Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Spider #8: The Mad Horde

The Spider #8: The Mad Horde, by Grant Stockbridge
May, 1934  Popular Publications

The Spider returns in this 1934 installment that comes off as even more harried than usual. My assumption is Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page banged this one out at lightning speed, which is likely how he wrote all of his other volumes, but something about The Mad Horde seems too rushed; events happen so quickly that the reader, let alone the characters, are not given sufficient time to absorb the apocalyptic events.

In a storyline similar to the bubonic plague outbreak of #3: Wings Of The Black Death, The Mad Horde exploits a similar disease: hydrophobia, aka rabies. But this is an advanced strain of the disease, turning its victims (but human and animal) into veritable zombies in less than 36 hours – and that’s zombies of the flesh-eating, mindlessly-attacking sort. Actually, The Mad Horde practically is a zombie novel, complete with nightmarish scenes of the brain-rotted (and often nude) victims shambling across warzones or countryside battlefields and attacking soldiers en masse, biting them – and thus turning them too into zombie-esque “hydrophobics.”

The only problem is, this horror-novel stuff is really lost in the breathless, frantic pace of the novel. Richard “The Spider” Wentworth once again shuffles all over the damn place, from flying his ever-constant Northrup airplane to commandeering police motorcycles to driving armored cars loaned to him by the army. Only once is he even in his Spider guise, and that’s for a very brief moment in which he threatens a hapless stooge; worth noting is that the Spider guise this time is not the “Tito Caliepi” look of the fanged hunchback, but rather a simple black mask accessorized by a pair of false fangs. The Spider’s main costume was constantly changing, yet criminals always seem to know who it is that’s threatening them, no matter what his current “look” is.

But per the norm Wentworth is already on the scene when we meet him; comically enough, he’s come here to Ohio on nothing more than a hunch gained from an article he recently read in the New York Times! Some dude named Douglas Brent has, according to the article, bought 5,000 dogs from various pounds. This has instantly set Wentworth’s “Spidey senses” to tengling, as such a large purchase could only be the promise of evils to come. And Wentworth even has a good guess what the mysterious “Dr. Brent” plans – he’ll no doubt inject the dogs with rabies and set them loose on the public!

Honestly, it’s best to just roll with it – because sure enough Wentworth is correct. And he gets almost immediate confirmation, as he just happens upon some “mad man” in the Ohio countryside who has butchered his wife and children and then stormed off. Before giving pursuit, Wentworth cradles the man’s wife, who dies in his arms, her last words being “Dr. Brent.” (Page could give a damn about coincidental plotting – and who could blame him, with about a million words a month to write?) Off Wentworth goes, ending up on the vast estate of Berthold Healy, mega-wealthy owner of various steel towns and other such things.

Basically, every person Wentworth meets in the Spider novels usually turns out to be involved in whatever caper Wentworth’s currently working on. This is of course also true of Healy, who Wentworth soon suspects will be the victim of Dr. Brent’s plan. Jumping as usual to bizarre conclusions, Wentworth figures that the “hydrophobe” dogs and etc will be set loose on Healy’s steel towns…and you won’t of course be surprised to learn that Wentworth is one hundred percent correct!

Have I mentioned yet that throughout this opening sequence Wentworth is wearing a blonde wig, his features changed by makeup, going under the name Sven Gustafsson? Anyway he shoots the shit with the people congregated in Healy’s mansion – his wife, Sybil, his attractive young daughter, his grim-faced colleagues – and then the rabid “mad man” who killed his family shows up! As I say, coincidence be damned. But the madman’s accidentally offered water and goes into a fit, collapsing…turns out he was a guard at one of Healy’s factories, or something.

But no time for that! Wentworth just happens to see a truck filled with dogs and other animals go roaring by, and off in pursuit he goes! They end up in one of Healy’s nearby steel towns, and the truck unloads hordes of hydrophobe animals – rodents, bats, dogs, and wolves. The latter are given a total horror-movie makeover, with skulls branded on their foreheads – Page does little with this tidbit, other than later mentioning that some of the human victims also have skulls branded on their foreheads! This is the first of many apocalyptic, nightmarish sequences, in which Wentworth blows away hordes of rabid animals as they slither by him into the night, to run amok in Healy’s little town.

But enough of that! Now Wentworth’s concern is the anti-hydrophobia serum factories of the country…he shows up at one in nearby Eatonville, Ohio…moments before it’s blown up, coincidence once again be damned. And per the series norm the stupid cops try to arrest Wentworth himself (who by now has dropped the Sven Gustafsson guise), thinking he’s the culprit behind the factory explosion, even though he’s the one who was shooting at the bastards who did it. Don’t worry, he’ll get away from them, as usual.

On to the next incident – commandeering a plane (his first of many in the novel), Wentworth takes to the sky, wanting to oversee a huge shipment of anti-rabies vaccine which is being flown in by the government to stave off the recent outbreak. And sure enough, an enemy aircraft swoops out of the clouds, shoots down the transport plane, and engages Wentworth in an aerial dogfight! But while Wentworth’s able to shoot him down, the vaccine is completely destroyed; but at least Wentworth lands and brands the Spider seal on the corpse of the enemy pilot. That’ll show ‘em!

Wentworth now dons unkempt clothing, takes up an Irish brogue, and goes about as “Patrick O’Roone.” He then discovers that his ever-faithful servant Ram Singh has been kidnapped. His only clue is the rabid madman who killed his family and uttered the name “Dr. Rusk.” So, uh, Wentworth visits the dude’s neighbors…who blithely give Wentworth the address of the good doctor! This leads to more snatches of of-the-moment madness…the office Wentworth visits is empty, and then later he’s ambushed at an air field…and then back he goes to Eatonville, where in yet another creepy sequence he finds himself in a house filled with rabid animals.

Here the zombie movie comparisons are extreme; hydrophobia has become such a catastrophic outbreak that its victims lurch around the town streets, just looking for someone to munch on, thus spreading the disease. Wentworth watches horror-stricken as a guy he meets in town takes up his rifle and shoots down a female victim of the plague; the man bitterly informs Wentworth that the hospitals are too full for more victims. Victims who can’t be cured, anyway. Thus the current policy is to just shoot the “hydrophobes” on site, like regular zombies.

Well, on to the next thing. Back to the Healy estate, where Nita Van Sloan has finally entered the narrative, called here from New York early in the book by Wentworth. Her vague mission is to infiltrate herself into Healy’s graces. So now she’s just sort of hanging out with the Healy family and reading magazines, but mostly she’s there to provide an introduction for Wentworth, who now poses as a government inspector here to help out; his stated concern is that “the Horde Master” (Wentworth’s name for Dr. Brent, aka this novel’s villain) has set his sights on Healy. Why? To crack down on the man’s steel mills and steel towns, or something.

For a page or two it’s a mystery novel, Wentworth inspecting each member of the Healy household; perhaps even Healy himself is the Horde Master? But the plot must change again – now it’s off to Hurzon, Indiana, where a challenge has just been issued by the villain behind all this. The army has closed off the steel town that’s been threatened, and Wentworth oversees the battlements with General Lansing. Again, Wentworth is hardly the Spider at all in this novel, and more so just “Richard Wentworth, Criminologist and Adventurer at Large.” He’s given a 1929-model armored car and tours the troops, certain that the attack will be launched at midnight, rather than the 4AM Lansing suspects.

Guess who’s right? The attack is another scene right out of a horror novel. Rabid dogs, rats, vampire bats, and skull-branded wolves attack Hurzon, skull-branded humans among them. Most of the soldiers run screaming, only to be bitten and infected. The battle is long and ultimately lost; too many of the hydrophobes overwhelm the army. Here Wentworth enacts his “desperate measures,” allowing himself to be caught. Gassed into unconsciousness, Wentworth wakes to find himself in a cage, nude, surrounded by an untold number of similarly-nude and caged men.

In the creepiest scene in the novel, Wentworth finds himself the guest of evil little Dern Bierkson, the creator of the virus, who keeps here all of his “human guinea pigs.” Wentworth watches in horror as one of them, who has served his purposes, is shot in cold blood by Bierkson’s henchman. The place is a literal madhouse, the men around Wentworth screaming in their rabid fits. To compound the horror, Wentworth finds that his cellmate is none other than Ram Singh – who has been infected. Once the strain kicks in, very soon now, the Hindu will be driven to bite Wentworth, infecting him as well.

But this isn’t enough for sadistic Bierkson, who has a new “guest” brought in – Nita herself! Stripped down to a silk negligee, the poor girl is put in the cell beside Wentworth. She too will be infected; Bierkson is very excited to finally try out his latest strain on a female guinea pig. But just before you can choke on the horror, Wentworth prizes an escape tool from its hiding place, taped beneath his foot, and breaks his two companions out. A quick fight, and they escape, commandeering yet another plane, which they fly to a nearby farm which Professor Brownlee is working out of, creating a new anti-rabies vaccine.

Off Wentworth goes, flying back to “the camp of the Human Guinea Pigs,” where he drops “carboys” of nerve gas, also created by Brownlee. Wentworth watches from his plane as the “mad horde” of human guinea pigs break loose, running amok on Bierkson’s guards; the sadist himself meets a grisly end, bitten in the throat by one of his own human guinea pigs. This sets the stage for the finale, in which the rabid hordes are set loose on Gary, Indiana; once again Wentworth sees the action through in his scarlet Northrup, dropping “carboys” of nerve gas left and right.

That taken care of, back Wentworth goes to the Healy estate…where he finds that Healy himself has apparently committed suicide. But you won’t be surprised to know that Wentworth suspects otherwise. In a sort of drawn-out and anticlimactic finale, Wentworth gradually uncovers the true “Horde Master,” who turns out to be one of Healy’s colleagues, whose real name is Douglas Brent. Oh, and Wentworth gets shot in the chest by the dude, but don’t worry, he rests in the hospital for about two weeks and is good as new.

Back in my review of #26: Death Reign Of The Vampire King I mentioned how Norvell Page’s writing is sometimes quite similar to Joseph Rosenberger's. Another big similarity these two “unique” authors share is a fondess for footnotes. The Mad Horde is jam-packed with footnotes, some of them as arbitrary as can be, and just like the ones Rosenberger would pepper his Death Merchant novels with, they’re filled with clinical or factual data to help support the author’s bizarre plot twists.

Most goofily, in one of these notes Page writes that the info comes directly from Wentworth himself! What, you didn’t know the Spider novels were based on true stories??


Zwolf said...

I'm convinced Rosenberger was raised on these things. He's not as good as Stockbridge, but he's definitely trying to imitate him.

The Spider vs. a zombie apocalypse sounds good. :) Sometimes these books do seem rushed, though. I've learned to use the "Richard Laymon" rule with them -- never read two in a row. If you space them out, they seem much better. Otherwise you kind of get in a groove with the formula and it seems like more of the same.

Off topic a bit, I wanted to make sure you knew about these 'cuz they're right up the Glorious Trash alley -- I've been finding some reprints of stories from the old sweat-mags, not cheap but affordable (around $20), especially for the amount of material in them. They're under the titles Soft Flesh And Orgies of Death (ISBN 9781840686661) and Soft Nudes For The Devil's Butcher (ISBN 9781840686678), with another - Soft Brides For The Beast Of Blood (ISBN 9781840686685) due out in a couple of months. Slick paper with lots of weird-menace pictures (unfortunately most in black and white) and incredibly lurid stories with crazy titles like "Jukebox Goons Exploded My Guts" (that's a story that has to be read to be believed) or "Instant Leprosy" (where a WWI soldier sees German gas turn a friend into "a six foot fountain of screaming pus"). Overall, beautiful stuff from the weasels-ripped-my-flesh days... :)

FreeLiverFree said...

Given that evil masterminds release some sort of plague every week or so, I'd say it's completely justified for Wentworth to assume someone buying dozens of dogs is planning to infect them with rabies and release them.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

FreeLiverFree -- That is an excellent point!!

Zwolf -- To prove once again that you and I are on the same page, I actually have both "Soft Lesh" and "Soft Nudes," and also pre-ordered the third one, which was originally scheduled for a November release but got pushed back to this summer.

I haven't read them yet, only one story in the first collection, Soft Flesh: "I Was A Lust Slave of the Volksturm Nymph Squad." I can't tell you how happy I was to see that story was included -- I'd spent a sad amount of time trying to track down the magazine it originally appeared in (Men Today August 1963), but for some reason could never bring myself to pay the few hundred dollars copies would go for(!).

So as soon as I got the "Soft Flesh" book last year, I read that story -- and you won't be surprised to know that the actual story turned out to be underwhelming and not nearly the equal of the story I'd concocted in my own fevered imagination.

These other stories you mention do sound pretty crazed, though, so I intend to read these books pretty soon.

Oh, and I also tried to track down the person who edited these books, the awesomely-named Pep Pentangeli, but couldn't find an online presence...wonder if it's a real name?

Zwolf said...

Even bigger coincidence -- I read that "Volkstrum Nymph Squad" story just last night! Even though they left out a lot of lurid details, what they hinted at was still pretty amazing. I guess they had to hold back to keep from going into full-blown porn. Gotta love the art that came with that one, though. I skipped ahead after reading the "non-fiction" bits on mushrooms, geeks, and Countess Bathory. I was surprised the Bathory one was as restrained as it was (restrained being a relative term -- it was still pretty vicious, but considering what she did it could've been worse).

Yeah, I hope they keep putting those books out. If you do track that guy down, let him know he's got an audience! :)