07 May 2013

The Shadow in The Devil Monsters

The Devil Monsters (1943)
By Walter B. Gibson writing as Maxwell Grant

This coming June contains a small but important event for fans of the pulp hero the Shadow: the Blu-ray release of the big-budget film version starring Alec Baldwin and directed by Russell Mulcahy. After a decent first weekend in July 1994, that movie sank like a mob stool pigeon tied to a safe dumped into the East River. (I saw The Shadow in theaters on opening night and the crowd seemed enthusiastic; I thought it would be a hit.) In anticipation of the first widescreen release of the film since its original laserdisc pressing, I’ve gone back to The Shadow stories written by Walter B. Gibson, picking up where I left off a few years ago with The Devil Monsters, the second novel in Nostalgia Venture’s The Shadow #13. The first novel in the volume is the superlative Six Men of Evil from 1933. The leap forward of a decade to The Devil Monsters, which appeared in the 1 February 1943 issue of The Shadow, is a disconcerting one. It isn’t a horrible shift, but this is still one of the least enjoyable Shadow novels I’ve finished.

Will Murray, the greatest living expert on the Shadow’s history, has apparently called The Devil Monsters the worst Shadow novel that Gibson wrote. I can’t find his exact quote, but a Shadow review site makes a reference to it. Murray asked Gibson when the author was alive about The Devil Monsters, and Gibson remarked that it was a “change of pace.” It may have also originated as a comic book concept. Gibson was concurrently scripting stories for The Shadow Comics at the time; Anthony Tollin in his essay “Four-Color Shadows” writes that “the novel’s plot almost certainly originally developed as a comic book storyline.” It has the sort of visual stimulus that the young readers of comic books from the era would have devoured.

The Shadow, in his Lamont Cranston guise, drives out to the town of Glendale (a fictional New York location, not the Southern California city) to investigate reports of bizarre monster attacks. His excuse to make this tour of Glendale is an invitation from James Farman, a member of the ritzy Cobalt Club to which Cranston also belongs. The mysterious monster appearances may have a connection to Compeer Chandos, an eccentric who lives in a castle and grows exotic plants. Around Chandos in the town is a drab collection of supporting characters who function as potential suspects for the master of the monsters. There’s also weak stab at the type of stand-in hero figure that Gibson often used in his Shadow stories: an insurance investigator named Stan L. Weldon. In Gibson’s glory days, these heroes were lynchpin characters who let the Shadow keep to the umbrageous regions matching his name. But Stan isn’t much of anything, and the Shadow—in his Cranston guise—is on the page just about as much as he is.

It’s hard to lock down where Gibson wanted to take this plot. The “devil monsters” of the title remain liminal figures for three quarters of the short book; the Shadow spends more time punching dogs (mastiffs, very big dogs, but dogs nonetheless) in his investigation into the happenings in Glendale than facing monstrosities. The possibility exists that the creatures are actually a ruse of some kind, maybe mechanical or hypnotic. This sort of revelation fits in with the way Gibson usually had the Shadow’s adventures unfold.

However, the Shadow discovers what readers who looked at the cover of the issue already knew: the devil monsters are actual monsters. Dinosaurs! Prehistoric beasts! A giant mole! Super scorpions! Fantasy creatures like the basilisk and the fire-salamander! Behind this menagerie of the weird is a villain who calls himself “Monstradamus,” creating a vague link between himself and Nostradamus that makes no sense. (Was Nostradamus fascinated with giant monsters in his quatrains? I must have missed those prophecies.) Monstradamus, in his brief villain speech to the captive heroes, explains that he’s uncovered all these creatures by scouring the world. Sneaking a Diplodocus into New York State and his mansion must have been quite a feat.

This is Gibson’s “change of pace,” slamming science-fiction beasts better suited to a Doc Savage story into the mystery-shrouded Gothic realm of the Shadow. Standard M.O. for a Shadow tale is that the bizarre occurrences are clever deceptions by the villain, the Shadow, or both, and the solution ends up more fascinating than the supernatural hints. Gibson sometimes included science-fiction elements, such as the darkness ray in The Black Hush. But a barrage of crazy monsters that aren’t anything else but crazy monsters is weird and extremely out of keeping with the rest of the series. Gibson created an ingenious variety of stories over his career with the Shadow—but there is such a thing as getting too varied… and here it is, ladies and gentlemen.

But as bizarre as the finale with the weird creatures is, they only take up the last quarter of the book—and are definitely its best part. Compared to the ho-hum mystery plot, at least they provide excitement. Until Monstradamus reveals himself (a plot twist that will surprise nobody), The Devil Monsters is one of the dullest Shadow novels ever. Gibson seems to be going through the motions of setting up suspects and trying to create the illusion that something clever is happening in Glendale. But since there is no great deception occurring—the villain has a bunch of monsters!—none of this works. The sense of the mysterious that makes the Shadow novels so wonderful comes across here as superficial, making the last blast of mayhem at least lively despite how out of place it is. I’ve been bored for most of the book so having the Shadow tied up with giant earthworms so the villain can force him to stare into the eyes of a basilisk while a giant scorpion stings him at least assures I’ll pay attention.

For the first time in a Shadow novel, sidekick Margo Lane suddenly knows that Lamont Cranston is one of the enigmatic hero’s identities, where previously she only suspected the two might be the same person. Gibson provides no build-up to this; the Shadow changes right in front of Margo in the second chapter, and she makes no remark about it. It’s as if a crucial story where she learned the truth about the Shadow got skipped over. However, this doesn’t bother me since I don’t care about Margo Lane and would rather have her nowhere near the novels. The radio show created her as a love interest for Lamont Cranston, and the publishers pressured Gibson into including her in the magazine stories. In June 1941, the writer finally gave in and Margo appeared without explanation in The Thunder King. (For some reason, probably aesthetic, Gibson preferred the spelling “Margo” over the radio script’s “Margot.” The 1994 movie agreed with him.,) Loyal readers went ballistic over this intrusion from the radio program. It wouldn’t bother me if Margo added anything to the stories she appeared in. But she usually has little to do, and in The Devil Monsters she serves almost zero purpose and does not appear in the finale or even get a mention. Why did the Shadow (as Cranston) want to bring her along in the first place?

If Will Murray did indeed call The Devil Monsters the worst Walter B. Gibson Shadow novel of all time, I must protest. I haven’t read all of Gibson’s novels, but I have read one worse: The Mask of Mephisto is a trudge from start to finish. That could’ve used a basilik or two to wake me up.

I admire Nostalgia Ventures for releasing The Devil Monsters at all. The first of their Shadow releases emphasized some of the best of Gibson’s novels (as well as those of Theodore Tinsley, the most common fill-in author for Gibson). But it was a good idea to stir up the content and present something unusual, even if it’s poorer quality material. The Devil Monsters adds variety to the Shadow’s history and a peek into the evolving dominance of comic books. Although I would never recommend it to a newcomer, I’m glad to have The Devil Monsters available for the characters’ fans.

But the next Shadow novel I read will be something from the early thirties. I need to get at least one more classic in before The Shadow hits Blu-ray.