02 December 2008

The Spider Revival, Part I: Robot Titans of Gotham

The Spider: Robot Titans of Gotham (2007) 
By Norvell Page writing as Grant Stockbridge

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

If you have never met the most notorious of all pulp magazine heroes—The Spider, Master of Men!—then Baen Books has a deal for you. After a long absence from mass market paperbacks, the Spider returns in two Baen collections The Spider: Robot Titans of Gotham and The Spider: City of Doom. The two volumes pack together five of Norvell Page’s best Spider novels, plus a bonus yarn from his madcap typewriter.

(Update: Now there’s a third volume, The Spider vs. The Empire State.)

If you’ve previously met the Spider, you might have read some of these adventures from reprints in the Carroll & Graf series. Buy these new books anyway; I want Baen to feed us more.

As for you newcomers, I feel obliged to give you fair warning about the Spider. Otherwise you might wonder after reading one of these stories, “Was Norvell Page completely insane?” No, he was a professional pulp writer. Which may come down to the same thing, when you consider the deadlines. But even for the crazy world of the cheap paper story magazines of the 1920s and 1930s, the zenith years of this lost world of fiction, Page’s tales of the Spider are so overloaded with outrageous violence and fear, and so under-stocked with logic and elementary structuring, that it seems the author wrote them after shooting more heroine than Popeye Doyle confiscated in The French Connection.

Norvell Page (1904–1961) was a prolific pulp pro who turned out stories for detective, Western, and adventure magazine throughout the 1930s, including the fantasy stories of Prester John in Weird Tales’ competitor Unknown. But the scorched flesh and blood-soaked fanaticism of the Spider remains Page’s lasting legacy. The Spider started life as Popular Publications’ attempt to copy Street & Smith’s immensely successful detective hero, the Shadow. When Page took over the writing duties from R. T. M. Scott with the third issue in December 1933 (using the house name of “Grant Stockbridge”), the character veered off 180 degrees from his inspiration. Page’s Spider is the opposite of Walter B. Gibson’s Shadow in every meaningful way. The Shadow novels are meticulously crafted mysteries filled with atmosphere and starring an implacable hero who always stays a few steps ahead of his foes. The Spider novels are messy plunges into overheated insanity filled with depraved weirdness and featuring a hero who always seems one step behind the villains and an inch away from annihilation.

The Spider is the grotesque alter-ego of rich playboy and amateur sleuth Richard Wentworth. Decked out with fangs, a fright-wig, twin automatics, and a trick cigarette lighter to brand his eight-legged mark onto the foreheads of his victims, Wentworth takes on the Spider’s identity to combat crime far beyond anything the ordinary forces of law and order can handle. In each story, Wentworth lunges into battle with diabolic forces bent on the destruction of New York, the Eastern Seaboard, or all of the United States. Sleuthing doesn’t feature strongly in Wentworth’s Spider-work. His modus operandi consists of gunning down legions of heartless, murderous foes in as graphic a fashion possible. Imagine the Punisher if he had Bruce Wayne’s money, Dracula’s wardrobe, and was coming to the end of a two-week bender, and you have something that approximates the Spider on an average weekday evening.

The Spider doesn’t fight completely alone. His stalwart and much-suffering lady love Nita van Sloan is always willing to give her selfless aid, or at least offer herself as kidnap-bait to provide our hero with extra motivation. The rest of Wentworth’s second line consists of Hindu bodyguard Ram Singh, chauffeur Jackson, and dedicated butler Jenkyns. Police commissioner Stanley Kirkpatrick both helps and hunts the Spider. He guesses that his friend Wentworth is behind the bloody heroics, but avoids learning for certain so he won’t have to do his duty and bring an end to the Spider’s career.

Even at their finest, the Spider stories don’t make a helluva lot of sense. Page appears to have some idea where his plots might go in the first few chapters, but after that he coasts on sheer momentum and rips through chapters without the slightest concern about it adding up in the end. This typical story has the Spider desperately careening around the city (or country) from one fight to the next, his situation always near-hopeless. After a quota of innocent people have met horrific demises (let’s say five thousand or thereabouts) from the villain-of-the-month’s mad scheme, the Spider nastily offs the head sicko, revealed to be a minor character about whom the reader had completely forgotten—probably because Page had forgotten about him too until he typed the unmasking scene.

However, nobody familiar with the Spider reads his adventures expecting logic or ‘fair play’ detection mysteries; they read them to see how flat-out demented they can get. Nita threatened with rape by an orangutan! The villain’s head bashed repeatedly against a metal statue while he is electrocuted! Dismemberment by a six-armed mechanical statue! The mayhem often reaches delirious levels that rival anything published today. Page ditches the elegant detachment of previous hero pulps and plunges readers into Wentworth’s mounting panic as his war against the dealers of death turns more and more impossible. This nonsensical nihilism has a postmodernist touch that makes the Spider ironically contemporary for a hero imbedded in a peculiar subgenre over seventy years old. Occasionally, as in The City Destroyer, the stories come uncomfortably close to modern massacres and disasters.

And get an eyeful of those overheated titles: The Town That Dared Not Eat, Laboratory of the Damned, King of the Fleshless Legion, Hordes of the Red Butcher, and my personal favorite, Hell’s Sales Manager. No, I did not make up that last one.

The first of Baen’s Spider volumes, Robot Titans of Gotham, begins with a fantastic novel. Satan’s Murder Machines comes from the December 1939 issue of The Spider. Wentworth investigates three grisly killings committed in the same night that seem to have a connection to Frank Drexler’s security agency. The sudden emergence of an army of giant killer robots who shoot flame jets from their fingers turns the situation from a murder mystery into a frantic struggle (as always) to save New York City from ruin. The mastermind behind the killer ‘bots has also framed Wentworth for the murders, and police commissioner Stanley Kirkpatrick must hound the vigilante hero for the crimes. The mayhem that follows peaks with an astonishing scene of the Spider commandeering a robot and then riding on top of a truck, batting away the other metal monsters with a telephone pole. Long before Robotech, there was the Spider!

This is one of Page’s most exhilarating works, thanks to a generous boost from the science-fiction premise. The story contains less gore than some, although the robots enjoy snapping people in half or twisting off their heads. Don’t expect Page to explain the robots’ construction or the villain’s reason for unleashing them, since the author only lightly touches on the latter and never bothers with the former. Who needs explanations when you have the Spider in a stolen robot suit straddling a racing truck and clear-cutting his adversaries with an improvised twenty-foot baseball bat? Not I.

The second novel, Death Reign of the Vampire King, comes from early in Norvell’s Spider-tenure, November 1935. This is one of the more popular Spider novels in reprints, having previously appeared in Carroll & Graf’s 1990s paperback series and in a misguided Pocket Books venture of 1975 that tried to re-imagine the Spider as a numbered adventure series in the style of The Executioner. The villain this time is the Bat Man, four years before another guy started using that name for the side of good. Vampire bats with poisoned fangs spread over Philadelphia, first causing death among gangsters involved in the horse racing racket, but soon threatening the innocent. Richard Wentworth investigates the killings, and almost immediately gets framed… again. The trail to stop the ravening hordes of the Bat Man leads the Spider to Chicago and the Rocky Mountains, through a continuous stream of bat attacks and aerial battles (one of Page’s favorite tropes and common in the pulps in general).

Once more, the mechanics of the villain’s wicked scheme receive almost zero examination. More annoying for newcomers to Page’s haphazard, off-the-cuff style is the “surprise” ending that will have most readers doing a confused double-take. A twist, yes, but a twist on what? I had to spend half an hour pouring over the early parts of the book to find what Page was referring to, and spotted the single place where it’s mentioned, buried in the middle of a paragraph of innocuous chit-chat. A twist ending the author never bothered to foreshadow: that’s Norvell Page in a nutshell. (If you want to read more about Page’s lunacy in plotting without foreshadowing, read pulp-historian Will Murray’s humorous essay, “Stop Me from Reading Another Spider!”)

Robot Titans of Gotham’s “bonus” novel, The Octopus, is a re-titling of The City Condemned to Hell, the lead story of the first (and only) issue of the villain-centered pulp The Octopus. The late 1930s saw a flurry of similar villain pulps, most of which lasted a single issue. The Octopus appeared in February 1938, changed its title to The Scorpion with its next issue, and then vanished. Norvell Page contributed the lead stories to both under the pseudonym “Randolph Craig.” The City Condemned to Hell reads like a cross between the Spider and Max Brand’s Dr. Kildare. Hero Jeffrey Fairchild disguises himself as the elderly Dr. Skull—a name guaranteed to soothe his patients—so he can work in the slums of the city to protect the victims of crime. In another identity, the Skull Killer, he dispatches crooks and leaves them with a skull mark etched in acid on their foreheads, a technique borrowed from the Spider. Once more a whole city faces doom, this time from the menace of the mutated Octopus, who twists hospital patients into gelid monsters using an ultraviolet ray and then unleashes them on the population. The exact “whys” of the plan never emerge, but at this point you should know that this isn’t criticism, merely observation. I would like to know, however, why pulp authors so often picked purple as the color of fear and conspiracy. (See the saga of “The Purple Empire” in the xenophobic magazine Operator #5 for further examples.)

Next week in Part II: The Spider: City of Doom. Be there, or be eaten by radioactive plague-infested bats!