Thursday, December 3, 2020

The Spider #25: Overlord Of The Damned

The Spider #25: Overlord Of The Damned, by Grant Stockbridge
October, 1935  Popular Publications

I wasn’t expecting much out of this volume of The Spider; all I knew about it was that Richard “The Spider” Wentworth’s best friend/arch enemy Governor Kirkpatrick (formerly the commissioner) might be the latest villain sowing death and destruction across the country. It turned out though that Overlord Of The Damned was one of the more outrageous installments of the series I’ve yet read, with copious amounts of violence and gore. There was also a bit more emotional content to the book in that throughout Wentworth not only questions his own ease with killing, but the fact that this time he might have to kill his best friend. 

The template though is firmly in place; we open on a big action scene, then jump through several more quick ones before the plot takes the expected detour midway through. One change though is that the finale actually follows on from the established plot, instead of coming out of left field like so many past ones have. One thing I’ve noticed though is that while these Spider yarns sound so crazy, with crazily-garbed and monikered villains, in reality we don’t see the main villains very much in the novels themselves; for the most part it’s just Wentworth, often in his hunchbacked Spider garb, blowing away random crooks and thugs. This volume in particular is like that, as Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page seems to have run out of steam so far as the latest colorfully-named villain goes. It’s just “The Boss,” and the few times he appears he wears nothing more than a black mask over his face. The greater concern is whether it’s really Kirkpatrick in disguise. 

As mentioned this one opens on the usual action scene, but this time there’s a nightmarish extra layer – courtesy some “acid bullets” the bad guys start shooting when they hit a bank, resulting in some of the most OTT gore yet in this series. As ever New York has been under another round of attacks, masterminded by some mysterious supervillain, and Wentworth has gotten the scoop on where the next hit will be. He watches as the raid on the bank goes down, shocked by the brutality of the crooks; men and women are both hit by acid, with Page not shirking on the messy details – faces melting off, even risque-for-1935 mentions of the “breasts” of women being eaten away by the acid bullets. Wentworth mows down a bunch of crooks with his ever-present .45s, and humorously enough is unable to keep any of them alive for later questioning; he’s so good a shot he kills them with a single hit. 

But the acid alone isn’t nightmarish enough; once the cops arrive, under the supervision of new commissioner Flynn, a few of them go nuts and start attacking innocent passersby. Wentworth immediately deduces that they’ve been driven nuts by “narcotics” in their cigars; yet another chilling plot of the mysterious “Boss” who is apparently behind this latest siege on New York. This will be the dual threat the Boss wields throughout: acid bullets for attacks, and insanity-causing drugs to create cannon fodder of maniacal rapists. Speaking of risque for 1935, we’re informed in no uncertain terms that women are “maltreated” by these psychotics; later in the book Wentworth catches one of them about to rape a woman – right after he slams her six year old son’s head into a brick wall, that is. Luckily Wentworth is able to stop the madman before he carries out either act, but afterward Wentworth bitterly reflects that the ”madman” was just as innocent as his would-be victims. 

As if all that weren’t enough, trouble is close to home for Wentworth: Jackson is nuts within the first few pages, one of the earliest victims of the Boss’s insanity-causing drugs. Later on Wentworth’s penthouse will also be trashed by the Boss’s minions, the “Negro” at the door killed (poor guy isn’t even given a name) and old Jenkyns hurt badly. Even ever-stalwart Ram Singh nearly succumbs to the madness, dosed in one memorable sequence which sees him struggling to retain his sanity as Wentworth urges him on, commanding him to remember who he is. But it’s Wentworth’s ever-suffering fiance, Nita, who saves Ram Singh in a sequence that’s borderline magical realism; the glowing force of her love is enough to help Ram Singh completely fight off the madness which threatens to overtake his mind. As for Nita herself, she’s abducted as usual – not just once, but a couple times throughout the narrative. I’m missing an earlier volume where Nita supposedly became the Spider herself, but so far as these early volumes go she’s very much a damsel in distress, and not nearly the female badass she’d become in later installments

Something I love about these Spider yarns is that, even if thousands are being massacred across the country, people still go about their daily business; innocents might be getting their faces melted off by acid bullets in random bank robberies, but by god we’re going to that gala event tonight in Times Square. Surely this is in-jokery on Page’s part, yet at the same time it’s an indication that people were just made of sterner stuff in earlier days; the people of the ‘30s sure as hell wouldn’t have shut down their entire society for a virus that’s about as deadly as the seasonal flu. But then again, individual liberty was still a thing back then. Anyway I bring this up because as ever there are massacres throughout the book, as the Boss’s endless supply of crooks ambush various affairs and melt innocent people into puddles of gore. Early on Wentworth remembers that rubber is impervious to acid, and soon enough comes up with some rubber augmentations for his Spider costume – which is again the ensemble formerly known as “Tito Caliepi,” with the cape, the hunchback, and the fangs. 

Actually Wentworth spends a lot of the novel in Spider costume, more so than many of the previous volumes. He also only goes around in disguise once: as a thug named Tony Marino, hoping to get offered a job in the Boss’s legion. Here’s where Wentworth first suspects Kirkpatrick might be part of the plot; at a party of “the great who might wish to be criminal,” Wentworth as Marino catches glimpse of Kirkpatrick, visiting some of the people Wentworth suspects might be involved with the Boss. Even worse, Ram Singh, who has been monitoring the party outside, relays that he saw Kirkpatrick talking to some of the thugs there, even ordering the death of the Spider. And it’s made clear this time that Kirkpatrick does indeed know Wentworth is the Spider; actually I think this has been implied from the first Page installment, but I was just too dense at the time to get it. 

There’s nothing subtle about it here, as a major plot point of Overlord Of The Damned is Wentworth’s growing certainty that he’ll have to kill his best friend, Stanley Kirkpatrick, who clearly knows that “Dick” is the Spider. This plays out in one of the stronger moments in the novel, when Wentworth – again in Spider costume – sneaks into Kirkpatrick’s country estate and waits for him in his darkened study. But Wentworth doesn’t seem to be very sharp this time around; every time he confronts Kirkpatrick, the man complains that he’s “tired,” or he’s just woken up, and Wentworth can’t get over how worn-out his old buddy looks. Of course, by novel’s end Page will pull out a convenient excuse for Kirkpatrick’s involvement in the massacres of the Boss, but still throughout most of the book Wentworth struggles with whether he’ll be able to waste him. A later sequence even has Kirkpatrick begging Wentworth to kill him, but Wentworth is still unable to pull the trigger. There’s also a memorable bit – only a few paragraphs in the endless barrage of action-focused narrative – where Wentworth ponders over how many he’s killed in his career as the Spider, realizing he no longer knows the answer. 

Action is as ever constant, and gets to be a little fatiguing. Even the part where Wentworth initially confronts Kirkpatrick turns into an endless action scene, as some dudes in a beer truck show up with a shipment for Kirkpatrick (!?), and Wentworth realizes this is how the acid is being transported around the city (!?), and he gets in a chase with them to a brewery, where a fullscale gun battle ensues. For the most part Wentworth as ever dispenses bloody justice with his .45s; there’s even a neat trick he pulls when he shoots a gun out of Kirkpatrick’s hand, to keep his friend from blowing his own head off. We also get a little proto-zombie massacre action when Wentworth realizes that the only way to stop the drug-crazed maniacs is to shoot them in the head, thus ensuring a kill. Ram Singh gets in on the gory action as well; one part later in the book has him getting in an (off-page) knife battle with some massive brute, Ram Singh ultimately cutting off the guy’s head. 

As for the Boss, he isn’t as memorable in the costume or name department, but he’s possibly more sadistic than many of the previous villains. A darkly humorous bit has him punishing flunkies who failed to kill the Spider; he has them walk across a plank in his domain, and with a push of a button the Boss sends them falling to an acid tank below. Nita witnesses all this, the Boss relishing her (mostly reserved) terror; we get more skirting of those 1935 boundaries when the Boss subtly threatens Nita with rape, vowing to give her to one of his “amiable madmen.” He’ll get more sadistic with her later, when he prepares to inject a syringe of madness drug directly into her eyeball. She’s only saved by the heroic appearance of Wentworth – though humorously this overlong action sequence ends with both Nita and Wentworth captured yet again! 

The Boss’s big final plan is kind of goofy; he’s got catapaults set up to launch acid into the capitol building. Here in the last pages per the template we get last-second reveals of who the Boss really is, but for once it isn’t a total copout on Page’s part, as this character was actually introduced early in the book. It of course isn’t Kirkpatrick, not to spoil the surprise or anything…but “c’mon, man!”, probably everyone except Wentworth already knew that already. The finale is a little too pat, a suddenly vindicated Kirkpatrick now fighting by Wentworth’s side. But this too is typical of the formula, and you can’t blame these people for being happy at the end of each volume – they need all the respite they can get, given that next volume thousands more will be massacred in the latest supervillain plot.

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