.

  14. Read BLOOD FIX, and apart from alotta repetitive sentences, it reads quite good.

  15. Way late to this party but . . . the thing I dig about these books is that they come from a time of three or five TV channels and no internet. What else were you going to do but read stuff like this? I remember thousands of these books (not to mention sci-fi, fantasy, and romance) piled to the ceiling and taking up most of the space at the comic book store I went to as a kid in the ’80s. Where did they all come from? Also, this probably doesn’t really count, but has anyone tried reading Mickey Spillane’s Tiger Mann books? Pretty bad. And not in a good way.


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