09 December 2008

The Spider Revival, Part II: City of Doom

The Spider: City of Doom (2008) 
By Norvell Page writing as Grant Stockbridge

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Last week, I reviewed the first volume in Baen’s trade paperback reprints of the adventures of Norvell Page’s grisly pulp hero, The Spider. Now, I plunge into the violent maelstrom of… The Spider: City of Doom.

The three novels reprinted in City of Doom are The City Destroyer, The Faceless One, and The Council of Evil. The City Destroyer, which Page submitted under the title Crumbling Doom, is the earliest of Baen’s reprinted Spider stories, published originally in the January 1935 issue of The Spider. It also appeared in Pocket Books’ reformatted (with pointless modernizing) series in the ‘70s. It ranks as one of the Norvell Page’s best-written works, but it has an ugly timeliness that dulls the edge of the absurdist fantasy and may unsettle some readers. In the opening chapter the villain, decked out with the bland handle “The Master,” steals the secret for a metal-corroding dust. Richard Wentworth thinks the Master plans to use the chemical invention to break into bank vaults, but he should know that his adversaries don’t think that small. Instead of wasting time with piddling safes, the Master uses the chemical to knock down entire New York skyscrapers, killing thousands of people. His first target is New York’s newest, tallest building, and the writing dwells for a few pages on a gruesome depiction of the skyscraper’s collapse and the gory aftermath, complete with fleeing crowds, a dust cloud pluming over the Manhattan skyline, and trapped people trying to escape certain death in a crumbling tower.

Uhm… not a pleasant memory. At times, our world and that of the pulps share tragic similarities. Amidst the Great Depression and staring toward an oncoming second world war, pulp authors occasionally tapped into an insecurity not far removed from our own. The City Destroyer delivers more fear and tension than any thriller you’ll find on the recent bestseller lists, but new readers should be prepared for moments of queasy familiarity. It isn’t much of a nostalgia trip, and even the Spider’s heroics can’t halt an obscene death toll. I would conservatively estimate that seven thousand people perish during this story.

The Faceless One first appeared in November 1939 under the longer title The Spider and the Faceless One, although Page’s original title is The Spider and the Flame Master. The Spider’s adversary is one of pulpdom’s many villainous masters of disguise, the chameleon and mad arsonist known as “Munro.” Page gets to weave heavy paranoia into this story, since the Spider knows that Munro can appear as anyone almost flawlessly; every person in the story is potentially suspect. Munro uses his deceptions to kidnap Nita, and the Spider must rescue her while trying to prevent the villain from burning down more crowded tenements.

Although The Faceless One contains the requisite amount of rat-ta-tat-tat action, it is the weakest of the novels in the two volumes. Page doesn’t seem to have his usual manic interest in the story, and it ends up a touch pedestrian. The only jolt the story provides comes when the Spider faces off against Munro with Nita lying on the chopping block of a guillotine. The mayhem and threat of doom don’t hang heavy over events, and no single scene of horror or action stands out that the readers can recall long after the other details of the plot have faded away. Falling beside The City Destroyer’s apocalypse, The Faceless One’s occasional arson looks like a sputtering flame.

The final novel of the batch comes from a later period in Spider-publishing, October 1940. The Spider goes against The Council of Evil, a many-faceted organization committed to… well, evil. Page originally submitted it under the headline-copying title Crime’s Blitzkrieg. The criminals who have escaped death at the Spider’s hands but now wear burnt mark of the crime-fighter on their foreheads have banded together into a super-baddie organization. They plan to plunder New York with an army of looters while manipulating a brigade of hypnotized graying pensioners into forming a human wall against the police. It’s as bizarre as it sounds, and I love Norvell Page for inflicting it on me.

This is one of the busier Spider novels, with Page packing its length with plenty of subplots. Aside from combating the full-frontal looting and bombing assault of the titular council, Wentworth has to deal with 1) a new police commissioner who will let nothing stand in the way of bringing down the Spider, 2) an onset of amnesia in Nita that might endanger his secret identity, and 3) a squad of hero-worshipping kids who want to get in on the hero act. The plot thread with Commissioner Littlejohn eventually gets lost in the mayhem, and the children don’t make for a promising start to the story, but Page gets some great dramatic fuel from the amnesiac and conflicted Nita. The gang of sidekick kids doesn’t end up half bad either, but I would wager a dime that Page placed this angle into the story to appeal to the magazine’s younger readers who had joined the Spider fan-club and purchased their very own Spider ring through mail. (Now gimme my dime. I have to send away for my Spider ring.)

If the presentation of the two collections has a drawback, it’s the new Forewords by Joel Frieman that read as meta-fanfic rather than introductions. They are clever, especially the use of hard-boiled author Carroll John Daly as a character, but I don’t know what they’re doing here. Considering that potential new fans to the Spider will pick up these volumes (great Jim Steranko cover art will lure them in if word-of-mouth doesn’t), an introduction with appropriate historical information would have been a better choice. You don’t want people wandering into the spinning blades without some warning.

Stay tuned thrill-seekers, for surely Baen will bring back the Master of Men in further collections of pulp pathos. Purchase them all, or be devoured by cholera-infected armies of giant porcupines!

Oh wait, there is a Part III to this, although it’s from a different publisher: The Spider vs. The Empire State.