Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Spider #26: Death Reign Of The Vampire King

The Spider #26: Death Reign Of The Vampire King, by Grant Stockbridge
November, 1936  Popular Publications

Again I have Zwolf to thank – or should that be blame? Because, thanks to his awesome Spider overview, I’ve gone off the deep end, and within the span of a few weeks have picked up like 60-some installments of this 1933-1943 pulp series.

I was only slightly aware of the Spider, one of the longer-running pulp heroes, mostly just due to mentions I’d seen of him over the years, but mainly due to the DVD copy I acquired a few years ago of The Spider’s Web, a 1938 serial based on the character – and suprisingly faithful to its source. When I was a kid I was obsessed with these ‘30s pulp heroes, these masked crimefighters who appeared to be just as bloodthirsty as the criminals they opposed, but back then I couldn’t find any reprints of the various pulps.

However one of the few good things about our miserable modern era is that stuff like this has become much easier to acquire. In fact, Will Murray and Radio Archives have released scads of pulp novels in eBook format, including the Spider run. I’m not sure if they have yet released all 118 volumes, but they’ve got to be damn close. So then, for around $2.99 you can actually read these old novels, which for decades were nigh impossible to find.

While in this case I’m in favor of eBooks, I have to admit that I didn’t read my first Spider novel that way; instead, I read Death Reign Of The Vampire King in the 2008 Baen mass market paperback Robot Titans Of Gotham, which compiled two Spider novels and another pulp novel that was co-written by Norvell Page, who wrote pretty much the entirety of the Spider series.

Norvell Page sounds like one interesting dude. As Zwolf mentions in his overview, Page would sometimes dress like his character when turning in his Spider manuscripts, likely just having fun with it. But damn the guy was a writing powerhouse, turning out a novel a month! And he did this for almost ten years, and that’s not even including the novels he wrote for other pulp magazines. But anyway Page was the “Grant Stockbridge” (ie the house name the series was published under after initial series author RTM Scott left), even though he didn’t come onto the scene until the third volume.

Zwolf’s also on point with his theory that Joseph Rosenberger was probably an admirer of The Spider. My friends, as I read Death Reign Of The Vampire King, there were times I had to remind myself I wasn’t reading a Rosenberger novel. The styles are pretty similar, with a sort of skewed, off-the-wall vibe mixed with endless action and a breathless tone, with exclamation points all over the place. However, Page is a much more refined (and, uh, better) author than Mr. Rosenberger, and while I’d consider reading a hundred or so Rosenberger novels a pointless endeavor, I’m so impressed with Page and his characters and storylines that I hope to someday read all of his Spider work.

But for those of you who are more into ‘70s or ‘80s men's adventure novels novels and don’t think ‘30s or ‘40s pulps would be your thing, you will be in for quite a surprise. If Death Reign Of The Vampire King is any indication, this series is very similar to the men’s adventure novels of the 1970s. In tone, content, and even page length, the series is almost the prototype of what came a few decades later. It even has the lurid vibe of those ‘70s novels, though obviously not as exploitative as some of them – though to be sure, there’s some definite exploitation afoot here.

This 26th volume is proof enough. The villain is a deformed monster with fangs and wings who commands an untold number of vampire bats, there’s a femme fatale who gets off on torture and wants to watch as our hero is killed by bats, there’s a scene in which said femme fatale apparently has sex with the hero’s accomplice – the accomplice taking advantage of that aforementioned turned-on nature – and finally there’s thousands of people around the country getting killed by the vampire bats. This isn’t even mentioning our hero, who goes around in the disguise of a hunchback with a big nose and vampire fangs of his own.

Like Rosenberger, Page throws us right into the action and doesn’t stop until the final page, with only a few moments here and there for introspection and reflection. But again, whereas Rosenberger’s endless action onlsaught can quickly become nauseating, Page’s style is so much more assured and measured that you can’t help but keep reading – seriously, the dude was a master of the craft, and should be enshrined as pulp royalty. As the novel opens those damn vampire bats have already killed a bunch of people, though must of the victims have been gamblers and horse-betters and other such people; ie, no “innocents.” At least not yet.

Enter hero Richard Wentworth, wealthy gadabout known to all and sundry as a famous criminologist. He’s also the Spider, hunchbacked and fanged enemy of the underworld (despite the cover depictions, the Spider didn’t actually wear a domino mask…though sometimes he did). That Wentworth is the Spider is quite obviously known by New York Police Commisioner Kirkpatrick (who doesn’t appear this volume), though this “does he know or not” element is apparently played out throughout the series, with these two ostensible friends constantly at war, with Kirkpatrick bound and determined to someday arrest the Spider….no matter who he may turn out to be.

But make no mistake, Wentworth is nuts. Will Murray perfectly sums up the character in his series overview which appears in all of the Radio Archives Spider eBooks, so be sure to check one of those out – and Murray’s overview is also important because it actually gets the reader excited to read one of these books. (Unlike the pretentious and annoying one in Robot Titans Of Gotham, which only succeeds in grating the reader’s nerves.) Anyway, Wentworth is very similar, again, to the Death Merchant, in that he’s basically an inhuman warrior. Though, unlike Rosenberger, Page actually succeeds in making his hero both human and likable.

Anyway, Wentworth is already on the trail of these vampire bats when we meet him, on the scene in Philadephia, away from his home turf of New York. An interesting thing to mention is that, other than a few pages at the begninning, Wentworth is not in the guise of the Spider throughout the entire novel, so really it’s more so the adventures of “Richard Wentworth, Criminologist.” But he’s in the cape, slouch hat, deformed nose, “lank-haired wig,” and of couse the fangs of the Spider ensemble as the novel opens, sneaking onto the property of a criminal he suspects might be next on the vamire bat death list.

While Wentworth is brilliant and all, he apparently has poor judgment at times, as he sneaks onto the property carrying a bird cage with bats in it!! And yet he’s surprised when later a witness accuses him of being the person behind all these bat attacks. Wentworth’s aren’t vampire bats, just decoys, and when the real vampire bats actually do attack, we’re thrust into the first of the novel’s many action scenes. Here we see how bloodthirsty our hero is, as he guns down various crooks with his twin “automatics,” which are never specified but if the series covers are any indication are good ol’ Colt .45s.

Here we get to see the Vampire King himself – the “Bat Man!” Unlike the more famous character (who hadn’t been created yet, anyway), this Bat Man can actually fly, flapping about on his massive bat wings. Page builds up a supernatural element with Wentworth spending most of the novel wondering if the Bat Man is even human. But the villain escapes, his victims dead, and off Wentworth goes in pursuit; he spends most of the novel like ten steps behind his quarry, while soon people all over the country begin dying…and not just gamblers and underworld riffraff, either.

Wentworth as mentioned is soon called out by a witness, who claims she saw him setting those vampire bats free; this is June Calvert, a hotstuff gal who is the above-referenced femme fatale. She claims to be the sister of a man who was killed by the Bat Man – and she thinks the Spider and the Bat Man are one and the same. Wentworth brings her along, pretending to commandeer his own Daimler – even to the extent of pretending to kidnap his faithful servant/chauffer, Ram Singh, a hulking “Hindustani” who appears to be a little too eager to go out and shed blood with his curved dagger.

Speaking of accomplices, Wentworth’s fiance Nita Van Sloan is flying in from New York to assist. Nita is fully aware of Wentworth’s double life and also takes part in it, sometimes even taking up the Spider mantle herself. However nothing like this happens in Death Reign Of The Vampire King; Nita’s unfortunately-brief storyline has her becoming reacquainted with Fred Stoking, an old flame who just happens to run into Nita and Wentworth in Philadelphia. Apparently Page’s intention is for readers to suspect that Stoking might be the Bat Man – the villain’s true identity is a big source of mystery for everyone – but if so, this element is quickly dropped.

Actually, none of Wentworth’s accomplices are around much. He’s pretty much a one-man band here; even June Calvert quickly disappears from the text, though when she appears again she’s morphed into becoming like the Bat Man’s sadistic and depraved female minion. In the best scene in the novel, Wentworth and another of his colleagues, Ronald Jackson, are captured by the “Jivaro Indians” who serve the Bat Man. They’re taken to the Bat Man’s underground lair in Jersey City(!), where he sits on a throne, surrounded by his bats and barely-clothed Indian warriors.

The Bat Man is straight out of a horror film, with huge wings, fangs, and the twisted, demonic face of a bat. Also, he squeaks when he talks, and can command his bats with his voice. Did I mention yet that his bats have poisoned fangs? Anyway, June is here as well, dressed in a form-revealing red dress with bands across her breasts, like she just walked out of one of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. While there is of course no sex in these books, I have to say again how “modern” they seem, at least so far as the style goes, as June’s ample charms are constantly mentioned, in a matter not unlike that which would be common in the men’s adventure novels of the ‘70s.

The Bat Man orders Wentworth and Jackson stripped nude and tossed into a cell in which they’ll be drained to death by swarms of vampire bats. And June Calvert demands to be allowed to watch! It’s all very Myrna Loy in The Mask Of Fu Manchu, as June even pulls up a chair outside of the cell so she can avidly watch it all go down. And while fending off the innumerable bats, Wentworth can’t help but notice how excited June looks…and also how Jackson himself can’t seem to keep his eyes off the evil yet ultra-hot woman.

So Wentworth does what likely no other pulp hero would do – he tells Jackson to fuck June, right through the cell bars! Of course, he doesn’t use these exact words, and Page does leave it to our imagination, but it’s still pretty clear what goes down…despite the vaguery of the narrative, Jackson uses his macho charms to capitalize on June’s sexually-excited nature. While Wentworth keeps his back turned, still fending off the bats, June and Jackson soon begin panting and thrusting away behind him.

And it works – the evil woman is ensnared by her own sadistic impulses, and soon enough has fallen in love with Jackson. She helps them escape, which of course really pisses off the Bat Man, and he sends more bats and Jivaros after them. Wentworth kills scads of both, and while Nita sits out the majority of this installment, June Calvert basically stands in for her, serving as Wentworth’s asskicking female assistant. Eventually it’s just him and her working together, with Jackson too disappearing into the narrative aether along with Nita, Ram Singh, and Nita’s old boyfriend.

Once again my review is reaching absurd proportions, so I’ll stop synopsizing. Long story short, Death Reign Of The Vampire King is an endless, breathless sequence of Wentworth either stealing cars or planes and chasing after the minions of the Bat Man. I think there are like ten plane crashes in this novel, Wentworth’s commandeered planes getting shot out of the sky again and again (and yet he and everyone else on board always surviving, of course).

One of these crashes leads to an interminable sequence in which Wentworth and June must walk through the rough terrain of the Appalachian mountains. This part goes on and on and serves to drag the novel down; surely Page could’ve come up with something more exciting to fill the pages. In true pulp fashion he has no problem with shoehorning in coincidence; June, besides being an expert pilot herself, was also briefly a school teacher in the Appalachias(??), and thus uses her knowledge of the redneck world to steal a truck, making the journey faster.

Also in true pulpster fashion, Page clearly runs out of pages in the homestretch, and thus we are graced with a finale that’s a little unsatisfying. Having figured the Bat Man’s next big attack will be in Michigan City (where 3,5000 people are killed by bats!), Wentworth steals another plane, gets in another aerial dogfight, and then breaks out his own wings as he jumps from this latest crashing plane. Employing wings he’s had made to match the Bat Man’s, now Wentworth himself can fly around, and thus battles the Bat Man in the sky.

Any hopes of a big climax are dashed; the Bat Man merely plummets in the scuffle, and only later does a dazed Wentworth discover that he succeeded in shooting him to death. There’s also a Scooby-Doo reveal where it turns out the Bat Man isn’t some mutant monster, after all; instead he’s some random character who was briefly mentioned earlier in the novel. Apparently these “surprise reveals” were part and parcel of Page’s schtick; see this humourous Will Murray article at the essential Spider Returns site for more on that.

The thing that most impressed me about Death Reign Of The Vampire King, besides its hectic pace and bloodthirsty protagonist, was how modern it seemed. In fact there were even parts where Wentworth thought of various things, ie house architecture, as “old fashioned;” an interesting sentiment to encounter in an 80-year-old novel. Speaking of which, this installment was one of the four that Pocket Books “modernized” in the 1970s, editing the text so “the Spider” became just “Spider,” and other such bizarre changes which still draw fan spite.

While this particular installment of The Spider didn’t knock me out, it entertained me enough that I immediately began reading the other Spider novel compiled in Robot Titans Of Gotham, Satan’s Death Machines, which I’ll be reviewing next – and which I enjoyed even more.

Above I mentioned the eBooks, but for those like myself who still prefer print, you can find the 25 Spider “Pulp Doubles” published by Girasol, which compiled two novels per volume. Unfortunately, they were not published in any sort of order, however they did retain the interior illustrations, something lacking in both the eBooks and the two Baen mass market paperbacks. The eBooks are obviously much cheaper – and also there are many volumes of the series that were never reprinted by Girasol, Baen, or the others. (Actually, Girasol has published the majority of the series in “Pulp Replica” format: exact replicas of the original magazines…at a hefty forty bucks each!!)

Another thing to note is that the Spider novels are sometimes referred to as “novellas.” I don’t think this is accurate. The Spider novels compiled by Baen run to about 150-160 pages each, which again is basically the same page length as the men’s adventure novels of the 1970s. I picked up all of the “Pulp Doubles” as well as a handful of Spider reprints published by Bold Ventures and Pulp Adventures Press (both of which also retain the original interior illustrations), so there will be many more Spider reviews forthcoming – you can definitely count me a fan.


russell1200 said...

I tend to think of Novellas as being around 100 pages max.

AndyDecker said...

I am a big fan of The Spider and Page. Some of the novels are unbelievable in the mayhem on the page. There are often hundreds or thousands of victims. Where in the 70s pulp the terrorist plots are mostly averted, here they succeed in parts. There is a reason why there is a big reset-button at the beginning of each episode.

On the other hand this reset-button gets old fast in some regards, especially the eternal dance between Wentworth and Kirkpatrick is boring after a while. But that was the formula.

One of the most outrageous novel must be No 15 Red Death Reign.

The comparison with Rosenberger is interesting. There are similarities, but I think the Death Merchant is not so feverishly written as the best of The Spider are. Wentworth wears his emotions on his sleeve, also he is clearly insane :-) Not that Camellion is sane, still ...

In one regard Page is a surprisingly "modern" writer though: even if his Nita gets abducted a lot, she kicks butt like no other heroine of his time.

Karlos said...

Great review, Joe.

I was first introduced to The Spider thanks to the 70s reprints (the covers, which turned to be deeply inaccurate, always fascinated me) and forgot all about them until the short lived comic book re-telling in the 90s:

(Both series are excellent, by the way.)

I’d love to revisit the books and your review makes me want to get on that straight away.

The influences on Rosenberger seem spot-on; something that only makes me want to read them even more.

There was an excellent article on The Spider in an issue of Paperback Fanatic, but I just can’t locate it. One of the novels reviewed therein was described as the most violent book ever written – needless to say, I’m wracking my brains trying to remember just which one – made harder by the fact that they ALL sound insanely violent!

Zwolf said...

Excellent review, as always! :) Glad to see you're turned on to these... they're pretty amazing. Page wasn't afraid to kill off unbelievable numbers of people in these things. I've seen body counts in the tens of thousands (although most of them are from cholera or some other evil-villain plot... Wentworth would've melted down the barrels of his .45's gunning that many down). They're really not dated. I could easily see them still going now, with Wentworth taking on ISIS terrorists or something. O' course, they'd most likely be an ISIS that had learned how to raise zombies or breed giant tarantulas...

A lot of these old pulps were mirrored later on in the action novels from the 70's and 80's. I feel pretty certain the Death Merchant is The Spider's child (maybe not literally, but... who knows? Wentworth got around!) -- Rosenberger even uses a lot of phrases from Spider novels. I think even "Death Merchant" came up a few times. And those Hitman novels read like a Spider update.

Then you have things like the Operator 5 novels, which had a "Purple Invasion" storyline that some similarities to the Doomsday Warrior, Invasion USA type of plot. A "Purple Empire" (basically the Nazis) conquer the U.S. and this Operator 5 guy leads a resistance against them. Not quite as crazy as The Spider, but they don't stop moving, either.

I also love G8 And His Battle Aces. Those aren't as hyper-violent as The Spider but they're still pretty nuts, with biplanes fighting werewolves and giant spiders and things. There are a lot of reprint copies of those floating around that can usually be gotten pretty cheaply. Gotta love the old pulps. :)

Marty McKee said...

I have not read any Spider yet, but I do dig the adventures of Clark Savage Junior.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Andy, I've read 4 more Spiders since I wrote this (I usually write these reviews about a month or two before they post), one of them being Red Death Rain. You're right, it was very outrageous! It was also probably my favorite one yet. And you also have good points on the differences between JR and Page, another difference being that Page clearly seems to care about his characters.

Karlos, I too dig those '70s reprint covers. And I'd love to know what issue of PF that was -- I'll have to ask Justin. You are correct, they're all each I've read so far the death count has been well into the thousands.

Zwolf, love the idea of the Death Merchant being the Spider's offspring. Note too how the DM has such a fondness for donning bizarre disguises, same as Richard Wentworth. Thanks for the rundown on the other pulps...the only other pulps I've read are Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, which I read as a kid, as well as some of his other stuff. I've picked up a few Shadows, but I'm more of a fan of the radio show, where the invisible Shadow is a sadist of the first order, either taunting criminals until they snap or, more commonly, using some girl as bait for the villain and then only arriving at the last possible second to save her.

Marty, I've never hear of Clark Savage, Jr...will look that up.

Kurt said...

I love these old pulps. I'm not as familiar with The Spider but I have this novel in a "double feature" Carroll & Graf paperback along with The Pain Emperor.

john said...

Yes you’ve got to watch those Spider novels. They’re the crack cocaine of pulp fiction. I used to be a wealthy successful business man... but now I’m penniless, homeless and I have to sell my body for sex on the street. Why? because I spent all my money on Norvell Page novels that’s why! They're not well written, but they are written with a demons’ fire and verve. Feverish novels if you like, and reading them, even though you know they’re the sort of trash you’re mother would have burned, can become addictive.

Joe Kenney said...

John, loved your comment. Thanks!

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