02 April 2008

My Shadow Reading List

Since I’m heavy into a Shadow riff, I thought I’d step back and look over all the novels of the Dark Avenger that I’ve read over the last ten years. I’ve read twenty-two so far (and I’ll update this post each time I read more), which is 5.8% of the total. Yes, there are over three hundred Shadow novels.

Here are the ones I’ve read, listed in order of publication. All are written by Walter B. Gibson except The Golden Vulture, which was written by Lester Dent and then revised by Gibson.

Looking over these novels, I would pick The Grove of Doom and The Black Hush as my favorites. The Grove of Doom is a superb showcase for Gibson’s medley of sinister pulp adventure with the classical, Gothic-toned mystery. The murder mystery is a genuine one, and Gibson weaves it into exotic outrageousness to create a compulsively readable pulp classic. The Black Hush contains exotic science-fiction elements and heavy action that makes for a breathless adventure. The finale is the best I’ve read in a Shadow novel.

Coming in close behind these two classics are The Black Falcon, The Cobra, Six Men of Evil, and The Third Shadow. I enjoyed The Golden Master, but I think this first appearance of Shiwan Khan is a touch overrated. The Voodoo Master deserves praise for the innovative ending where the Shadow pulls one of his most astonishing tricks. The Golden Vulture has the Lester Dent “high adventure” feel and is an interesting variation on the formula. The Shadow Unmasks is a must-read because of its contribution to the history of the character, but the adventure itself never grabbed me.

Road of Crime is an odd one, unlike almost any other Shadow novel because of its character-drama focus and small scale, but it’s worth reading after having a few of the classics already put away. The Ghost of the Manor is also small in scale, but deals in the world of the classic British murder mystery with the Shadow's special touch to it.

The weakest of the bunch is The Mask of Mephisto, which came late in the run and is tired, suspense-free, and almost a routine murder mystery. Unfortunately, it was also the first Shadow novel I ever read, ensuring that I would avoid picking up another one for a few of years. At the time, it was one of the only Shadow novels I could get my hands on because my local library had a copy of it from a 1970s hardcover reprint for the Doubleday Crime Club. Such a shame.

The runners-up for poorest are The Devil Monsters, The Wasp, and Garden of Death. The first goes off-beat in the wrong way, and is already boring as can be before it goes wrong. The second trots out a new super-villain who fails to make much of an impression; he’s no Shiwan Khan or Radil Mocquino. The last shows the series losing steam, although still capable of creative ideas. The Thunder King also lags in the running in that it feels like a standard pulp adventure, but at least it never bores.

And what about The Living Shadow, the very first novel? It’s intriguing for the way Gibson starts finding his way with his mysterious hero, and the Shadow is deeply mysterious here and actually a supporting character. But Gibson still didn’t have a handle on the concept, and it would take him a span to get the Shadow into his groove.