By Norvell W. Page
Because the three novels in this present volume from Baen Books are perportedly linked to a certain degree, I'm writing them up as one entry as they are here republished. I actually finished reading it a couple weeks ago, but last week was mid terms and the week since has been catching up on my professional duties. This weekend is the first extended time I've had in a while to sit down and work on my blogs.
How are the three novels linked? Well, it's a little more obvious for the first two, both reprints of adventures of the 1930s pulp hero The Spider from his eponymous magazine that lasted for over a hundred issues through the 1930s and into the early 1940s, and I'll get to that. I still haven't puzzled out exactly what the connection is for the third, which is from an abortive pulp magazine entitled The Octopus that lasted for only a single issue. Frankly, I've not been able to confirm for certain that it was even written by Norvell Page, since each pulp hero's adventures actually appeared in stories attributed to a house name whether or not the usual writer actually penned any particular one or not. Norvell Page did write the lion's share of Spider novels, but there were other authors and he was not in fact the first. The first two were actually an anomalous situation in that the author's real name did appear as R. T. M. Scott. But once Norvell Page took over with the third, the house name of “Grant Stockbridge” would be used for all, even the ones not written by Page. The same was true of Lester Dent, who wrote most of the Doc Savage novels under the name “Kenneth Robeson,” although there were a scattering of other writers, and of Walter Gibson who was almost but not always hidden behind the name of “Maxwell Grant” on the covers of The Shadow. The Wikipedia article for the 1938 movie serial The Spider's Web which borrows the name of its villain from this story only says that “The Octopus was a villain in a single issue pulp believed to have been written by Norvell Page who wrote most of The Spider pulp stories” (my emphasis). It's not certain that the “Randolph Craig” house name covered Novell Page, but it is likely that he had at least some hand in it. I'm in no way a “lit-critter” (my old drunken mentor's term for the literary criticism types), but it seems very much like Page's style – and even moreso! The Pulp Reader blog did a little investigating last year and came to the conclusion that a couple named “Edith and Eljer Jacobson wrote the original story and then it was retooled/rewritten by Page to make the hero fit more of the Spider mold. This would explain why the story in places seems typical of Norvell Page's work and at times even more grotesque, and horrific, the prose more purple without quite the polish of his Spider work.” As I said – “like Page's style – and even moreso!” (Pulp Reader had just previously written a review of this story that is well worth reading, then reconsidered his acceptance of Page's authorship and did a bit more digging.)
Which rambles a long ways from a review of this present volume.
There is first a framing sequence by Joel Frieman that basically introduces the first tale and establishes a tenuous connection between it and the second. Pulp author Norvell Page is upset that one of his Spider stories was blatantly plagiarised by the creators of the Superman Sunday newspaper strip. We are told this against the background of the rising – exploding – comic book market that is sucking all of the oxygen out of the room for the old hero pulps, which are by now on their way out as evidenced by the declining remuneration Page is getting for his writing. This framing sequence taking place in January 1941, The Spider itself would last only a couple more years. Popular Publications, the publishers of The Spider, accept an out-of-court settlement of cash from Detective Comics (i.e. DC) for silence regarding the plagiarism (“They don't want Superman to be known as 'The Man of Steal'?” Page asks.) Page finds an old prop pistol once used by the cover painter for The Spider and has it in his pocket shortly afterward when he is ambushed by some ruffians in the street. He pulls the gun on them, to bluff them – they don't fall for it – but then a gunshot rings out and his attacker falls shot dead! And we're taken immediately into ...
Satan's Murder Machines (originally published in The Spider for December 1939)
Frankly, although this is a typically gripping and over-the-top adventure of The Spider with a villainous gang terrorizing the City in powerful, flame-throwing, almost indestructible robotic armor suits, the background of the story as highlighted in the prelude is far more interesting. Because a “rip-off” of this story did appear as a Superman story, not in the comics themselves but rather in the Sunday newspaper strips from 3 November to 22 December 1940, under the title “Bandit Robots of Metropolis,” written by Jerry Siegel with pencils by Wayne Boring and inks believed to be by Don Komisarov (actual creator credits are hard to come by for the early days of comics – attribution of all the creators would not appear consistently until the 1970s). “When robot bandits invade Metropolis and demand tribute, Superman must find the robots' lair and rescue Lois.” So reads the blurb at the Grand Comics Database (specifically http://www.comics.org/issue/371986/#596403) about half-way down the page. This is not the only time, moreover, that this Spider story has influenced other super-hero and pulpish characters. It's cited as being the inspiration a couple decades later for Stan Lee and his brother Larry Lieber's 1963 creation of the Marvel Comics hero Iron Man for Tales of Suspense #39, as well as the gigantic mechanical monsters that open the 2004 movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow – http://www.newsarama.com/comics/spider-iron-man-war-moonstone-100608.html. I wouldn't be surprised if there were other such “homages.” In 2010 Satan's Murder Machines was finally adapted as such into comic book form by Moonstone Publications, albeit under a different title: The Iron Man War (see previous link).
Death Reign of the Vampire King (originally published in The Spider for November 1935)
This is another tale of The Spider, much like any other, basically about a madman who unleashes trained poisonous vampire bats onto the various unsuspecting populations of various cities – the action's not confined to New York this time – until against seemingly insurmountable odds The Spider brings him down. It is the name of the villain that gives the connection to the first story. He is The Bat Man. (Say it with the deep, gravelly voice.) And he does have a black, scalloped, bat-wing cape. But there's not a whole lot else to say about it other than that it may have also enjoyed comic adaptation, although the very source for that statement – http://homepage.mac.com/cdkalb/spider/pulps/list.html , go down to #26 – links to a page that seems to indicate otherwise, that the 1990 Eclipse series was based on another Spider novel entirely, Corpse Cargo – see http://homepage.mac.com/cdkalb/spider/comics/truman.html .
The City Condemned to Hell (originally published in The Octopus for February-March 1939)
I've already addressed the authorship question above. The Octopus was one of only two pulp titles with the title being the name of the villain. The other was The Scorpion, which may have been an effort to jump-start this series with a new name. This story has a lot of things in common with The Spider stories, but is even wierder and more outrageous. Jeffrey Fairchild is The Skull Killer – another half-crazed, obsessive foe of criminals with a ring whereby he leaves his mark on the forehead of his victims – like The Spider and his vermillion spider ring. Fairchild is also a doctor, however, with a third identity as an elderly physician named Dr. Skull. He has an invalid brother to whom he is devoted, but who despises him, while being devoted to his doctor, Dr. Skull. Dr. Skull also has a comely nurse, Carol Endicott, providing a love interest for Jeffrey, but who does not know that Fairchild and Skull are one and the same (nor of course that he/they is/are The Skull Killer), and there are hints that there's a love triangle between Carol, Jeffrey, and his brother. I'm not sure what plans Page – or whomever – may have had for this series if it continued, but I bet it would have been wild! Unfortunately, it didn't continue. Besides a series taking its name from the villain being a problematic proposition, this story was probably just too weird …
The villain here seems very Lovecraftian, a mysterious figure known as The Octopus who has a method utilizing a burning ultraviolet beam to transform normal humans into deformed, vampiric monsters who can't survive in regular light, who need UV, plus living human blood to survive – whose veins now run with a seawater-like substance. Yep, it's weird. Fairchild, The Skull Killer, ruins his current plans, but the villain does get away – what his next scheme would be we'll never know.
I have no idea why this story in particular is included in this volume. Sure, the conventional wisdom is that it was written by Norvell Page (see above), but even so.... There is a tenuous DC Comics Superman-Batman connection linking the two Spider stories, even giving the overall title for this collection, parallelling the Superman Sundays title “The Robot Bandits of Metropolis” becomes The Robot Titans of Gotham, combining elements from Superman and Batman in one title. That's clever. But whatever the reason they chose this odd little story to round out this volume, I'm glad they did. It was an experience to read, and I'm glad to have had the opportunity.
So. What happened to Page after the attack with which the prelude ended? I thought there would be an epilogue that would pick that little story up and even reveal the rationale for this collection. There's not. There is a follow-up collection from Baen books, The Spider: The City of Doom. I've not read it, and I'm not sure when I'll get around to reading it. I have peeked at the first pages, however, and yes there is another prologue that seems to take up from this one. My curiosity will take me there before too long, I'm sure.
'Til then, Cheers, and thanks for reading!