The Surgeon’s Curse by Douglas Volk

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Douglas Volk’s exciting paranormal crime thriller, The Surgeon’s Curse (DanJon Press, 471 pp. $14.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), is the second book in his The Morpheus series. As such, it creates some difficulties for a reviewer because you do not want to ruin the reading experience for anyone who has not read the first one, The Morpheus Conspiracy—one of my favorite reads of 2019.

That book centers on a curse that was picked up by an American soldier in Vietnam while in the midst of a performing an inappropriate act. The curse continues into this book. There’s very little mention of the Vietnam War this time, but it’s significant that the evil that runs throughout the story originated there—at least as far as this story is concerned. In reality, this specific evil has probably existed since the beginning of time.

Twelve years have elapsed as this book begins, so the year is 1986. Dr. Alix Cassidy returns, still carrying out research on nightmares and their possible link to mental illness. She specials in the controversial field of Somnambulistic Telepathy, which makes it possible for some sleeping people to control another person’s nightmares. In the previous book the main character has the ability to step into people’s nightmares, doing them harm or even killing them. That ability is now carried out by a different character.

The killings in this story are extremely brutal, though Volk does not linger over them voyeuristically. There is a serial killer afoot who calls himself The Surgeon for some pretty nasty reasons. He’s a dream-traveler being pursued by detectives using traditional means, but before long they turn to the sleep scientists for help. Eventually, most of those bearing down on the bad guy begin suffering hellish nightmares.

Things get even more interesting with the introduction of quantum physics, more specifically the concept of quantum entanglement. That, as we all know (cough-cough), is the discovery that two nuclear particles millions of light years apart can interact with each other. Mix that with some good old Cajun voodoo and stir well.

More than just a casual read, this book suggests that this curse may be a form of energy created by unknown forces from the unseen space-time world. Pretty serious stuff. A Nightmare Team is created to confront the bad guy in the most efficient manner, in a dream.

Douglas Volk is a marvelous storyteller and excels at writing realistic dialogue. That’s not an easy thing to do when you’re dealing with his subject matter. So, buckle up for a fast-moving tale that plays out in a “Devil’s Quadrangle” of Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, and northern Maine.

Part-horror, part-police procedural, it’s every bit as good as the earlier book in this series.  It might scare the hell out of you.

–Bill McCloud

Stories Untold by Charlotte McDaniel

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Assessing the significance of an author and her topic is a primary duty of a book reviewer, especially when dealing with memoirs. Likewise, forging a connection with a writer is vital. In both respects, Charlotte McDaniel and her book, Stories Untold: Oral Histories of Wives of Vietnam Servicemen (Bowker, 196 pp. $20, paper), made a dominant impression on this reviewer.

McDaniel focuses on more than thirty women whose husbands took part in the Vietnam War. She lost a family member in that conflict, which she barely mentions. Her interviews include wives of officers and enlisted men from all military branches, with a preponderance of Air Force wives. She identifies the women only with their first names to provide anonymity.

Each interviewee speaks several times about the stages of war-time family separation. Their collective stories evolve chronologically: deploying, adapting to absence, managing children, supporting each other, losing a loved one, reuniting, and coping with the lingering effects of war.

The book’s major revelation is illuminating the spirit and the depths of involvement of young and inexperienced women with duties they never expected to encounter. Anxiety tempered by an acceptance of responsibility dominated most of their behavior. Those with children found themselves fulfilling the roles of mother and father. They look back on their year—or years, when a husband served multiple tours—as character building.

The chapters about loss and its lingering effects describe extreme hardships and disappointments. Those events presented the ultimate test of love. Within the same framework, a few of the women’s stories—such as the one titled “The Horizontal Christmas Tree”—read like outtakes from a script of “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

I can’t say that Charlotte McDaniel opened my eyes, but she did refresh my view of nearly forgotten drama.

A former Fulbright Scholar, McDaniel’s academic career included appointments at Yale University and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center prior to her retirement from Emory University in Atlanta. She has written many research studies and academic books.

The book is available on line at Amazon.com.

—Henry Zeybel

Sticking It to the Man Edited by Iain McIntyre and Andrew Nette 

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Sticking it to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980 (PM Press, 336 pp., $29.95, paper) is a large-format, coffee-table book richly illustrated with color photos of book covers. Those images give more than a fair idea of what the mass market paperbacks of the time were like. The book’s editors Iain McIntyre and Andrew Nette, both of whom are Australian authors, sprinkle references to the Vietnam War are throughout this book.

The chapter Nette wrote, “Blowback,” is the mother lode. The subtitle is, “Late 1960s and ‘70’s Pulp and Popular Fiction about the Vietnam War,” and its ten pages are rich in illustrations and information about the mass market paperbacks dealing the war. The chapter also includes bibliographic information on Vietnam War novels that academic bibliographies managed to miss. The Vietnam War novels of Australia were a special revelation to me. I’m going to have to hunt them down and read them.

The sections of the book dealing with John Shaft, the African-American detective created by Ernest R. Tidyman and made famous in the 1971 movie directed by Gordon Parks, are especially good—and detailed.  I had no idea so many books were devoted to Shaft, who became a larger-than-life filmic Blacksploitation figure—let alone the number of Shaft films and television shows. I learned that John Shaft had been wounded in the Vietnam War, a state of affairs that was a common feature of 1970s fictional detectives.

Novels by women are well-covered in the book. Most are authors I had never encountered, even though I’ve been claiming to be an expert on novels of this era for many years.  Reading this book has made me a much more well-qualified bibliographer than I was before. I’ll have to obtain The Love Bombers by Gloria D. Miklowitz. Running away to join a cult is the subject of this Young Adult book—something I was worried about happening to my children.

51by81wnirl._sy346_Chester Himes created the Harlem Detective series with characters “Coffin Ed” Johnson and “Grave Digger” Jones, two of the toughest cops to ever wear badges. These books, including Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965), were also made into Blaxploitation movies. Many pages of this book are devoted to Himes, with illustrations of lurid and colorful book jackets.

Fictional vigilantes of the seventies, lesbian detectives, Yippies, and gay detectives also are referenced in this seriously all-inclusive book. In fact, I can’t think of any prominent movements of that era the editors left out.

I was relieved to find Iceberg Slim’s pimp novels were thoroughly covered. Iceberg Slim (1918-1992) was one of my favorites for light reading in the seventies

This book is a perfect gift for a bibliographer (or anyone else) who thinks he’s seen and read it all. I highly recommend it.

–David Willson

Revolution and Renaissance by Daniel Forbes Hauser

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When did “The Sixties” as known in American collective memory begin? When did that era end? Rarely does the socio-cultural phenomena that define a generation fit neatly into a proscribed ten-year period. A black-and-white photo of John F. Kennedy and the Whiz Kids in early 1961 does not evoke “The Sixties” the way the violence of the 1968 Tet Offensive or the 1969 peace of Woodstock do.

In Revolution and Renaissance: 1965 to 1975 (History Publishing Co., 430 pp. $33.99) Daniel Forbes Hauser examines this period through the prism of his hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Reflecting on the turbulence of this decade, Hauser analyzes this period of profound cultural transformation by examining the unprecedented confluence of the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and—most significantly—the coming of age of the Baby Boomers.

Richie Furay of Buffalo Springfield contributes the foreword to the book, which is organized by a chapter per annum, with each chapter containing the author’s reflections on a year’s seminal events, interviews, and personal musings. It is regrettable that given the expansive nature of the material covered, the book does not have end notes. The book is loosely centered on Boulder as Hauser introduces two contrasting protagonists: Mark, a poor kid from the wrong side of town who would serve in Vietnam, and Tom, the Asian-American son of a University of Colorado physics professor awhose brother would become a member of the Weather Underground.

Hauser’s goal, he says, is to create an expeditious and entertaining book, and in that regard he has succeeded. That his engaging and breezy commentary can intermittently be glib can be forgiven given the context, though Hauser falls into the trap of placing his and his cohort’s memories as “America’s” or as the “general public’s.” These gross generalizations can diminish his perspective and erode his thesis.

There are some minor historical errors. Contrary to popular myth, for example, the vast majority of troops in World War II were draftees, not volunteers; Walter Cronkite did not say the Vietnam War was “unwinnable” in 1968, (he said it was a “stalemate”); and it was a South Vietnamese (not an American) plane that accidentally bombed the village that led to famous “Napalm girl” photograph. Hauser writes about the movie MASH in his section on 1967, hyperbolically stating it “helped destroy any last vestiges for America’s will to win in Southeast Asia.” But the novel was published in 1968, and the movie released in 1970. Though the subtext of the film and the later television series was the Vietnam War, contrary to Hauser’s recollection the setting was the Korea War.

Other mistakes can be more jarring: Hauser transposes the Medal of Honor for any military decoration and writes that John Kerry threw his Medal of Honor in a river. He also mistakenly writes that the 1973 Paris Peace Accords called for the reunification of Vietnam, and in writing about the period American military engagements of the 1950s and early 1960s he egregiously omits to mention that 37,000 Americans were killed and 95,000 wounded in the Korean War.

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Hauser ties his tome together with the bizarre story of Renner Forbes, the Marshall of a small town outside of Boulder called Nederland. In 1971, Forbes murdered and placed the body of a local hippie, Guy “Deputy Dog” Gaughnor, in an abandoned mine shaft. In ill health, Forbes confessed to the murder in 1997, and died in 2000. If this tale was not sufficiently sensational, in 2016 a former friend of Deputy Dog, in a futile act of vengeance, tried to blow up the Nederland Police Department.

The book would have been strengthened by more insights and commentary about Mark (the Vietnam War veteran) and Tom (the physics professor’s son), and more analysis of the Deputy Dog story. Still, Revolution and Renaissance it is an enjoyable and fast-paced trot through a most revolutionary decade.

The book’s website is revolutionandrenaissance.com

–Daniel R. Hart

Fighting Shadows in Vietnam by Michael P. Moynihan, Jr.

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The most interesting section of Fighting Shadows in Vietnam: A Combat Memoir (McFarland, 220 pp. $19.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle) describes the U.S. Army’s 1970 invasion of Cambodia as author Michael P. Moynihan, Jr.—who was wounded as an RTO with the 1st Air Cavalry Division—experienced it.

Shortly after graduating from high school, Mickey Moynihan volunteered for the draft to continue his family’s tradition of serving in the military. His father had fought in the Pacific during World War II, and his brother had been a Marine in Nam during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Five-five and 130 pounds, 19-year-old Moynihan found the physicality of infantry life a challenge beyond expectations. Constantly on patrol, however, he grew accustomed to living in the jungle. He perfectly presents the rigors of infantry life in the Vietnam War with stories about a three-day sweep of Nui Ba Ra (White Virgin Mountain) in search of the enemy while struggling merely to reach the hilltop.

His view of the Cambodia invasion reflects additional struggles. Following what appeared to be last-minute plans, his and another 1st Cav company captured 326 tons of North Vietnamese weapons and supplies. They blew up more than they hauled away. As Moynihan describes the scene, chaos ruled every activity. After being wounded in Cambodia, Moynihan became a waiter in the commanding general’s mess at Phuoc Vinh.

Readers familiar with the Vietnam War might feel bothered by Moynihan’s recitation of information hashed over in innumerable other memoirs. For example, he explains C-rations, C-4 explosives, the P-38 can opener, Claymore mines, and every-day grunt duties.

At the same time, he evaluates relationships between soldiers in his own personalized terms. Moynihan’s insights center on what he learned about people through physically and mentally challenging events. He enjoyed the unity and fellowship that linked his fellow lower-ranking troops.

The death of friends, however, gave him powerful survivor-guilt feelings. In this regard, he experienced what I read as the onset of PTSD when he saw a dead comrade in Cambodia. His reaction: “I felt sick in a way I had never known before. It was an illness of both body and mind—deep sadness, a poisoning of the heart.”

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Moynihan

Moynihan righteously complains about officers who considered young infantrymen as interchangeable and expendable. He saw self-serving officers as enemies. As a waiter in the CG’s mess, he gained insight into the chasm that separates officers from each other and the true distance between them and enlisted men.

“War took from me the innocence of youth,” he says, “and led me to dark places. It shaped me into the man I am today.”

Moynihan exudes tremendous pride for his role in the Vietnam War, and does not hesitate to display it through his philosophical thoughts on humanity and warfare.

—Henry Zeybel

The Hump by Al Conetto            

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Vietnam War historians consider the fighting that took place the Ia Drang Valley on November 14-17, 1965, as the first major engagement between U.S. Army forces and the North Vietnamese Army, aka the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). The battle became immortalized in the book, We Were Soldiers Once… and Young: Ia Drang – The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joe Galloway. The movie based on Gen. Moore and Galloway’s book further glorified the event.

Showing full respect toward the 1st Cavalry Division that fought in the Ia Drang, Al Conetto questions that battle’s precedence by citing Operation HUMP in which U.S. Army and PAVN/Viet Cong contingents clashed in War Zone D on Hill 65 nine days earlier—from November 5-9, 1965. Conetto describes the earlier encounter in The HUMP: The 1st Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry, in the First Major Battle of the Vietnam War (McFarland, 216 pp. $19.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle). Conetto contends that that engagement changed the nature of the Vietnam War from a hit-and-run guerrilla action to a contest between large-scale American and enemy main force units.

During Operation HUMP, Lt. Conetto led a rifle platoon. “This is my story,” he writes. “This is what I saw. This is what I heard. This is what I experienced, what I read and what I believe. This is my truth, but it is also” the men of his battalion’s “story.”

Conetto builds his case with many interviews from former comrades, grim photographs, the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) Staff Journal and the After-Action Report, a citation for Medic Lawrence Joel’s Medal of Honor, a Presidential Unit Citation, chapter notes, an extensive bibliography, and his own service record.

HUMP began with an air assault by U.S. and Australian troops on November 5. The first two days “passed with no contest other than minor brushes with enemy forces of no significance,” Conetto says. Intense fighting began on the morning of November 8 when a U.S. platoon met a much larger enemy force and suffered almost 100 percent casualties with “nerve shattering speed.”

He describes the fighting from the viewpoints of individual soldiers and shows that Hill 65 was a bloodbath on both sides. Those killed in action numbered 49 Americans, one Australian, and 403 PAVN. Five days later,fighting on a larger scale began in the Ia Drang Valley and, Conetto says, “America quickly forgot the HUMP.”

On a second tour in Vietnam, Conetto commanded a company before transferring to G2 as the briefing officer for a commanding general.

In The HUMP, Conetto sandwiches the story of Hill 65 between a history lesson he calls “The Road to War,” which also includes glimpses of his childhood and his post-war life. The latter section is arguably the book’s highlight because it details the destructiveness of Conetto’s PTSD and his slow and painful progress in learning to regulate—but never conquer—it. His recollections and conclusions about post-combat feelings and behavior revived several attitude issues of my own that I had thought were long gone.

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In the broadest terms, Conetto gives readers their money’s worth by providing two short books in one.

An excellent companion piece to The HUMP is retired Army Col. Keith M. Nightingale’s Just Another Day in Vietnam, which takes place in 1967. Comparing the two books’ episodes of combat shows how platoon-level tactics barely changed during the two years after Operation HUMP and the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley fighting supposedly altered the nature of the war.

—Henry Zeybel

The Morpheus Conspiracy by Douglas Volk

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Douglas Volk’s novel, The Morpheus Conspiracy (DanJon Publications, 470 pp. $14.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), is a great work of terrifying horror and unrelenting suspense. As I read it, I kept waiting to see if the story was going to fall apart. It never did.

The book begins with a mysterious incident that takes place in South Vietnam in late 1970. The story then moves to Atlanta and Boston during the months of the Watergate scandal.

After coming home, the main character David Collier literally wears his Vietnam War experience on his face. Massively disfigured in a fire during the war, he grows his hair long to conceal that part of his face, except for times when he chooses to reveal it. With an eye that never closes because the lid was burned away, he is reminded of what he went through every time he looks in a mirror. And he becomes driven by feelings of betrayal.

Collier believes he was betrayed by the Army, by his nation, and by his girlfriend who ended their relationship when he came home from Vietnam. Laura Resnick has her own reasons for splitting from him, but Collier is sure it’s because of what happened to his face.

Collier dreams about getting back at her, and it turns out that he seems to have the ability to cause her to have horrendous nightmares. And not just her, because he can also enter the dreams of other people he believes have offended him and bring harm to them.

Other characters include a VA doctor and a scientist with an interest in sleep disorders. They are ultimately brought together with Collier and Resnick in a story written in such a way that you can almost see and feel four solid walls closing in on them. Though much of the story takes place in a broad and wide dreamscape, it’s ultimately a very claustrophobic tale.

Frequently while reading. I found myself picturing the text in images like you would see in a graphic novel. I mean it as a compliment when I say this book would make a great graphic novel.

The Morpheus Conspiracy can be read on a few different levels: as entertainment, as psychological drama, and as an example—though greatly exaggerated—of what the Vietnam War did to the nation and to many of us who served in it.

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Douglas Volk

My favorite quote from the book is when Collier recalls a buddy who died in front of him: “He was history. He was the history of the Vietnam War.” What a great way to commemorate each death in that war. And those deaths are horror enough for this world.

This is a thrilling read and one of my favorite books of the year.

The author’s website is www.themorpheusseries.com

–Bill McCloud

Editor’s note: Douglas Volk, who served in the U.S. Army Reserves from 1970-76, is an life member of the Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America. He is donating one dollar from the sale of each book to VVA.