Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Spider #9: Satan's Death Blast

The Spider #9: Satan's Death Blast, by Grant Stockbridge
June, 1934  Popular Publication

I’ve noticed these Spider novels take place in the month they were published, so in a neat trick Satan’s Death Blast occurs over a few days in June. Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page once again does his best to make this crazy tale seem like it’s happening in the real world, despite how fantastic it all is; there’s even a buried line in the narrative where hero Richard “The Spider” Wentworth intimates that such situations as those depicted in this novel are purposely kept out of the news! 

Anyway, Page also once again does his best to put the screws to his suffering hero. Within the first few pages Wentworth is shot in the left thigh (ie Steve Martin in Three Amigos: “I’ve been shot already!”), and he limps through the novel in a perpetual fevered daze. Not only that but loyal servant Ram Singh tries to stab him, and even Nita van Sloan “is false!” All told it’s a terrible few days in the life of Richard Wentworth, who this time is in upstate New York looking into a series of park purchases; he suspects something nefarious is behind it all.

But as usual this plot is lost in the scuffle of action and chase sequences, Wentworth again running all over the place without any time for pause or reflection. This particular novel isn’t as breathless as some of the previous ones I’ve read, but it’s certainly not slow-paced. But more focus is placed on scene-setting than in the earlier volumes, particularly “Hell,” a Stygian cavern this volume’s villain operates out of. Unfortunately the villain himself isn’t as interesting as previous ones, nor as fleshed out: Isong, the Devil, who wears a red cape and has a forked beard and the face of Satan himself. But he appears just a few short times in the novel; as ever, Wentworth himself is the star. 

And once again Wentworth rarely appears in his Spider guise. Only in the first pages is he wearing the “skirted mask” that has for the most part become the official Spider get-up in these early novels. But the costume is quickly dispensed with and Wentworth goes through the majority of the novel in one disguise or another, usually as a buck-toothed yokel named “Carson Haggard.” And as for his comrades, Ram Singh’s only around a few times, most notably when he tries to stab Wentworth while in a hypnotized state, and loyal Jackson duly performs every chore Wentworth asks of him without question. As for Nita, the poor girl appears in maybe two pages total. Her presence was greatly increased in the later volumes, and for the better.

Isong is apparently behind this consortium that’s buying park areas in upstate New York, and if the people or government won’t sell to him, he threatens to send them “up in dust.” This is the novel’s token phrase for blowing shit up real good; in one of the more memorable instances, a senator friend of Wentworth’s is blown up (as well as an entire city block) by an exploding cigar! Isong has some heavy-duty explosives, which he later uses to atomize parts of Albany so it can be looted, and eventually we learn that his explosives are made up of elements harvested from electric eels!

Things get pretty bonkers midway through as Wentworth, limping and feverish (he also later gets shot in the chest), finds himself in Hell. This is a very effective sequence, with Page playing up the horror elements, particularly the slimy electric eels swirling beneath the brackish lake in the midst of the cavern. Here Wentworth has his first face-to-face with the Devil, but in the course of his escape Wentworth suffers yet another setback: partial amnesia. This instigates a mid-novel section which has Wentworth wracking his brain trying to figure out where Hell is and what exactly it was he learned there (namely, that Albany was next on the attack list, but Wentworth doesn’t remember until too late).

One difference this time is the lack of female characters. As mentioned Nita is a nonentity, arriving late from New York and then apparently selling Wentworth out when next we see her, even taking a shot at the masked Spider as he confronts one of the men he suspects to be Isong. This sends Wentworth into a tither, as Nita even calls the cops on him. “Nita is false!” one chapter is titled, and this is Wentworth’s suspicion through the novel, basically writing her off and hating her guts. (In the end we learn she was merely trying to keep her cover, as she was fooling Isong’s men into thinking she was a turncoat.) But otherwise there are no other women, not even of the villainous sort; Page taunts us early on with an Italian beauty who is clearly being set up as such, but he apparently forgets about her.

The looting of Albany is another of those epic, apocalyptic sequences Page does so well, reminiscent of the major zombie attack in the previous volume. The big finale however plays out on that aviation angle Page and other pulp writers were so enamored with. Isong flies over New York, a captured Nita at his side, intending to bomb the city even though it has agreed to pay his ransom. A half-dead Wentworth relentlessly pushes cops and taxi drivers in his determination to get there in time. This all culminates in the goofy but effective image of Wentworth, on the ground, jousting with Isong’s plane and crippling it by throwing a sword into its propellor.

As for Isong the Devil, not only does he get one hell of an anticlimactic sendoff (Wentworth merely shoots him), his “surprise reveal” is the expected nonsense; he turns out to be some dude who appeared in like a single line of text early in the novel. In fact Page is pretty brazen about it this time, as this dude is like thrust into the novel early on for no reason at all – no reason, that is, other than for Page to “shock” us later that he was really the Devil all along. But part of me suspects that Page never intended this stuff to be taken seriously at all, and maybe all these unsurprising “surprise reveals” are just a big goof.

Anyway, another entertaining Spider novel, filled with the usual chaos and bloodless violence, but lacking the femme fatale element and a memorable villain. At the very least Satan’s Death Blast achieved the usual effect: it made me look forward to reading the next volume.

1 comment:

Russ said...

Robert Sampson wrote a really entertaining and suitably intense analysis of the Spider pulp called, simply, Spider. He has a number of great articles and books on pulps out there, including the series Yesterday's Faces, six volumes on the earliest heroes of pulps and pre-pulp publications. His love of the material shines in every paragraph and he was also quite funny. If you're a fan of this stuff, I recommend the Spider book in particular. Sampson's no longer with us, but his writing made me long for a childhood I never had, namely his.