Thursday, February 27, 2020

Tower of Adventure

Not too long ago I wrote a review of two different adventure books. This was done to emphasize the small ways men's adventure stories had changed over the years. The first was a Dirty Harry-inspired '70s romp that leaned on hopelessness for drama, and the other was a post-apocalyptic trek where misery lurked under the surface as an inescapable reality. The creeping doom had been slowly consuming adventure fiction for awhile.

Despite all of that, they are still great adventure stories that anyone in the genre would be happy to read. The writers told good tales.

However, my thesis was that this slide into depression was a cultural one and natural to the writers without them even realizing the change around them. I believed that the authors themselves had been mired in this attitude and did not even realize it when writing their tales. We all are products of our culture, and writers are no different. However, that view was a bit shortsighted. This was arrogant of me to assume the authors didn't know what they were writing, and I do apologize. I say this because there's probably more to it than just the attitudes of their times.

As Nathan Housley, the Pulp Archivist, likes to say: fiction in the 20th century was ruled by editors and their tastes. So while Romance stayed the same because the women in charge knew what they wanted and have delivered constantly over the years, the male dominated fields would instead constantly tinker with what they thought other men wanted based on outside industries. The writers wanted to put out thrilling adventures for the guys to dig, but the editors wanted to appeal to watchers of big Hollywood movies.

Where I got this was from a writer himself who was interviewed by Paperback Warrior. The success of big budget Hollywood action movies meant publishers of Men's Adventure needed to catch up. If you wanted to know why there were so many rogue cop and fed-up vigilante men's adventure books in the 1970s it was because of the success of Dirty Harry and Death Wish. Unfortunately, chasing the Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson dragons never really paid off for novel writers. You won't find many books in their mold from that time that were hits.

One example of this fruitless pursuit was the C.A.T. (Crisis Aversion Team) books by Warner Books for their Man of Action line. This was meant to be their attempt at Dirty Harry, but it ended up being nothing like it, at all. And that was a good thing.

I read the first entry, Tower of Blood, and I'd like to tell you why it succeeds where most stabs at the hero cop formula in fiction failed.

First, some back story.

The C.A.T. series only lasted three entries, getting canceled almost right out of the gate (something that happened far too often at the time), written by two different authors who were planned to alternate between books. The plan was to put out a book a month for a year. Duane Schermerhorn wrote book 1 and 3, and George Ryan wrote book 2. There were 3 more books written, book 4 and 6 by Ryan, and book 5 by Schermerhorn, but of course they were shelved, never to be released. And if I'm to speak frankly, they were far too hasty in canceling this series before giving in a proper shot at the gold. There is something here that could have been nurtured into bigger things.

For one, the first book was released in 1982, before even Cannon Films' action formula blew up, before Richard Donner discovered buddy cops, and before Schwarzenegger, Norris, Stallone, and Van Damme, ruled the action movie world. I say this because this book doesn't actually follow the Dirty Harry mold such fiction was trying to ape at the time, including The Bloody Monday Conspiracy which I covered last time. This book is a 1980s action movie, full stop. It did this ahead of the cultural curve, and before Hollywood got there.

The editors didn't realize what they had with C.A.T., and interfered with what could have been a hit franchise if they had just let it gain steam with their original plan of 12 books for a year. By 1983/84 they would have had just hit the rising trend in action cinema with enough backlog to count. Their lack of enthusiasm in the series was misplaced, and their editorial tweaks to it were unnecessary. Tower of Blood is a firecracker of an action book, and should have had support around it instead of being left to die right out of the gate.

Allow me to explain.

In twelve chapters spread across 220 pages, our pair of hero cops chase down a mad drug-dealer through dirty back alleys, disgusting sewers, an exploding chemical plant, and the twin towers (oh boy), while being chewed out by their boss and while one is trying to spend time with his family and the other is trying to pick up chicks. Our pair of heroes, Weston and Santillo, rib each other along the way, and turn criminal scum into Swiss cheese while they hunt down a sadistic prick and his cadre of mercenary scumbags.

It's a heck of a good time, back to front, and is a lot less downbeat than the Dirty Harry and Death Wish-inspired stories that were floating around at the same time. Someone even has some common sense because it can be purchased as an e-book for less than a dollar. I would highly, highly recommend grabbing this one. It is an obscenely good time, and surprisingly clean of gunk. Well, mostly. I'll get to that.

So where do the editors come in? The interview the author (RIP) had with Paperback Warrior back in 2018 revealed a little of the process behind the series. It is very revealing.

The series was meant to be released in monthly installments before new editors came in and decided to cancel the line early. So C.A.T. never really had a chance to get off the ground. It was a real loss.

As the author explains:

“I met with the editor to understand what sort of series this was to be. He wanted a high-volume series, with books being published every couple of months. This sort of pace basically cannot be maintained by a single writer, so there was to be at least two in the C.A.T. series - more if the series took off. The two of us were contracted to write three books each. I wrote 1, 3, and 5 and a writer in North Carolina [George Ryan] was to write 2, 4, and 6.”

Yes, pulp speed wasn't even enough for this series. To release a 200 page paperback every month, and have it be good, is beyond most writers, including yours truly. But there was a hunger for good men's adventure books at the time, so the plan made sense. It is just unfortunate they didn't stick with it.

However, the first book was practically wholesome in comparison to what was being put out at the time. Good is good, evil is evil, and things do not feel hopeless or empty. This is much more in line with traditional action stories.

That said, the editors wanted to change that.

Schemerhorn wrote the ‘bible’ for the C.A.T. series to ensure continuity among the other authors who would one day be brought on board as the series achieved the literary status of The Executioner and The Destroyer. “After the release of C.A.T. #1, the editor sent a note requesting more sex and violence. So in #3, I raised the level to near-parody,” Schemerhorn confessed. “I wrote all three of the books I was contracted for and I assume my co-author did the same. But the series didn't do well, and I think only the first three were actually published.”

The editor's notes strike me as strange. For one, the violence in book one is perfectly logical, fierce, and powerful. It works very well. It's bloody, but not gory. The same thing with the sex--there is a hot encounter between a husband and wife that never gets too descriptive, but there is otherwise no sex in the story. Because there's no time for any.

This leads me to believe that the slightly jarring moments in the book were editor requested. This is because they feel as if they are crammed into an otherwise tight tale. I only have two gripes with Tower of Blood, and I now believe they exist because of editorial suggestion.

In the first chase scene in the book Weston and Santillo are after a pair of dirtbags who assassinated their informer. The drug-dealer's henchmen lead them through Fear City (The unofficial name New York City had before Giuliani cleaned it up) and through some of the darker elements of the time period. But along the way they burst into random apartments and establishments in fits of firefights and innocent people are hit in often overly descriptive ways instead of them . . . hitting the floor or fleeing when the shooters arrive.

Now, one or two innocents being hit in such a situation would make sense, but the death toll of civilians in this sequence is a bit hard to believe when neither shooter is going out of their way to actually shoot any of them. This feels like the editors wanted more blood and gore, and this was the way to do it without altering the core story too much. It doesn't fit with the rest of the action in the book, as if it is a remnant of '70s action.

I believe editorial interference might be the case because the fallout to this event is far less severe than what happens later in the story. They are berated harder later even though random unrelated civilians are never in the cross-hairs again. And neither are the victims ever actually mentioned beyond their initial deaths in said chase scene. It is very weird. It doesn't quite add up, though such a thing is easy to put aside.

The aforementioned call for more sex is also more than a bit awkward. The little sex in the book focuses on the villain's growing madness, and the love of a married couple, both of which stop short of being graphic. The knowledge that editors wanted more than this is kind of missing the point of an action book. There's nothing wrong with hot babes, but when you're chasing a hollowed out drug-dealer who is fixated on killing innocent people then taking a break for some rolling in the hay is just plain absurd. Why would an editor recommend breaking pacing?

This is reminiscent of the movie Commando which originally had a sex scene before it was cut out for not making any sense. Of course it didn't make any sense--John Matrix had mere hours to save his daughter before terrorists executed her. He had to drive and fly over a great distance to reach her before she was killed. Why would he be having a romp in bed with his co-star while his daughter's life is on the line? It not only slows down the story, it is stupid on a narrative level.

Pacing matters a lot in action stories. Keeping adrenaline and excitement high is the priority, and you do that by constantly moving the plot along. A descriptive in depth sex scene is the exact opposite of what an action story needs. It brings the plot to a crawl, and it rarely adds anything to any story. Its just there for titillation.

Then there is the fact that the "Just add more X" executive meddling nonsense is not a way to tell a story. It is a way to break or distort them from their original intent. Tower of Blood is a perfect action book, and to hear that it wasn't enough for editors is baffling from my position here in 2020.

As said before, Tower of Blood was actually ahead of its time. One could see this made into a high budget affair years later starring someone like Stallone, James Woods, or even the big man Schwarzenegger himself. Heroic cops suffering through bloodshed and carnage to stop the villain was not quite so common in 1982. But editorial interference cut that potential future short.

This is why I'm considering that my earlier post on Men's Adventure might have been slightly misguided. When it comes to mainstream fiction there is no telling how much an editor's say might contribute to altering a book from its original intent. We know this practice ended up chasing adventure, wonder, and the Gothic, out of genre fiction, so it wouldn't be surprising that it also broke trust in the action adventure scene. 

Editors had more say over the literary scene in the 20th century than any writer did. They were so powerful that agents began working for them at the expense of authors and readers. It was no longer about giving stories to the audience, but looking for a formula to make the cash-cows keep pumping money into corporate. Not to say there was never a hint of selling product over story before, but at least the nature of the medium was respected by those in charge. At some point that too was lost and it became about selling something other than storytelling.

But the era of the editor doesn't really exist anymore. We aren't in the 20th century.

Now writers in the new world of online publishing can hire their own editors to help shape the story they originally envisioned without having to alter it or sand off edges to a focus group that wouldn't buy the book anyway. We are free to do whatever we want.

Of course that still means a focus on telling a good story and trusting the editor enough to know when something is a bad idea. The point is that it is about more than trying to please invisible audiences and instead about pleasing the audience the story is already for. This is the way it is meant to be.

The tower of adventure climbs high into infinity. We don't need to settle with less anymore. There's a whole world out there. 

Let's go find it.

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