Wednesday, November 21

The Spider #6: The Citadel of Hell (March 1934)

Screen shot of the ePub format
viewed through iBooks
on an iPhone 4S
By Norvell Page writing as Grant Stockbridge. Originally published in The Spider Magazine, March 1934. Republished by RadioArchives (2012) in the ebook series, “Will Murray's Pulp Classics.”

As I've probably mentioned, I returned early last year (2011) after many years to a genre that I read fairly heavily in during my youth, which corresponded with the waning years of its earlier revival during the 1960s and 1970s, that of the 1930s and '40s pulp heroes. One series that I had only heard of, never read all those years ago, was The Spider: Master of Men! The current pulp heroes' revival is being greatly facilitated by the easy availability of ebook editions, some authorized, some unauthorized. Distinguishing between “authorized” and “unauthorized” can be rather dicey, I gather, because a great deal of pulp fiction has lapsed into the public domain. Such seems to be the case for the first five or so of this series, because I found them readily available in multiple locations around the Internet. I burned through them pretty quickly, pretty much in order – not that it matters that much for The Spider because there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of carry-through of plot elements. As far as I can tell, with only a few minor characters or story elements coming or going into the series as exceptions, an early Spider tale is much like a later one. So when I found the next readily available source for the series to be in the randomly published Pulp Doubles series from Girasol, I started picking those up and reading them in a rather haphazard fashion, and by no means continuously as I'd read the first through the fifth stories.

Then, earlier this year RadioArchives announced the appearance of its ebook editions, complete with series introductions by one of the pre-eminent historians of the pulp genre, Will Murray. I purchased and read a couple, but still at first they were in random sequence. And I have a fair amount of other things I'm also reading, as you know. At some point, however, RA went back to the beginning of the series and started publishing them in order, and filling in the gaps around the ones they'd already released. Finally, in late August or early September, I believe, they announced the “Total Pulp Experience” upgrade to their “Will Murray's Pulp Classics” line, whereby not just the lead novel from each magazine would be included, but also the short stories that usually appeared as back-of-the-book features, along with original editorials and letter columns. All that are missing are the ads and the original interior illustrations. And the process of getting the books onto an ereader device has been streamlined so they are direct downloads from the RA website rather than the previous, rather cumbersome, zip-files containing the ePub, Mobi, and PDF formats together. They are also available directly through the Kindle book store, the iBook store, and the Barnes & Noble book store, in their respective formats.

RadioArchives has been steadily churning “Will Murray's Pulp Classics” out for the past several months, so that at this point virtually all of the legendary Captain Future series by Edmund Hamilton are available, as well as the first couple dozen Operator #5 pulps, a smattering of offerings from other series, all in addition to a couple dozen Spider issues. This link [ here ] should take you to the current titles. All at a very affordable price – about $4 apiece – considering what you would pay for any of these original pulp magazines if you could even find them in readable condition – or the hard copy reprints or facsimiles that are still being published, which range from about $15 all the way up to $35 or $40 apiece. Those are also available through RA, by the way [ see here ]. But for my money, the ebooks are the way I'll be going in the future as I slowly work my way through these great old stories.

Which is a very long introduction to my review of RadioArchives' “Will Murray's Pulp Classics” ebook edition of The Spider Magazine for March 1934, containing the sixth recorded adventure of “The Master of Men” (I still don't know exactly where that subtitle comes from, but was on the covers from the beginning), entitled The Citadel of Hell, written by Norvell Page under the series' pen-name Grant Stockbridge, along with two short stories – “Killer's Knout” by Anson Hatch and “The Standing Corpse” by G. T. Fleming-Roberts. All things being equal, despite the relative lack of any sequential continuity to the series, I would rather read the stories in their original publication order, so the earliest in sequence that I had not read last year seemed like a good place to take the series back up again.

Each issue is fronted with an essay by Will Murray, “Meet the Spider!,” offering a brief introduction to the character, his place in the history of pulp heroes, and his significance in a wider context, including as part of Stan Lee's inspiration for the Amazing Spider-Man. This essay is a series introduction, not an issue introduction, being the same from issue to issue, but does make for a good entry for someone picking up any of the stories at random for their first exposure to the character.

The Spider in The Citadel of Hell, by “Grant Stockbridge”

Fire bombers target New York City's food supply, leading to famine and starvation. To what end beyond creating chaos and a monopoly that they control I'm not sure, but you don't necessarily read the adventures of the Spider for rational, well-thought-out villainous plans. You read them for the driving, outrageous, over-the-top narrative that renders such trivial details of little concern, only occurring to the reader afterward. It makes for a typically frenetic tale that is quite hard to put down, but even harder to abstract.

Here is a very poor attempt. The Food Destroyers' foul plot progresses far along as they proceed virtually unopposed when the Spider is wounded and almost killed in a confrontation with law enforcement, managing only with nail-biting difficulty to reach safe haven with his scientific guru Dr Brownlee where he spends weeks convalescing. That's something I've noticed in several of the stories I've read, that the narrative seems to encompass well more than the month that separated the publication of the pulp magazine issues. I suspect that if you built a comprehensive time line based on the internal evidence of the passage of time as given in the stories themselves you would end up with the Spider's career spanning quite a bit more than the ten or so years that the magazine was in publication, from 1933 to 1943. But thinking too hard about that is as unprofitable as considering how many scores, hundreds, or even thousands of New Yorkers met their dooms in typical issues, as well as the wholesale destruction of large parts of the city including well-known landmarks, that frequently occurred. In the end, all would apparently be well and – more importantly – reset to the status quo ante for the next adventure to wreak similar havoc.

In any case, Police Commissioner Stanley Kirkpatrick comes closer than ever, here just half a dozen episodes into the hundred-plus adventures, to proving that his good friend Richard Wentworth is indeed the Spider whom he is sworn to bring to justice. “Kirk” nevertheless (as always) recognizes the nobility and good that the outlaw accomplishes, and – not for the first nor the last time – essentially lets him go in the end. In this story, however, the Spider is hounded by a new (I believe) antagonist among New York's law enforcement officials, District Attorney Glastonbury, who keeps Dick's fiancée and accomplice Nita Van Sloan off-stage for most of this story, in jail and accused of being the Spider's henchwoman. There is more of a sense than I've ever gotten from earlier or later stories that Dick is a hunted fugitive, which culminates in a preliminary hearing where he outwits the DA and would seem to make a bitter enemy of him. Is Glastonbury a recurring character? – I don't remember him from earlier adventures, but it's been a year and a half or more since I read them, nor do I recall him from the scattering of later stories that I've read.

An unusual twist in the usually formulaic stories is that a girl who comes into and out of the narrative, who believes that the Spider murdered her boy friend at the beginning of the issue, does not as I expected eventually realize the hero's innocence, become his ally, and end up reunited with her miraculously still-living beau. No, the boy friend is well and truly dead, and she is herself ultimately killed in the final confrontation with the evil mastermind in the story's climax, which sees the girl and the mastermind – who really killed her lover, of course – plunging to their deaths together as a fiery comet from the dirigible mast of the Empire State Building. It's quite a memorable scene.

According to the short summary of the tale given at The Spider Returns website, one notable aspect of this story is that this is the first time that the Spider, a master of disguise among his many other talents, uses the identity of the old violinist Tito Caliepi to pass unrestricted here, there, and yonder while the Spider and his true identity of Dick Wentworth remain in hiding.

Killer's Knout” by Anson Hatch

Whether the protagonists of this and the other short story are one-time characters or part of back-up series of short stories that appeared in multiple issues, I don't know at this time. All I know is that they are all new to me. Frankly, there's not a whole lot to recommend – or distinguish – either story. They seem to be typical albeit very short examples of the same brand of bloody pulp heroic adventure as marked the magazine's lead feature.

Basically, in “Killer's Knout,” the hero, criminologist Oliver Hazard, and his police ally Inspector Brunt, have been working to thwart an evil figure known only as “Number One,” who has been mercilessly working his way through wholesale torture and bloodshed to control of the city. They are presented with a new clue – a ruined victim of Number One's torture who is delivered to Brunt, along with the message that Hazard and Brunt “shall be as he is.” When Brunt is shortly thereafter kidnapped, Hazard desperately searches for him, finding him just in time even as the police inspector is being hideously tortured – by a “friend” of Hazard's whom the criminologist had long suspected of being the true identity of “Number One.” Part of his reasoning demonstrates a virulent example of overt 1930s racism: “I suspect Number One [to be] of Asiatic origins for several reasons. His insatiable thirst for personal power, for one thing. And then, his methods of revenge are carried out with refinements of cruelty of which an Occidental would hardly dream.” The “friend” is indeed a mysterious “Mongoloid” Russian, Basil Marakoff – as Hazard proclaims, “There are other Oriental nations than the Chinese.” And the knout is a Russian implement of torture, a form of whip that could inflict a degree of flogging that could result in death, that Marakoff had been so brazen as to boast of to Hazard. Of course, Hazard manages to defeat Marakoff and save Brunt.

The Standing Corpse” by G. T. Fleming-Roberts

On the verge of committing suicide by casting himself from a bridge, newly flat broke millionnaire wastrel Nick Bower is interrupted in his intention when he finds a corpse standing against the railing – a corpse from which the brain has been removed. Through a series of circumstances thereafter, Bower ends up confronting and thwarting the Brain Thief – a stereotypical mad scientist who believes the murders he is perpetrating are for the greater good of mankind. He means to avert the human race going collectively insane by studying the brains of healthy people – that he must harvest for himself: “While other scientists seek to fathom the mystery of insanity by examining the brains of ordinary cadavers, they forget that men who insist on becoming cadavers are not men after which to pattern a race. Only by studying the brains of the normal people can we hope to breed a normal race! That is why I, the greatest brain specialist in the world, shall continue my 'mad scheme' of obtaining perfect specimens of the human brain!” You can't beat logic like that! In any case, Bower prevents him from continuing his "mad scheme," and one senses that in so doing the destitute millionaire finds the will to live despite the loss of his riches.

The Web – A Department”

The issue closed with what seems to have been a place-holder for a letter column, announcing that more and more letters are coming in praising the series and its hero, but even moreso seems to have had as its purpose flogging a new product being offered by Popular Publications, a SPIDER ring “of non-tarnishable white metal, with an inlaid spider of red enamel against a black enamel field,” purchase of which gains membership in the SPIDER LEAGUE FOR CRIME PREVENTION, an organization “devoted solely and exclusively to law-enforcement and the suppression of crime.” Available by returning the enrollment page printed in the original magazine along with a paltry 25 cents. Wow! I bet they cost more now! If you can find them!

Cheers! – and Thanks for reading!

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