It’s Freaky Friday again, and that means it’s time to put down the tools of your oppressors and rest your weary enslaved head for a moment as we ponder the eyeball-frying fiction of yesteryear.
When I was a kid, we were all going to die. Making it to legal drinking age was a toss-up. Making plans for the future was speculative. Like most sons, I blame my dad. He told me that our hometown was one of the Soviet Union’s top ten first strike targets. Today, I’m not sure the Soviet Union even knew Charleston, SC existed, but at the time I believed him with every inch of my tiny body. We would be the first to die screaming in a nuclear holocaust.
I consumed everything I could find about nuclear armageddon: The Day After, When the Wind Blows, Amerika, Special Bulletin. The End couldn’t come fast enough because I had homework due on Monday. It would be bad, but I knew I would survive. World War III wasn’t going to be a like Threads where women stumbled around in the rubble birthing mutant babies and trading dead rats for sex. It would be like Red Dawn where I’d lead a motorcycle gang of commandos fighting back against Commie invaders with booby traps, causing the Soviet high command to shake their fists in frustration. “He is only one man!” they would scream at their henchmen. “Where is this Charleston, South Carolina and why is it causing the Soviet war machine to stumble?” David Alexander knew this feeling, too. It’s why he wrote Phoenix: Dark Messiah.
In 1987, the Iran-Contra hearings were unfolding in Congress, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was elected for a third term, the Supreme Court ruled that Rotary Clubs must admit women, and David Alexander wrote Phoenix: Dark Messiah dedicated to his buddies in the Special Forces. Clearly, only one of these events actually mattered. Set in the year 1989, Phoenix begins with the evil Luther Enoch engineering a nuclear conflagration between American and the USSR from his secure “combat crib,” beginning with the assassination of the American President in Syria and ending with bombs falling on American cities. The end comes when over San Francisco we see the “flesh-roasting glare of the nuclear fireball rising on a churning phallus of smoke.”
Watching that churning phallus is Magnus Trench, former Special Forces soldier in ‘Nam, now successful businessman. Nicknamed “Phoenix” by the Vietnamese, he’s camping in Golden Gate National Park when the smoke-phalluses churn, and after a few days he wanders down into San Francisco and begins the battle to take back America in a savage, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Who’s he battling? SCORF, the Special Commando Retaliatory Force, ruthless mercenaries serving Luther Enoch’s NCSC (National Church of the Second Coming) who rode out the nukes in hardened bunkers and are now ruling America in the name of Enoch, led by his right-hand man, John Tallon, who executed the Vice-President with a single round from his trademark WWII silenced Mauser bearing the SS death’s head on its grip.
Magnus learns all this backstory from ATF agent, Hamliton Rawlings, whom he rescues from SCORF mercs by kneeing one of them in the crotch so hard blood sprays out his nostrils, shooting another “disintegrating the lower half of his face into bloody hamburger,” and he knocking the third and fourth’s heads together “instantly homogenizing the brain matter inside them to strawberry thickshake.” Afterwards, he ponders how warmongers in the USA and the USSR have destroyed not just the planet but his son, Brian, and his sexy wife, Sandra, and he screams in rage, firing his MINIMI M249 into the side of the mountain behind the hardened SCORF firebase, leaving his calling card: the outline of a rising phoenix drawn in hot lead.
Rawlings and Magnus deliver a veritable all-you-can-eat, hot buffet of destruction as they power towards Luther Enoch…and justice. They make “red cauliflower salad” out of one merc’s brains, “steaming brain salad” out of a Pagan bike gang member’s skull, and punch a Pagan named Garbage Face so hard in the back of the head that his brains turn to “yellow matter custard.” When they encounter Contams (radioactive cannibal mutants) Magnus punches one so hard its eyeballs pop out of its sockets, and kicks another in the balls so hard “The scrotum opened, spilling noxious-smelling fluids like a burst balloon.”
Too much violence? Well, then, Shakespeare’s got too much talking. This is pulp art, as riveting as a picture of the Grim Reaper riding a Harley, surrounded by screaming zombie Vikings, tattooed on the back of a serial killer by his prison cellmate. It’s Lee Child’s Jack Reacher in a weird diaper, drunk on moonshine and tearing up parked Corvettes with a chainsaw.
“Phoenix sidestepped the swing as its momentum jerked the Pagan around, and roundhouse kicked into his lower back area on the follow through, shattering the punk’s spinal cord and shooting fragments of lumbar vertebrae through his kidneys like small bore bullets. His bladder exploded, spraying his lungs with hot urine. The Pagan vomited up chunks of his stomach and flopped over backwards, kicking his legs in the air as he shit his pants and died.”
Magnus destroys punks with a “lightning-delivered Drunk Monkey power smash”, a “Hapkido Monkey Block”, a “Drunk Monkey Rock Slash Fist”, and “Drunk Monkey elbow smashes.” Every act of violence could spawn a band: Death Seltzer, Subhman Flesh, Blow Your Balls to Jupiter, Uzi Spurt. Rawlings and Magnus drive into San Francisco, blow through a SCORF roadblock, high five each other, then lose the pursuit vehicles by leaping their Hummer over a giant hole in the middle of the ruined Golden Gate Bridge. A few minutes later, they arrive in downtown San Francisco where a Scav Mob pelts their gleaming Hummer with dead rats, then Magnus rescues a naked Chinese girl named September Song from where she’s being kept on a leash by Klaatu, the flamethrower-wielding, leather-chaps-wearing leader of the Pagans, who is violating her with his “big purple dong.” Magnus runs him over with a bulldozer. The totally naked September Song grabs Klaatu’s weapon and “Bodies dropped dead as the naked girl expertly swung the Madsen 380 ACP in a figure eight capture-and-move pattern that turned the front ranks of the onrushing goon squad into pulverized human jelly.”
Later that night, Magnus and September make love.
When Hamilton Rawlings dies, his funeral consists of a brief eulogy, then his gasoline-soaked body is set ablaze while resistance fighters fire their machine guns into the sky, which is exactly the funeral I envisioned for myself when I was twelve years old. This book is an Eighties action movie, jacked up on crack, with quips (“Do I look like I’m kidding, cancer face?”), famous last words (“‘Fuck you —’ he croaked at Phoenix as he slumped sideways, dead…”), amazing dialogue (“‘It’s not possible!’ screamed Tallon in utter disbelief. ‘Nobody could do that! Nobody’s that good!'”), and it’s definitely rated a hard R if not NC-17 (“‘These bastards cut out her sex organs,’ Karl screamed. ‘They used lasers to burn away Barbara’s cunt, and then they sewed her up again…'”).
As offensive as lasering off a woman’s vagina could be in some hands, Alexander’s knowledge of reproductive anatomy feels gleaned from his big brother’s stash of Playboys, making it so immature and awkward it’s hard to get worked up. Piped directly from the red cauliflower salad of a small boy’s id, Phoenix: Dark Messiah feels like Alexander is making it all up as he goes along, throwing in genetically engineered piranha swarms, glass cages of Contams kept horny and pumped up on PCP, secret firebases with 24/7 sex rooms, and the shocking reveal of a giant organ bank for rich nuclear war survivors “originally built to house aliens that crash landed in the fifites. The little bastards were from Sirius. The technology we stole from them helped put us on the moon.” It’s this breathless, pell-mell rush of pulp invention that keeps Phoenix: Dark Messiah from feeling cruel or mean-spirited…and it’s only the beginning.
On the last page, Enoch becomes a cyborg and John Tallon vows to defeat Magnus Trench by building an army of “commando supermen” made up of the “baddest of the bad” and the series continues for four more Phoenix books entitled Ground Zero, Death Quest, Metalstorm, and Whirlwind before Alexander moved over to the C.A.D.S. series about post-nuclear commandoes in powered armor taking on a Commie invasion while also battling a death circus of escaped lunatic asylum patients who murdered their doctors with enemas. Alexander’s own website is a cyber-roar right out of the cyberpunk Eighties, where you can buy his books in digital format and read his very own Wikipedia entry in which you learn that while researching the Orient Express, he “filled in as the guest piano player in the bar car, owing to popular demand by passengers and staff.”
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his previous novel was Horrorstör, about a haunted IKEA, and his latest novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, just came out this past Tuesday. It’s basically Beaches meets The Exorcist.