In my recent review of the anthology volume Rivals of Weird Tales, I mentioned that one of my favorite stories therein was the novella-length “But Without Horns,” which was written by Norvell Page and first appeared in the June 1940 issue of Unknown magazine. I also expressed a desire to read some of Page’s many tales dealing with his most famous character, the Spider. Well, I am here to tell you: Mission accomplished! Thanks to the fine folks at Baen Publishing, two volumes of Spider tales have been released for modern-day audiences, and this reader was fortunate enough to pick up the first, 2007’s Robot Titans of Gotham, which collects three Page novels from the mid- to late-‘30s under one cover. To be succinct, this volume is a must-read for all lovers of superhero pulp fiction.
But who, or what, is the Spider, you may justifiably be asking at this point. In a nutshell, the Spider is Richard Wentworth, a debonair man-about-town who, when disguised with hat, mask, cloak and hunchback garb, makes it his business to fight crime and bring justice to evildoers when the law just can’t. Aided by his two loyal servants — a powerful and knife-wielding Sikh named Ram Singh, and a former Army buddy from the WW1 trenches, Ronald Jackson — as well as by his beautiful and quick-witted galpal Nita van Sloan, Wentworth, although based in NYC, fights a startling array of nemeses wherever trouble arises. From 1933 – ’43, and over the course of 118 issues, The Spider magazine provided Depression-era audiences with a monthly dose of fantastic and gruesome mayhem; of those 118 issues, Norvell Page, writing under the house name of Grant Stockbridge, was responsible for no fewer than 92!
With beautifully garish cover artwork and over-the-top, hyperbolic titles for the novels themselves — such as Green Globes of Death, The Devil’s Death Dwarfs, King of the Fleshless Legions, Rule of the Monster Men and Volunteer Corpse Brigade — The Spider magazine was hugely popular … on a par with The Shadow and Doc Savage magazines. The Spider himself, besides being remarkably quick witted and capable of withstanding an astonishing amount of physical abuse (“…It was like the Spider that he should press on this way while his body still had not recuperated from a struggle that had nearly cost his life,” we learn at one point), also comes equipped with a length of rope of amazingly high tensile strength. The character was indeed an inspiration for Marvel god Stan Lee almost three decades later, when he was trying to come up with a name for his latest web-slinging superhero. (Can you guess which one?)
Page, I should add in all fairness, was a serviceable writer at best, and his prose is often clumsy. Much of the action that he dishes out can strike the reader as highly unlikely, and the three novels gathered here all suffer from one common problem: the fact that we never get to satisfactorily learn just why the villains in each have taken their criminal paths, or what their backgrounds are. All three tales desperately cry out for the kind of beautifully written, villainous gloating that Ian Fleming always gave us in his 007 novels. To be sure, Page was a true pulp author who obviously wrote ‘em down and dirty, at full speed, with few if any rewrites; yes, these are novels that could surely benefit from the services of a good copy editor. But you know what? The books also have great drive and panache that propel the reader from one cliff-hanger chapter to the next. And all three dish out some astonishingly violent action sequences, as well as a very high body count. And oh, as regards Page’s writing skills, let’s see you think up and write a 120-page short novel month after month, year after year. Then tell me how simple it is.
OK, now, as to the novels themselves: The first tale that we have here dates from the December ’39 issue of The Spider, and is entitled Satan’s Murder Machines. In this one, giant metal men that appear to be robots go on a killing rampage throughout Manhattan, knocking down buildings, murdering the citizenry and causing untold pandemonium. These killing machines are being sent out by a villain known only as the Iron Man (another bit of nomenclature that would later by “homaged” by Marvel). Highlights of this fast-moving novel include the fight that the Spider has with one of the metal monsters beneath the surface of the East River; the Spider’s rescue of Nita from an abandoned ferry building on the Hudson, followed by a duke out with three of the robotlike things; and the final climactic battle in front of the New York Library, with those iconic stone lions being tossed about like baseballs.
Wentworth suffers a ridiculous amount of physical punishment in this outing (a blackjack beating, being blasted by a hand grenade, a near drowning, hypothermia) but never stops for rest or a breather; the story is that breathless. As usual, Page gives us some wonderfully pulpy verbiage here (“…in his white-gloved hand there lay an automatic pistol, its snub nose brutal as a rattlesnake’s head…”; “…his will was a flame of naked steel…”) and some action bits that needed to be rewritten (for example, in that final battle, the Spider seemingly manages to go from Riverside Drive to 5th Avenue in a matter of seconds). Still, good fun, in all. By the way, the plot device of this Spider novel was lifted for the Superman Sunday comic strip “Bandit Robots of Metropolis,” which ran from October – December 1940. Page sued in court and won, garnering more money than the $550 that he’d originally earned for the story’s initial sale!
Next up in this collection is the novel entitled Death Reign of the Vampire King, from the November 1935 issue (why these tales are here presented out of chronological order is anybody’s guess), and it’s even better than the first. In this one, a winged villain known as the Bat Man (still another character name that would be later appropriated; in this case, four years later) has begun, for no apparent reason, to release thousands of vampire bats around the country. But not just your typical, nonlethal, garden-variety vampire bats, but rather, ones that have been specially treated with a highly toxic venom, so as to deliver instantly fatal bites! The action in this one travels from Philadelphia, to the barrens of New Jersey, to the Allegheny Mountains, on to a Chicago amusement park, and finally, to the Bat Man’s hideout in the Rockies.
Highlights include an aerial battle that Wentworth has with the Bat Man in midair … the Bat Man zooming around on his man-made wings, Wentworth ensconced in his Lockheed airplane; another near drowning that the Spider suffers, this time while fighting off a gaggle of the Bat Man’s Jivaro Indian accomplices under the Delaware River; the ridiculously thrilling fight that the Spider and the Bat Man have on a careering roller coaster; and, most especially, the grisly scene in which Wentworth and Jackson are trapped in a room with hundreds of blood-sucking vampire bats (of the nonlethal variety, but still!). This particular Spider installment features an exceptionally high body count (over 3,500 are killed in the Chicago segment alone!), some more wonderfully pulpy writing (“…his blue-gray eyes were almost black with fury…”), and, unfortunately, some more unanswered questions. How did the Bat Man acquire the services of those South American headhunters? How were all those thousands of bats made lethal, and with which poison? How does the Spider know the name of his eventual ally, June Calvert, before she even mentions it? Or am I thinking about these things a bit too much?
To continue, the third Norvell Page novel in Robot Titans of Gotham, surprisingly, does not feature the Spider at all. Rather, it is a tale that appeared in the one and only issue of The Octopus; the February – March 1939 issue. In this true collector’s item, the reader is introduced to another man-about-town, Jeffrey Fairchild; a youngish man who not only has one secret identity, but two! When in his old-man disguise, Jeffrey plays the role of Dr. Skull, a benevolent physician who does his best to help the needy sick and poor. But in his other guise, Fairchild becomes the Skull Killer, a crime fighter who, after killing the villainous elements in NYC, uses an acid-filled ring to brand his skull mark into their foreheads! Although this collection would have us believe that the name of this tale is merely The Octopus, back in 1939, the name of the novel was actually given as The City Condemned to Hell … an appropriate title, as things turn out.
In this one, a demonic, tentacled entity known as the Octopus uses his newly invented ultraviolet light gizmo to make obscenely mutated monsters out of hundreds of the populace! (And why this short-lived magazine was named after the villain of the piece, when Dr. Skull or The Skull Killer would have made just as cool sounding a magazine title, is beyond me!) Highlights of this tale, which is surely some kind of bona fide classic of the “weird menace” genre, include Jeffrey being locked in a room by the Octopus and subjected to those mutating rays, and the absolutely bonkers final sequence, in which the Skull Killer, along with Dr. Skull’s young, pretty nurse, are trapped in a ward with hundreds of the slavering mutants, who have by this time become blood feasters! And during that final sequence, we see the Octopus sitting next to a nearly nude girl who is suspended by her wrists from the ceiling, while one of the deformed monstrosities sucks on her blood via a metal pipe that he has inserted into her side! Trust me, this is some seriously wackadoodle stuff here; garish, lurid pulp shocks to the extreme!
Unfortunately, again, Page does not deign to tell us how the Octopus became the monstrosity that he is, although it is hinted that more might be explained in future issues … issues that were never to be. A pity, really.
Anyway, there you have it … three remarkable novels written during the height of the pulp magazine era. I was sufficiently entertained by Robot Titans of Gotham’s trio of tales to want to search out that other collection from Baen, called City of Doom. Stay tuned…