05 April 2008

The Shadow in The Salamanders

The Salamanders (1936)
By Walter B. Gibson writing as Maxwell Grant

The second novel in Volume #5 of Nostalgia Ventures’ reprints of “The Shadow” is The Salamanders. As the included historical essay points out, this novel was selected as a contrast to the first, The Black Falcon. Where The Black Falcon focuses on mystery and deception sprinkled with action, The Salamanders accents action, action, action with The Shadow in the thick of the fray.

By 1936, when The Salamanders appeared in the magazine, The Shadow had serious competition from Popular Publications’ demented take on the hero pulp, The Spider. I’ll spend some blog time on the Spider eventually; he’s worth plenty of bandwidth because of the sheer insanity that author Norvell Page put into him. Suffice it to say for the moment that The Spider’s adventures involved blazing action, horrific violence influenced by Weird Menace pulps, and the constant threat of utter annihilation. Where The Shadow uses style and plotting, The Spider goes blood n’ guts fueled by heapings of caffeine.

The Salamanders is definitely a “Spider-ized” outing for The Shadow. According to Will Murray in his essay in Volume #5, Street & Smith requested this more competitive direction from Shadow scribe Walter B. Gibson. Gibson described it this way: “Instead of building up to some great menace, then unravelling it and defeating it, writers were plunging into a full-blown horror that called for immediate demolition.” This is exactly what Gibson serves up in The Salamanders, although he does it with more control and attention to detail than the feverish Norvell Page Spider novels. The Shadow appears in the forefront of the action, right in the thick of the battle against a plague of arson committed by asbestos-suited villains toting flame-throwers. They would look right at home in an issue of The Spider, and so would the massive incendiary finale where The Shadow darts around a burning town trying desperately to stop the Salamanders from completing their evil task. Throughout the book there is no end of thrill sequences: two massive car wrecks over the sides of cliffs, multiple burning fire-traps, rescues across hot coals, a train filled with dynamite crashing into a blazing depot, and The Shadow flying his autogiro to the rescue.

Gibson manages to hold the story together with his customary precision even in this nonstop barrage. He doesn’t fly into the Spider-lunacy land: the Salamanders have a realistic goal (collecting securities for a greedy power company owner) and everything makes sense at the end. However, this simply isn’t the kind of Shadow adventure that grabs me. I enjoy the Knight of Darkness best in the mysterious supporting role, as in The Black Falcon, instead of always in the center of the action like a spotlight was shining down on him. The Salamanders is pulp-thrills at a mile-a-minute, but it doesn’t have the writing beauty that Gibson brought to the best of his work. The Spider played the insane action game better, even if the total illogic of his escapades are headache-inducing and not for everybody.