Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Spider #15: The Red Death Rain

The Spider #15: The Red Death Rain, by Grant Stockbridge
December, 1934  Popular Publications

I splurged on this volume of The Spider: when I read that The Red Death Rain was considered one of the more outrageous novels in the series, with it’s Yellow Peril threat, sexpot female villain, and a character raped to death by an orangutan, I decided I would in fact seek out a reprint of the original magazine, complete with the interior illustrations, just to replicate the full pulp experience.

Unfortunately, The Red Death Rain was not one of the novels included in Girasol’s 25-volume “Pulp Doubles” reprint series, nor was it reprinted by Bold Ventures or Pulp Adventures Press, all three of which reprinted novels with the illustrations. It was however reprinted by Caroll & Graf in the early ‘90s, but no illustrations were included with those reprints. My only option, then (other than trying to find the original 1934 printing and shelling out my life savings for it), was to acquire another Girasol publication – that of the “Pulp Replica.”

Girasol is mostly known for publishing exact replicas of old pulp magazines, even down to the typos and sometimes-blurry print. The original advertisements, editorials, and interior illustrations are also included. Sounds great, and looks great, but the price isn’t great…they retail for $39.95 each. Luckily, I got my copy of Girasol’s The Red Death Rain replica on “sale”…for a mere $29.99. I chalked it up as an Xmas present to myself.

And I’m only halfway kidding, because The Red Death Rain actually takes place during Christmas. Christmas of 1934, to be exact, which resulted in an interesting experience as I read the book exactly 80 years after it was published. And this novel truly is of another era, something encapsulated by the primary threat: namely, that smokers are dying from poisoned tobacco.

It might not be a very large slice of the demographic these days, but in 1934 practically everyone smoked…and, per the usual method of Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page, they are dying some quite gory deaths because of it. As the novel opens, Richard Wentworth, the Spider himself, watches in hiding as a group of people stumble out of a tobacco shop, vomiting blood and dying horrible deaths as they shudder and twitch on the sidewalk.

Wentworth is here due to a tip from his “friend,” Police Commissioner Stanley Kirkpatrick. Someone has apparently issued a warning to the Spider, threatening him that his “latest case” would have its beginnings outside this very tobacco shop that night. Now, as stated, Norvell Page had a long-simmer “does Kirkpatrick know Wentworth is the Spider or not” storyline which ran the entire ten years he wrote this series, but here once again it seems patently clear that Kirkpatrick does know. The narrative even plainy states it.

Wentworth, who is in a new disguise, that of Cockney-voiced Snuffer Dan Tewkes, rushes into the tobacco shop, only to be accused by the young owner, a man named Steve Jardin, that Wentworth himself is the one who poisoned the tobacco. However, this is the first time our hero has ever stepped foot in the shop. Clearly this is a setup, but “Master of Men” Wentworth can tell that Steve Jardin believes he’s speaking the truth; he really believes that Wentworth was in the shop earlier that day.

The clear culprit, as far as Wentworth is concerned, is a “skeletal man” he saw exit the shop moments before the bloody chaos erupted within. But Wentworth has bigger fish to fry; Commissioner Kirkpatrick arrives, chomping at the bit to arrest Wentworth. I forgot to mention that seconds before the people began dying in the shop, Wentworth heard the voice of his fiance, Nita Van Sloan, calling for him – a warning about Kirkpatrick. But Nita’s disappeared (and remains gone for practically the entire novel), and now here’s Kirkpatrick, acting like a completely different person.

Not only that, but Kirkpatrick’s acting like he wants to flat-out kill Wentworth. Plus he’s blaming him for the poisoned tobacco, fully buying Steve Jardin’s story, and claims no knowledge of providing Wentworth with the written-in threat which brought Wentworth here in the first place.  In other words, he’s acting like he’s lost his mind, and the veteran pulp reader will automatically suspect mind control is at work, though Wentworth takes forever to figure this out.

In what must be an often-used device in the Spider series, Wentworth is actually arrested; this leads to a thrilling escape sequence, which includes Wentworth knocking Kirkpatrick out cold and then impersonating him, even snipping off a few locks of the commissioner’s hair to fashion into a false moustache! Returning to his posh penthouse on Fifth Avenue, Wentworth is able to use his disguise to get around the police cordon that surrounds it.

Upstairs, though, he’s confronted by a pair of “oriental” intruders; further, he discovers his loyal charges Jackson and Ram Singh tied up. Wentworth blows away the intruders, then stamps his infamous Spider seal on their corpses and dumps them off the side of the building -- his building. Our hero doesn’t go to much trouble to guard his secret identity, does he?

Another person happens to be waiting in Wentworth’s home: Steve Jardin, who not only claims that his girlfriend Delia has been kidnapped (and accusing Wentworth of abducting her), but also that he’s been sent here by Kirkpatrick himself – to kill Wentworth! More proof that the police commissioner has gone insane – or, as Wentworth begins to suspect, is actually working with the tobacco poisoners. After convincing the young man of his innocence, Wentworth gets information from him.

Jardin’s lawyer is a “skeletally thin” man named Dewitt Ahearn, and he did in fact visit the tobacco shop tonight. Now, Ahearn has gone to visit the palatial home of cult founder Deacon Coslin, a faux-“puritan” minister who you won’t be surprised to know is rotten to the core. And guess what his spiel is: preaching against the “evils” of smoking. In fact, Coslin has “prophesized” that more people will soon die from the poisoned tobacco.

Off Wentworth goes in the dead of night – disguised as the Spider! In this early volume we learn that the Spider disguise – with the wig of lank hair, the hunchback, the big nose, and the fangs – has a name of its own: “Tito Caliepi.” Apparently under this guise, posing as a streetcorner violinist, Wentworth only has to make a few makeup changes (ie, donning the fangs, etc), and he changes from an “old Italian violinist” into the fearsome presence who is the Spider. In the later volumes I’ve read, it appears that this Tito Caliepi bit has been dropped: the hunchback, fangs, and etc are the Spider look.

Wentworth sneaks onto the rolling grounds of Deacon Coslin, who lives in a veritable fortress, guarded by “great black negroes” who are “turbanned and naked above the waist.” Instead of running into one of them, Wentworth instead finds himself sneaking into a darkened bedroom occupied by a gorgeous Chinese woman – one who not only doesn’t even flinch at the bizarre, shambling figure who has just broken into her room, but who is also holding a gun on him.

This is Wu Ya Che, who stands there in nothing more than a silk nightgown which is “draped about the rounded maturity of her body,” thus perfectly showing off her “magnificent breasts.” Indeed, Page will often go on about Ya Che’s awesome boobs, and her silky black hair’s not bad, either. With her exotic looks and “high cheekbones,” Wentworth surmises that she is of Mongolian descent. She also comes quite close to breaking Wentworth’s steadfast resolve; our hero is completely in love with Nita Van Sloan, an idealized, romantic love which, Page wants us to know, isn’t sullied by sex (because they aren’t yet married, naturally!).

We immediately know that Ya Che’s our kind of gal, as she lounges back on her bed and basically offers herself to Wentworth…while he’s in the hideous disguise of the Spider. This is just the first of her many attempted seductions of our hero. And this is just the first of Wentworth’s many refusals; still pretending to be “an old man” and not the Spider (to which a disbelieving Ya Che responds, “When you look at me, you are not an old man”), Wentworth hobbles out of the room. Ya Che’s dad is Wu Chang, also here in Coslin’s mansion, a venerable old Chinese man who gradually becomes Wentworth’s top suspect.

More chases with the cops, more deaths from the poisoned tobacco, and again Wentworth is alone against everyone. Having ditched the Spider disguise (again, per the early novels, he doesn’t wear it much), Wentworth eventually fingds himself in a cab on Broadway and 61st, where a potential stampede threatens to erupt, due to the rampant bloody deaths of the tobacco; a memorable incident with a department store Santa almost getting stomped to bloody ribbons. But it only gets more memorable, as Wentworth, to prevent mass chaos, takes up a flute and leads the rioters in a rendition of “Silent Night!”

Surely one of the more over-the-top moments one will ever read, this jawdropping sequence has the riotous, insane rabble of New York City gradually singing along with Wentworth, who Pied Piper style has successfully captured his audience with his music and his singing. And even the almost-killed Santa and a couple kids help him out! What’s most awesome is the scene isn’t saccharine; it’s instead so nuts that you just have to laugh. But then, that’s the power of Norvell Page’s prose; he’s so invested in it that he convinces you it all really could happen.

One problem with The Red Death Rain is that the first half doesn’t feature much of the gory violence the series is known for, operating more as a mystery as Wentworth shuttles from one lead to another, desperately trying to figure out who is behind the tobacco poisoning. But around the midway point things kick in gear – the first sign being when Wentworth shoots a thug point-blank in the head during a firefight along an elevated train platform. This is after he’s discovered that the poison is spread by “spring water bottle” delivery trucks; Wentworth chases the poisoners down, blowing them away without mercy.

Wentworth is knocked out, captured. He ends up in a torture room, in wich that damn “skeletal man” appears – wearing a veiled mask. Soon he is referred to as the “Crimson Veil,” and he too is Chinese. As they gut another prisoner to death, Wentworth frees himself, knocks out the chamber’s only light, and a bloody fight ensues. More memorable images, like when Wentworth leans on the torture victim’s corpse and it groans, the air squeezing out of it, thus scaring the superstitious Chinese Wentworth is fighting.

Page just runs with it, with Wentworth hiding beneath the corpse and continuing to press on it, continuing to make it “speak.” He even tries out a ghostly voice, pretending to be the spirit of the deceased! But while his underlings cower, the Crimson Veil is not fooled. Wentworth still manages to gut the torturer with his own knife. An escape, more confusion, and now Wentworth has descended again upon Chinese sexpot Ya Che; he realizes with a jolt that it’s Christmas Eve.

Page delivers a somewhat-moving flashback to the plans Wentworth and Nita had made for this evening. But she’s still missing, kidnapped by whoever is behind this fiendish plot. But no more time for emotions; Wentworth and Ya Che enter her temporary home, only to walk in on an assassination attempt upon her father. As old Wu Chang is knifed, Ya Che almost casually pulls a small pistol from her purse (she also carries a dagger in “the throat of her dress”) and starts blasting away at the Chinese assassins. When Wentworth prevents her from killing the only survivor, in the hopes that they can follow him, she almost goes insane with rage.

But they follow after, and soon Wentworth is knocked out again, but not after he’s killed the elusive Crimson Veil. When Wentworth comes to, he’s in a private chamber in the catacombs beneath the city, and days have passed; it’s December 30th. Ya Che, sexy and tempting as ever, is at his side. She claims that they are both the prisoner of the Red Mandarin, the schemer behind it all. Wentworth, injured from a concusion, is lead into the massive chamber where the villain resides; wearing a “mitred hat” with a red veil covering his face, the Red Mandarin is surrounded by burly Mongol warriors who wield broadswords.

The Red Mandarin gives Wentworth a choice – give his word that he will work for the Mandarin, and Wentworth will go free. If not, then Nita Van Sloan will suffer a horrendous fate. To prove his word, the fiend lets Wentworth see the poor girl. Locked in a cell, wearing the skimpy, revealing clothing of a harem slave (which shows off her “exquisite breasts” and apparently well-compliments her “glorious chestnut hair”), Nita is in the cell beside a lust-crazed orangutan. If Wentworth doesn’t agree to do the Mandarin’s bidding…the orangutan will be set loose upon Nita!

The Red Mandarin wants Wentworth to kill three men for him. One of them is Police Commissioner Stanley Kirkpatrick. Wentworth pleads for a day to consider. When he’s sent back to his opulent chamber-cell, he is confronted with another offer: namely, the sexual temptress who is Wu Ya Che. She comes on to him very hard, and a guy would be hard-pressed to say no to her. And Page writes this sequence so that you think, if only for a moment, that Wentworth actually gives in to the woman’s ample charms.

But it turns out to just be a fake; as after a few lines of white space we come back to the scene, only to be informed that Wentworth has in fact spurned the lusty woman’s advances. Now Ya Che is inflamed with another passion – hatred. She wants to see Wentworth suffer and die. From here on out she no longer pretends to be a captive – she is in fact in league with the Red Mandarin, and indeed wants to see Wentworth suffer miserably before he dies. Plus she’ll also ensure that Nita gets raped to death by that damn orangutan.

Wentworth manages to escape his cell and starts killing with glee. Running roughshod through the catacombs, “berserk with killing rage,” Richard Wentworth murders countless Mongol guards in bloody combat, sometimes using his bare hands. Desperation compels him; the Red Mandarin plans to unleash his poison on countless public places at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Have I mentioned that, by this point, five thousand people have already died?

Page does not disappoint with the finale, which sees more mass bloodshed in the Red Mandarin’s throne room. The lust-maddened orangutan is set free, but Nita (along with Delia, Steve Jardin’s girlfriend, who also was locked in the Mandarin’s harem) manages to hide from it, all while Wentworth gets in bloody swordfights and shootouts. Then the “beast” gets sight of Ya Che, who is in the process of desperately trying to open a hidden door. 

Wentworth passes out yet again, and when he comes to, Kirkpatrick is there, freed from his mind control, and the Red Mandarin’s dead, Wentworth having shot him as he attempted to flee. Wentworth blithely announces that he’s already figured out the Red Mandarin was really Wu Chang; a nonplussed Kirkpatrick pulls off the red veil to discover our hero is right. But what of Ya Che? No one has seen her since she attempted to escape. But then…

A horrible cry rang through the corridors, but it was dim in the distance. It was the scream of a woman terribly injured — terribly afraid. It rose high and clear through the night — three, four times. Even in its agony, it was plainly recognizable as Ya Che's voice.

"The roof!" Kirkpatrick barked. "The roof, quickly!"

He plunged from the room and long minutes afterward there continued a fusillade that echoed through the night. Kirkpatrick came back into the room heavily; every eye centered on him as he stopped just inside the doorway. He shuddered uncontrollably.

"We were too late," he said. "Ya Che was dead. The orangutan had mated."

And with that The Red Death Rain comes to a close. While it wasn’t perfect, it was still by far the best volume of The Spider I’ve yet read, and has only whetted my appetite to continue reading these outrageous, violent, lurid tales. The overwhelming length of this review should be an indication of just how much I’m enjoying them.


Kurt said...

Holy crap, that's insane! I know what you mean about the Girasol pulp replicas. I have a couple of SPICY MYSTERY replicas. I love them. I've moved my Spider paperbacks up in the reading pile.

Zwolf said...

Wow! Excellent review, as always. Yep, I think I need to read that one. :) I'll stick to my paperback and forego the illustrations, just to avoid the reprint price (Girasol is nuts!), but, still, those have to be pretty neat. I got a few boxes of actual pulps (no Spiders, alas, but there were some Terror Tales and even a Spicy Detective in there, and a lot of Weird Tales) ultra-cheap at a library sale a few years back, and the ads are pretty amazing. Lots of hernia cures and such. Sometimes issues of _High Adventure_ (which are a good way to sample a lot of pulps, economically) will re-print a few of those, too.

The Spider managed to sneak in a lot of gruesomeness, but I'm amazed they got away with that orangutan scene back then. Amazing.

Those "Yellow Peril" stories often had scads of torture stuff in 'em, and they're un-PC as all hell. I snagged _It's Raining More Corpses In Chinatown_ a while back, and there's a lot of strange stuff in there. Never got the first volume because it was a bit pricey (and thinner), but _More Corpses..._ can still be found affordably.

Peter Collinson said...

It's cool to see you discover the awesome lurid force that was Novell Page's prose.
If you want a good guide to the Spider novels you should hunt up a copy of Robert Sampson's The Spider from Bowling Green University's Popular Press.
Sampson was a well educated man with a keen critical intelligence, a strong prose style, and a tender passion for old school pulp fiction. He goes through the Spider issue by issue and I don't believe any other pulp hero ever got such fine treatment.

Zbu said...

Sanctum Books are putting out two Spider releases (under one cover) every few months for $14.95.

That said, I had never seen something this insane since the first Spider novel I read, in which a newsboy gets flamethrowered to death. Page is hardcore!

AndyDecker said...

A good alternative for a lower priced edition is the Vintage Library. Some of them also include the illustrations. They are in the pdf format and you have to print them if you want to read them on paper. Still, at 4,95 this is not a bad bargian. Unfortunatly there are only 35 novels or so avaiable. They were produced way before Ebooks became the rage.

If one just want to sample one of Page's novels this is a good way. Vintage also has produced some Operater 5 in this format.

I guess one doesn't read often a last sentence like "The orang-utan has mated" with all its implications in this case. :-) In 1935. Frankly I always find it difficult to understand how Page could do things like this at a time when in the cinema married couples had to sleep in different beds.

And I don't believe for a second that Wentworth and Nita had an platonic relationsship. This "we can't marry" is of course absolutly nuts as in every second novel the villian seems to know about Wentworth's double life. Which of course makes the Kirkpatrick running gag so ridiculous and a typical pulp convention.

john said...

YOU FOOL! YOU FOOL! I warned you about reading Norvelle Page but you wouldn’t listen would you? I’ve got exactly the same girasol reprint of The Red Death Rain. You paid $29.99 for it... and if it had been $129.99 you’d have still paid it would you? YOU FOOL! I’m warning you again... Pack this in NOW! before it get’s too much of a hold on you... or one day you’ll end up like me... bankrupt, sat in the day-room, wearing diapers and doped up on thorazine... drawing cartoons of Nita Van Slone being raped by an orang-utan with blunt crayons. Learn from my example… don’t buy anymore The Spider paperbacks!

Russ said...

You mentioned in an earlier post that you had skipped reading the Octopus pulp in a paperback reprint. If you enjoy the intensity of the Spider, I highly recommend the Octopus and its "sequel" the Scorpion. Both of them feature a violent multiple personality hero called the Skull Killer and both of them are crazed and feverish. As an example, the evil Scorpion, whose hideout is entered through the city's giant hellish incinerator, has a doctor carefully amputate a prisoner's legs, and after a time allowed for recovery, has his arms amputated. He then sympathetically keeps his prisoner alive by offering to feed him broth made from his legs and, if he requires solid food "fry him a piece of his own ham."

A great underground comic featuring the Skull Killer came out back in the seventies.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for all the comments, everyone.

Kurt -- Someday I'll check out one of those Spicy Mysteries. The Spider has definitely gotten me interested in reading more pulps.

Zwolf -- Thanks for the It's Raining More Corpses in Chinatown mention, I'd never heard of it. What a title! As for the Red Death Rain replica, I failed to mention in my review that the actual illustrations weren't that great; I mean they were cool and all, but personally I don't think the interior illustrations of the Spider were as good as the ones in the Shadow pulps. Whereas the Shadow ones are very detailed and dynamic, the ones I've seen so far for the Spider are more blocky and scratchy, and not nearly as detailed.

Peter -- "Lurid force" is a wonderful description of Page's prose! I actually have read Sampson's book, I got it through Interlibrary Loan because it's so godawful rare and expensive. I had to read it in like a few days because the lending library gave me less than a week! I enjoyed it, but I was a little put off by what I felt was Sampson's condescending tone; throughout the book there was, I felt, an air of superiority to his writing, as if he were deigning to write about utter garbage. What I mean to say is, I didn't sense much enthusiasm from him, even though the writing itself was certainly good. I could only imagine how much more enjoyable a Spider book by Will Murray would've been. That being said, Sampson's book was enjoyable and it was cool to see such a critical look at the series overall. He also published one about the Shadow, titled "The Night Master," which I also just received through Interlibrary Loan -- that one appears even more scarce than his Spider book!

Zbu -- I'd love to know which Spider it was with the flamethrowered kid!

Andy -- thanks for the info that some of the VL pdfs feature illustrations. I didn't know that. Could've maybe saved a bundle on The Red Death Rain. But like I said, I chalked it up as an Xmas present. That's a good question, re the sex and violence in pulp when compared to the movies of the day. The Red Death Rain with its orangutan finale was published a few months after Hollywood imposed its censorship code in the summer of '34, but then again such a finale would've been impossible even in pre-Code Hollywood. I guess stuff like this is why the pulps were so hated by the parents of the day...I guess they were like the equivalent of heavy metal in the '80s. Parents wanted them banned, preachers wanted them burned.

John -- Your warning came too late! I wrote this review over a month ago. I have 3 more Spider reviews waiting in the wings...but I can say that I haven't bought a new Spider book in over a month, so I think I'm okay with the 60-some installments I have. For now.

Russ -- The Scorpion sounds nuts! Thanks for letting me know about it. I'll definitely plan to read the Octopus novel which was included with the "Robot Titans of Gotham" paperback, and I see Radio Archives released The Scorpion as an inexpensive eBook, so I'll just get it in that format.

Gene Phillips said...

This is absolutely my favorite single issue of any hero-pulp series. Great to see it get some appreciation.