30 September 2014

The Shadow in The Thunder King

The Thunder King (1941)
Walter B. Gibson writing as Maxwell Grant

The 1940s were a lesser decade for the Shadow than the previous one. Perhaps principle Shadow author Walter B. Gibson was fatigued, and the changing tastes of the reading audience toward comic books was dictating creative choices at Street & Smith inimical toward making the character as great as during the halcyon days of the ‘30s. Readership numbers were slipping, leading the publishers to attempt gimmicks to lure new readers. One of these tricks was moving the character of Margot Lane, invented for The Shadow radio program, into the supporting cast of the novels. Margo Lane (Gibson preferred the phonetic spelling) debuted in The Thunder King, the feature novel in the 15 June 1941 issue of The Shadow Magazine.

Margo’s origin is… nothing. Gibson drops her into the story without explanation. She comes “as is” from the radio adaptation, making it obvious that Gibson did not want her in the novels at all, and Street & Smith pressured him to include her so any newcomers who only knew the radio show would find a familiar cast when they picked up an issue of the magazine. The regular readers in the letters column complained about the Margo Lane appearing, but she would remain an important member of the Shadow’s agents for the rest of the pulp run.

Margo Lane doesn’t end up as a disaster when inserted into the literary Shadow’s world, and Gibson uses most of the opportunities that she offers. As one of the Shadow’s agents, Margo is in a different position from the rest of the crew since she regularly interacts socially with the Lamont Cranston identity and is a vague love interest. Margo suspects that Cranston and the Shadow are the same, as do most of the agents like Harry Vincent (who plays a large role here), but Margo receives her instructions through Cranston specifically. It wasn’t until The Devil Monsters a year and half later that Gibson settled on Margo knowing for certain that Lamont Cranston is one of the Shadow’s identities.

Unfortunately, Gibson also uses an opportunity with Margo Lane I wished he’d left alone: the kidnapped damsel in distress. The Shadow stories don’t often dip into the kidnapped helpless woman ploy, and that it shows up here is another example of how the magazine was shifting toward the style of the many pulp heroes who originally emerged as imitators of the Shadow.

The change is also apparent in the story’s fast-paced but often empty action. This was typical of late-era Shadow, when the magazine competed with the big blood n’ thunder of other hero pulps, as well as with comic books. Gibson could write action as well as he could anything else, and he always found clever gag in the midst of a typical firefight, but one shoot-out after another isn’t too thrilling to read.

The plot of The Thunder King pits the Shadow against a mad scientist with a powerful lighting-creating device that he uses to attack manufacturing companies involved in a game of industrial sabotage. Two industrialists, Oswald Kelber and Jerome Thorden, are in the midst of a duel over obtaining important military contracts (the U.S. was already preparing for war). Eccentric electronics genius Oliver Bayruth, possibly based obliquely on Nicola Tesla, unleashes spectacular lightning doom on the manufacturing plants that Kelber needs to maintain his contracts. Bayruth also has some foreign help, since Fifth Columnists have an interest in seeing U.S. industry collapse, although this is merely sprinkled into the story later on as some current event spice.

The Shadow fights close to the forefront through most of the book, with the readers following his actions in the thick of the shoot-outs and the electrical demolitions. Although some of the Shadow’s mysterioso personality remains—and he executes a few stylish tricks to outwit the lightning machine, such as using a rubber insulated version of his disguise—he is more a traditional superhero at this point, especially when he dashes off for the finale with rescuing Margo Lane in mind.

The twist in the final chapter is one of the least surprising I’ve come across in a Shadow novel. The writing telegraphs it from far off, and it requires a few pages of backfill explanation to wave off events that were originally supposed look like incriminating behavior. Earlier Shadow stories would have contained a more intricate design building up to the twist, working like an elegant stage magic trick. But with the accent on pulpy heroics there isn’t much room for the cleverness of old. And, as I’ve suggested before, Gibson was perhaps feeling worn out by this time.

The Thunder King is decent pulp, and works better as a science-fiction tinged action piece than much of the lesser magazine fare of the early 1940s. But it is nonetheless standard pulp, and that means it’s only adequate Shadow. The main reason to read it is for the historical value of Margo Lane’s debut. It’s nice to see that he doesn’t do as much damage as fans feared she might. 

The Thunder King is part of Nostalgia Ventures’ Vol. 68 of Shadow reprints, paired with The Star of Delhi.