Saturday, July 9

The Spider vs. the Empire State, Book Three: Scourge of the Black Legions (2009)

By Norvell Page (writing as Grant Stockbridge). Third book of “The Black Police Trilogy,” originally published in The Spider #62 (November, 1938). See first book here and second book here.

Original magazine cover
Taking up mere hours after The Spider at Bay, the triumphant recapture of New York City from the Black Police proves shortlived as federal forces finally move in – on the side of the “lawfully” elected government. The Spider and his supporters are forced to flee once more. Desiring to stand out more as a symbol for the resistance to rally around, Richard Wentworth – still “pretending” to be the Spider – dons a green cape, which of course also makes him a target. After freeing a young woman in Westphalian who, along with others, is being used as a human shield, and rallying the town to resistance, Wentworth is brought down by a sniper's bullet. Word goes out that the Spider is dead! His supporters are rounded up. The resistance appears doomed. It is not, of course – so far that's just the first few chapters!

But darker days ensue, even as Wentworth is found to have survived, recuperates quickly, and frees his closest band of supporters once again. But the federal forces in the state of New York are hampering the freedom of the totalitarian regime to complete its program of pillage, and Wentworth discovers a horrific plan to divert the federal government's attention elsewhere into dealing with a disaster.  A desperate flight – a mismatched dogfight in the nighttime sky above a Pennsylvania dam – but one bomb dropped from an attacking plane gets through and starts the inexorable crumbling of the dam. A desperate race through darkness – by car, finally by horseback – and Wentworth manages to save a pitiful few from a single town as the dam breaches altogether and a wall of water inundates the region, drowning thousands. Dogged determination continues to drive Wentworth back to New York and the fight – which seems lost yet again as his dwindling army is once more captured – and once more rescued – and again captured – and freed ... – a spiraling cycle of loss that ultimately brings a once-more wounded and flagging Wentworth face to face with the man in the mirror, the Master, in a final confrontation against the backdrop of a popular uprising in Albany itself.

Somewhat incredibly, in a short appendix, we see that the status quo has been restored (as it must be for this formulaic series to continue) with legitimate government restored and Stanley Kirkpatrick back once more as Commissioner of the NYPD. A once-more robust Wentworth's facade is even secure - “Of course, I'd like the [sic – recte to] claim credit for that kill in Albany – the Master, I mean. The doctors will tell you, I was found unconscious in the streets, and there was no green cape, no face of the Spider, nothing. No, I guess the Spider put one over on us after all, Kirkpatrick” (p. 417). And Kirkpatrick goes along with it – swallowing the story that the Spider, long inactive while Wentworth merely acted the part, had returned in the end. Their adversarial alliance against evil – two good men standing shoulder-to-shoulder on either side of the thin line between lawful authority and outlaw vigilantism – will continue for another five years through almost sixty more adventures.
* * *
I had thought I might develop some deep historical commentary on this fairly obscure allegory of the 1930s, when parts of the world were indeed succumbing to totalitarianism and there were indeed such leanings even here in the United States. But upon finishing this story I went back and reread Krabacher's historical introduction and he does it much better than I could. This is definitely not my area of historical expertise – even though I do live in Louisiana where Huey Long, invoked again and again through this tale, ran an ostensibly similar political machine. It was very interesting following a couple of Krabacher's leads off into a little (fairly superficial) research. Concern about a developing “home-grown fascist” sentiment inspired a number of cautionary tales similar to this – one main difference I'm sure being that such things as Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel, It Can't Happen Here, couldn't possibly reach the heights of outlandish melodrama and over-the-top pulpish escapades that Norvell Page excelled at – page after frenetic page! The one difference I think to be immediately apparent between the “Party of Justice” and “The Black Police” state in New York and anything in the “real world” is that there is no political or social ideology underpinning the former. It is a criminal enterprise, pure and simple – a band of thugs marshalling the example set by Mussolini and Hitler – and Long, pretty explicitly – into the service of monstrous greed. Perhaps I'm naïve, but I doubt that without some kind of deeper, albeit perverse, “ideal” driving it such an undertaking could possibly reach the horrific heights that this one does. But I have no doubt that the refrain of “It couldn't happen here” has been chanted in many times and places as driving events give way to the dread realization that it has happened here.

The one quibble that I have with Krabacher's valuable introduction is what I consider to be an erroneous although as I understand it prevailing equation of “fascism” with “right-wing” ideology - “The Party of Justice is clearly taken from any of a number of the American right-wing organizations, such as the National Union for Social Justice, that flourished at the time” (p. 16). For what it's worth (and a colleague of mine who does specialize in modern history rather than my own ancient/medieval period deeply disagrees with me here), accepting the common usage of “left-” and “right-wing” as “liberal” and “conservative,” I consider such movements to be more malignant outgrowths of the “left-wing” of the political spectrum than the “right-.” (Perhaps I'm overly sensitive. I'm pretty conservative, and I'm not infrequently flogged with the label of “fascist” by my liberal colleagues. Generally, it's done good-naturedly, but it does get annoying at times and does, I believe, betray how some terms lose most if not all of their true meaning in common antagonistic discourse.) A succinct summation of the connections between “left-wing” ideology and Nazism as well as other pernicious movements can be seen in the customer review of Erik von Kuhnelt-Leddihn's Leftism Revisited: From De Sade and Marx to Hitler and Pol Pot entitled “Demagogues can choose the class, the race or any other flag,” dated 17 September 1999. I believe I was present at the exchange between “A Customer” and Professor von Kuhnelt-Leddihn in 1998 mentioned therein – I'm pretty sure it followed a presentation by the good professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The timing is about right; I'm fairly certain I know the writing style of that unnamed reviewer; and I do remember the subject being addressed at that time, when it left a deep impression on me.

That bit aside, The Spider vs. the Empire State has been a fascinating read overall. Let me end by quoting Krabacher's conclusion to this volume: “[T]he Black Police saga demonstrates that for all their escapist elements the pulps could also be more complex, reflecting the events, concerns, and anxieties of their times. A bit distorted, perhaps, by the need to thrill, but nonetheless recognizable even today” (p. 17).

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