Balzan of the Cat People #2: The Caves of Madness by Wallace Moore
Pyramid Books, 1975
Price I paid: 1¢ ($4.00 with shipping and handling)
Human castaway on a planet light years from earth,
Balzan had known many unearthly creatures in his alien home. The cat people had raised him and given him feline knowledge; the winged Aeri had adopted him; beautiful Ryla had loved him in spite of his naked, wingless shoulders.
Now Balzan was being held captive by another tribe of winged humanoids, living deep in underground caverns lighted only by glowing fungi. In this strange world where all women were the wives of all men, where no one was owner or owned, Balzan was plunged into terrifying adventure…with the slimy, gigantic night crawlers…with the most horrible monster of all, the fiendish Sl’yth!
It was bound to happen, and it did. Another Balzan book. Another glimpse down the path of lazy writing and unintentional humor. What a ride.
You might remember that I read the first Balzan novel back in 2013. It was one of my earlier reviews. It was godawful. Everything about that book was just…well, read the review yourself and you’ll get the idea. Just not a good thing.
So why did I go on Amazon and order books two and three? Well, apart from the general masochism that keeps me doing this blog in the first place, I learned a neat fact.
It turns out that “Wallace Moore” isn’t the author’s real name. It’s a pseudonym for none other than Gerry Conway. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “The drummer who hangs around with Cat Stevens?” But no, you clicked on the wrong Wikipedia link. This Gerry Conway is the guy who killed Gwen Stacy.
What I mean by that is that Gerry Conway has been writing comics since the late sixties. He wrote Spider-Man in the early seventies and yes, he wrote “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” one of the more important comic issues ever written, both in terms of Spider-Man and the medium as a whole. He also co-created The Punisher. Dude’s a big deal.
So why did he write a novel that was complete trash, if he’s so good at comics? My guess is that he had to make a mortgage payment and somebody offered him a rush job.
So with that knowledge and fond memories of hating the first book so much, I went online to find the remainder of the series. There were only three books, so it wasn’t hard.
Whoever did the jacket copy for this one was better than the guy who worked on the first book, but there’s something interesting going on here. From the writing, it seems like Balzan has been living with these “Aeri” people for a while. Long enough to fall in love with one of them. It feels like we’re being given back-story, perhaps a quick synopsis of a previous book. It threw me off. The cover to this one clearly says its book 2. I thought maybe I missed a short story in there. But no, it turns out that all that happens in the first half or so of this one.
Sorry about the sticker on this cover, by the way. I noticed it on there after I scanned it and was going to do another scan without the sticker, but the sticker took away some of the cover with it. Uuurgh, I hate that so much. I used the original scan because I figured it looked better than the one with big white marks.
SO HOW DOES IT HOLD UP
I’m going to say something that will likely shock you. It shocked me.
THIS BOOK WAS OKAY
IT’S THE APOCALYPSE
It’s not good by any means. Balzan is still a reckless, stupid character and Tarzan ripoff with a thing called a “therb.” He kills things because he can’t figure out what else to do with them. He looks like he’s doing some kind of a dance move on the front cover. Or else he just jumped into the frame like “Hey, look, it’s me, Balzan! Gotcha!”
It might just be because I’m comparing this book to its predecessor. It might also be that my tastes have fallen since March 2013. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age. But hear me out: this book had better writing, characters, plot, and setting than The Blood Stones by miles.
Balzan himself is unchanged. He carries around his therb (a kind of whip with poison in the tip) and he kills things. He charges head-on into situations without stopping to think about them. He’s dumb and brutish.
Thing is, all that gets him into trouble in this book more than it helps him. Whereas in The Blood Stones he just charges on through killing anything in his path until the book ends, in this one he gets called on it. It ends up getting him into fights that he almost loses. It does cost him friends, goodwill, and happiness. He begins to develop self-awareness and regret being so stupid.
WHAT THE CRAP
The other thing this book had over the other one was A COMPLEX MESSAGE AND PLOT
So here’s the rundown. Balzan left the Cat People after the events of the last book. He’s wandering around when he comes upon some wingéd people. The book consistently calls them “Wingmen,” which is hilarious. At first they’re just observing him to see that he’s not a threat. He’s in their territory, after all. They get attacked by some kind of sea blob and Balzan springs in to help. They fight off the thing, whereupon the leader of the Wingmen konks him on the head so they can take him to their home and figure out just what his deal is.
That makes Balzan mad.
He lives with these folks, the Aeri, for a while. He meets Ryla and they fall in love.
I guess I should point out that unlike my expectations, these folks are not just dudes and dudettes with wings. They’re not angels. They also have hooves and they don’t have teeth. They’re an actual fleshed-out alien race.
At first Balzan is all mad at the guy, Kimo, who knocked him out. Ryla convinces him that Kimo was only acting in the best interests of the Aeri. They have enemies on this planet, and Kimo couldn’t be sure that Balzan wasn’t a spy for them or something.
These enemies are called the Mandagaar. The Aeri and the Mandagaar used to live on the same island somewhere, where they cooperated and were happy. The Aeri were hunters and the Mandagaar were farmers. They would trade and everything was good. One day, though, for absolutely no reason, the Mandagaar attacked the Aeri and killed a bunch of their people. The Aeri fled the island, but the vicious Mandagaar followed them and plague them until this very day.
The Mandagaar are the same species as the Aeri, but a different color. That fact might be notable.
Balzan and Kimo resolve their differences. Balzan meets the Aeri Elder, who tells him a lot of the backstory I just told you. Balzan is inducted into the tribe and everybody is happy for a while. They repel a Mandagaar attack, which makes Balzan vow a lifelong hatred against them.
About halfway through the book, though, things change. Balzan gets captured by the Mandagaar and lives in their caves for a while (they’re subterranean wingéd people). He begins to learn their ways, and falls in love with one of them.
It’s the same story over again?
Well, the Mandagaar have some weird ways about them. The woman Balzan falls in love with is named Cho, and she’s the shiina (a punk rocker). Basically the shiina is the woman that everybody has sex with. She’s the town bicycle, but here’s the thing, that’s a part of their culture. The duty of shiina rotates among all the women of the Mandagaar. When a dude needs to do what dudes need to do, he visits the current shiina. There is no sex outside of this relationship, and that’s how the Mandagaar procreate. After the woman’s rotation ends, she will usually be pregnant. No one knows who the father is, and no one cares.
It’s kind of dumb but it’s kind of neat. It’s at least imaginative, even though it’s also fairly juvenile.
Balzan starts to question his loyalties at this point. The Mandagaar really don’t seem all that bad. They tell Balzan that the feud between the two groups actually began when the Aeri attacked them. Balzan doesn’t know who to believe.
THIS IS ACTUALLY PRETTY GOOD STORYTELLING
The other thing about the Mandagaar is the “Sl’yth.” Nobody talks about it, but one day while wandering around Balzan comes across this gigantic door. He later finds out, in hushed tones, about the Sl’yth, and when he finally asks someone about it, the guy commits suicide.
Whatever a Sl’yth is, it’s bad.
Another thing they have to deal with are “Night Crawlers,” which are some kind of giant centipede slug. I prefer the term slugipedes. During a fight with these things, Balzan gets left alone by another dude named Hiro, who was leading the expedition. Balzan, being Balzan, thinks that Hiro left him there to die on purpose. He encounters the night crawlers by himself and fights them off, after which he makes it back to town. He decks Hiro for abandoning him to die, after which Hiro explains himself. It’s a good explanation but I don’t remember what it was. Either way, he didn’t leave Balzan to die, but since Balzan attacked him like that, there is no other option than to be enemies.
That’s pretty much exactly how the book described this bit of character interaction.
It’s revealed that Cho is having a baby, and it’s Balzan’s. Turns out that Cho was using Balzan initially to get her pregnant because the gene pool of the Mandagaar needs some new DNA in it. The baby doesn’t survive on the grounds that the parents are two entirely different species. Thank you, author, for thinking about that.
After that news breaks and Hiro feels that there’s no reason for Balzan to live anymore, he challenges Balzan to single combat. It’s a pretty good fight scene until Balzan wins by kicking Hiro in the nuts so hard he flies into a wall and breaks his neck.
Balzan escapes the Mandagaar, feeling that they betrayed him. It’s a difficult escape, but he makes it.
Side note: a lot of the “suspense” in this book comes from Balzan having close shaves with death over the course of about a sentence. A regular theme is Balzan getting ambushed and then almost getting hit. The word “almost” is possibly the most common word in this narrative. Sometimes it’s even repeated, like “The arrow almost—almost!—hit him in the neck.”
He gets back to the Aeri and fills them in on what went on. Ryla welcomes him back until she learns that Balzan was studded out to a Mandagaar woman while he was living with them. She gets mad for a while. Everybody else is all “Now you know what monsters they are!” but Balzan is conflicted. The Mandagaar were pretty decent people, he thought. Both sides are to blame for keeping this conflict going.
Still, he feels betrayed by the Mandagaar and so agrees to help kill them all.
Okay, so Balzan’s motives all through this book are just…I don’t even know. He lashes out at everyone who gives him a reason to, whether they meant to or not, and doesn’t forgive anybody even if they admit they made a mistake and apologize to him. And when he lashes out, he does so with as much force as possible. If Balzan of the Cat People were at the grocery store and an old woman accidentally stepped on his foot in the checkout line, he would respond by murdering her and her family.
He leads a small task force down to the Mandagaar caves and, in particular, the giant door that hides the Sl’yth. The whole book’s been leading up to this point, folks. For 160 pages we’ve been lectured on the absurdity of racism and now we’re going to open up the door marked DO NOT BY ANY CIRCUMSTANCES OPEN THIS DOOR IT HAS A MONSTER BEHIND IT
The monster comes out and we don’t get a very good description because apparently looking at it kills you. Specifically, it makes your head explode. In great detail, no less. Lots of heads explode in this final chapter of the book. Balzan meets up with Cho again and she says she apologizes for using him like she did but she did eventually come to love him. He responds by saying THERE IS A LESS SUBTLE LOVECRAFT MONSTER ON THE LOOSE AND I’M TOTALLY SORRY BUT IT’S MY FAULT
And she goes godDAMMIT BALZAN
She saves the day after somebody remembers how they got it behind the door in the first place. It involved trickery of some sort. Her idea of “trickery” involves standing next to a pool of lava until the Sl’yth comes for her, then falling into the lava with the monster.
Bit of a downer, that ending.
Balzan once again heads up to the surface, where he meets Ryla. She goes asks him how many died. He says that they lost some good Aeri that day. She responds by saying “I don’t mean them. How many of those bastards did they take with them?” Balzan goes “This is unbelievable. This book is an allegory about racism and cold war mentality, and the only person who learned anything is ME of ALL PEOPLE.”
Then he leaves and the book ends.
What a book, folks. It surprised me to no end that I enjoyed it as much as I did. I wanted to say that maybe the author matured a bit, learned some writing tips, I don’t know, in the time between these books, but the thing is, they came out in the same year. What’s with the quality discrepancy? I just don’t understand.
It wasn’t great, no. It was a bit hamfisted at times, and it didn’t handle suspense very well, as I pointed out before. Balzan is still an unlikable hero but one almost gets the feeling that the author doesn’t like him either, but sometimes that paycheck is all that stands in the way of letting the kids starve.
Still, Balzan develops a little bit. While he’s violent and impulsive, he starts to get a little introspective at times. He tells somebody, Ryla I think, that the only reason he does violence is because it’s become a way of life for him, a matter of survival. In fact, he hates it and part of the reason he feels he needs to be alone is to spare other people the results of his lifestyle.
What an interesting thing for a comics writer to say.
So there you go. Sometime I’ll read Balzan #3 and we’ll see how well the series holds up. If it keeps improving at this rate, the third book might actually be genuinely good. I’m scared too.
2 thoughts on “Balzan of the Cat People #2: The Caves of Madness”
I think I remember seeing that on the paperback stands back in the Sixties.
At least the title “Balzan of the Cat People” sounds familiar.
Even if it has the same rhythm as Kenny Everett’s “Kremmen of the Star Corps”.