Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Spider #6: The Citadel Of Hell

The Spider #6: The Citadel Of Hell, by Grant Stockbridge
March, 1934  Popular Publications

I’m continuing to enjoy the Spider series, and Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page delivers once again with this sixth installment, which per the norm plunges our hero into a maelstrom of blood, violence, and mass death. It’s yet another headlong rush into pulpy thrills, leaving the reader almost exhausted by the tale’s end.

The Citadel Of Hell is notable for two firsts in the series: the first appearance of the Spider ring and the first appearance of the “Tito Caliepi” disguise which would eventually become the Spider get-up worn by our unhinged hero, Richard Wentworth. The ring was sold through the magazine, and was crass marketing at its best, but the “Tito” stuff was a novel idea on Page’s part, separating the Spider from the typical masked crime fighters of his day. (Unfortunately this look was only depicted on the series covers for a brief run in 1940, though it was shown in the interior illustrations.)

But once again Wentworth is out of his depth, alone against a massive criminal syndicate that practically brings the country to its knees. Published in the height of the Great Depression (the Depression even referenced in the narrative), The Citadel Of Hell must’ve really hit home for a lot of readers, as it envisions a hellish America in which times become even more desperate and nightmarish.

A group of pyromaniacal criminals are in the process of firebombing a food industry notable when the tale opens, torching the bastard right outside Central Park. Wentworth, per the norm, is already on the scene, following along behind the cops as they get in a running battle that takes up most of downtown Manhattan. Wentworth is, again per the norm, convinced that these killers are part of a grander threat – and, per the norm (one last time), he’s right. Soon to be referred to as the “Food Destroyers,” these sadists intend to destroy all of the nation’s food channels, thus capitalizing on the limited food supplies and “fattening their wallets” as the nation suffers.

But Wentworth has more pressing issues; after an apocalyptic firefight up in Yonkers, where the Destroyers are in the act of destroying a sugar plant, Wentworth is nearly blown away by a crazed redhead (a hot one, naturally), named Janice Hally. This novel’s version of the villainous woman (every Spider novel apparently had one), Janice is a constant thorn in Wentworth’s side. After getting away from him she later shows up in Police Commissioner Kirkpatrick’s office, accompanied by a District Attorney named Glastonbury, and there she and the DA openly accuse Wentworh not only of being the Spider, but also of being the man who started the sugar plant fire.

This is yet another constantly-recurring schtick of the series, Kirkpatrick being given sterling evidence that his “good friend” Wentworth is indeed that “criminal” the Spider. And Janice has excellent proof, as earlier, at the fire, she bashed Wentworth in the head. Wentworth, before meeting Kirkpatrick, applied some of his ever-trusty makeup to the wound…but this would easily be discovered should Wentworth consent to the search Glastonbury demands.

In what almost comes off like a scene in a Peter Sellers Pink Panther movie, Wentworth avoids all this by turning about, inentionally stumbling over his own feet, and “accidentally” bashing his head onto a metal filing cabinet! The wound reopens and the blood flows, and though an attendant doctor says it’s not possible to tell if it’s an old wound or new, Glastonbury is of course suspicious. The DA is set up as more of an enemy of the Spider than even Kirkpatrick, and it makes one wonder if Page will bring him back in future volumes.

Wentworth wears a variety of costumes this time. Disguising himself as a food industry leader he attends a meeting of these men, discussing the Food Destroyers with Kirkpatrick in attendance. One of them, Xavier Jones, claims he’s been extorted by the syndicate, but begs the cops to stay away. Wentworth instead breaks out his Tito Caliepi disguise and heads for the dude’s posh penthouse, where he soon enough gets in a firefight with a “dope addict” and some others, all of them gunmen for the Food Destroyers.

An early scene that stands out has the Food Destroyers firebombing another plant near the Hudson wharves; tenement buildings soon catch fire, with countless innocent victims dying. Wentworth, on the scene, rushes to the rescue. He single-handedly saves a woman and her apartment full of children, tossing them out of their burning apartment and down to a fireman’s net. One of the saved youth, a boy named Timothy Walsh, later vouches for Wentworth when the stupid cops assume he’s one of the arsonists – Wentworth, knocked cold by one of them, has had an incendiary device planted on him in an obvious attempt at setup.

When Timothy Walsh follows Wentworth’s whispered instructions, our hero is able to escape the cops who attempt to arrest him, the boy having stirred up the crowd into a lynching frenzy. For this invaluable assistance Wentworth awards Timothy “the ring of the Spider,” which we’re informed that we too can purchase through the magazine! (By god I want one!) But the catastrophe suffered by the boy and his family is widespread, with the Food Destroyers starting fires all over New York.

Wentworth meanwhile continues to pose as Tito Caliepi, old Italian streetcorner violinist; there follows an enjoyable sequence where Wentworth’s fiance, Nita Van Sloan, bumps into him on the street and they trade knowing words. But per the series standard Nita is promptly removed from the narrative (the later volumes appear to put her in more of a spotlight, but not these early ones), and Wentworth is once again alone.

And worse yet, he’s injured, shot in the right shoulder while escaping the police. His erstwhile assistant Ram Singh saves him, takes him to the townhouse of kindly old Professor Brownlee (Wentworth’s version of Q), and there Wentworth recovers for three weeks!! When he comes out of his delirium, Wentworth is begged to rest for another week, to fully recover his strength; meanwhile he learns that the Food Destroyers have so wrecked the nation that poverty is rampant, people are starving to death, and no one can stop the menace. Plus, Nita’s been arrested for assisting the Spider, and has been in jail this entire time!

The Spider returns to New York to kick holy ass, and there follows another memorable part where he and Kirkpatrick meet face to face. Actually, that’s a third “first” for The Citadel Of Hell, this volume featuring the first meeting of the Spider and Kirkpatrick. Once again in his Tito Caliepi costume (which I forgot to mention he accessorizes with fangs when switching from the “old violinist” look to the full-on Spider look), Wentworth meets Kirkpatrick while the cop is having the meager lunch afforded him by his ration card.

The scene doesn’t go as you’d expect it would, with Kirkpatrick having obvious respect for his “enemy;” they even shake hands at the end of the conversation. We learn here that the Spider has been around for five years, as Kirkpatrick mentions at one point that this is how long they’ve been futiley chasing the vigilante. Wentworth hands over a list of men he somehow has learned are involved with the Food Destroyers, and Kirkpatrick not only tells him he’ll help, but also that he’ll loan the Spider several police cars – even putting machine guns on them!

Again Norvell Page makes it patently obvious that Kirkpatrick knows Wentworth is the Spider; when, shortly after the in-person meeting, Wentworth calls Kirkpatrick with followup requests, Page doesn’t even bother to write that Wentworth uses his “Spider voice.” Or, for that matter, to even identify himself as the Spider! All this despite the fact that, so far as Kirkpatrick knows, Wentworth has nothing at all to do with these plans.

Barrelling into the homestretch, Wentworth first goes to a meeting of the Food Destroyers disguised as Xavier Jones; this after a long, action-packed sequence where he impersonates the man in his own home, after drugging Jonrd with a “narcotic”-tipped sword edge. After more gunfights, a disguised Wentworth meets with the Food Destroyers, all of whom wear masks to protect their identities; they’re lead by the Red Mask, the only one who knows who each man is.

Wentworth is quicky uncovered, which leads to more fireworks, including the unveiling of the Spider’s own police task force, loaned to him by Kirkpatrick; guns blazing, they tear through Manhattan in a running battle with the Food Destroyers. Another thrilling sequence arrives with Wentworth commandeering a city bus and smashing enemy cars left and right; a sequence featuring a great cap-off where he marks the hood of the smashed bus with the Spider’s brand, which he usually puts on the foreheads of his victims. This time it’s a “decoration of honor.”

Page doesn’t shirk on the climax, which has Wentworth, after a running battle across Central Park (where this all started), gunning down all of the Food Destroyer henchmen. Then he brazenly heads into the headquarters of “the chief” behind it all (Page apparently forgetting that earlier he called the guy “The Red Mask”), where Wentworth is immediately knocked out by Janice Hally! This girl by the way gets the better of our hero throughout the novel; her story has it that she thinks the Spider killed her beloved, some dude named Denny.

But as usual Wentworth has figured out on his own – somehow during all the chaos – not only who really killed Denny but also who the leader of the Food Destroyers is. The finale takes place high atop the Empire State Building, where Wentworth, despite being shot again (this time in the left shoulder), is able to turn the chief and Janice against one another – yet another memorable sequence, which has at least one of them plummeting to their death far below, all while burning alive!

Strangely, the denoument is an overdone courtroom scenario in which DA Glastonbury realizes his case against Wentworth is now groundless. Even stranger is the end, in which Kirkpatrick flat-out tells Wentworth he knows he’s the Spider – and, what’s more, not only does he respect him, but he’ll be happy to help him out should he ever need his assistance! (Doubtless this mindset was lost with the series reset which occurs each volume.)

Norvell Page again grabs hold of the reader and doesn’t let go; his style has that sort of “literary” vibe of the old pulpsters, but meshed with a more modern, cinematic feel. He never bogs the narrative down, and keeps things moving. What’s crazy about The Spider is that, despite the repetition, despite the lack of continuity, despite the insistence on pointless and lame “villain reveals,” as soon as I’m finished reading one…I want to start another.


Zwolf said...

Another great review! :)

I can't remember where I saw it -- I think it was in one of the reprints -- but somebody re-created the "Spider ring." It was just a paper version that you could photocopy, cut out, and tape together... but, hey, it's better than nothin', I guess. Definitely cheaper than spending over a thousand bucks for the one I see on Ebay...

John Gallagher said...

"as soon as I've read one... I want to read another" sigh... I have nothing to say.

Grant said...

I barely know the history of either one, but didn't The Spider start quite a bit earlier than The Spirit? If so, the name "Denny" seems like a bit of a coincidence (even if it's given to a character who's a plot point instead of an actual character in the story).