Thursday, December 9, 2021

The Spider #27: Emperor Of The Yellow Death

The Spider #27: Emperor Of The Yellow Death, by Grant Stockbridge
December, 1935  Popular Publications

The Spider delves into a “ Yellow Peril” storyline once again, but this one’s not as wild as a previous entry in this subgenre: The Red Death Rain. Otherwise we have the same trimmings: a dastardly plot that sees thousands of New Yorkers die, a nefarious “Oriental” villain whose mental powers seem to dwarf those of our hero, and also most importantly a sexy Oriental henchwoman. But none of these elements are as exploited as they were in The Red Death Rain (which unforgettably climaxed with the sexy henchwoman being raped to death by an orangutan), and also the villain’s kind of lame…I mean his name is “The Turtle.” 

One thing I’ve noticed about these Yellow Peril storylines in The Spider is that no narrative space is wasted on the usual red herring-chasing that you find in the volumes that don’t feature Asian villains. You know what I mean…practically every volume will have a cast of one-off characters and Richard “The Spider” Wentworth will suspect several of them of being that volume’s villain, only for it to turn out to be some random guy, revealed on the very last page, the revelation making no impact on the reader because we have no idea who the hell this guy is. But this doesn’t happen in Emperor Of The Yellow DeathDragon Lord Of The Underworld, or The Red Death Rain. The villains in these tales are Chinese…and folks, elite rich guy Richard Wentworth doesn’t know any Asians, except for hired staff. I found this an interesting insight into the culture of the ‘30s, where Asians were still seen as remote and mysterious. 

And as to be expected Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page doesn’t write with the cultural sensitivity you’d expect from today’s authors: the Turtle, for example, is introduced as “yellow-skinned Wang-ba.” His name, which we’re informed translates as “Turtle,” is sort of a joke, as he’s given himself a lowly name despite being the usual Spider supervillain…would you believe, the worst threat the Spider has yet faced? Of course we’re told that every single volume, but regardless Wang-ba has an army at his disposal, he can control various animals and reptiles, and he has his own personal submarine which he travels around the New York area in. Also his mental powers are so grand that he even manages to put none other than Wentworth under his control, however to do so he has to cheat a little. 

It’s clear though that Page was recycling ideas at this point to meet his ungodly monthly word count. There’s a long sequence in Emperor Of The Yellow Death where Wentworth is a mind-controlled vassal of Wang-ba’s, plotting to kill his best friend/enemy Stanley Kirkpatrick…who himself was mind-controlled by the villain in Overlord Of The Damned. And Wang-ba’s mastery of animals is a retread of Ssu His Tze’s mastery of vermin in Dragon Lord Of The Underworld. In addition to that we also have the usual events that occur each volume: Wentworth’s own vassals get waylaid early on and removed from the narrative until the end, lovely Nita van Sloan is captured by the villain, and thousands of innocent New Yorkers die in freak attacks. But Emperor Of The Yellow Death is faster-moving than some of the preceding volumes, mostly because as mentioned Page has removed the lame “mystery” angle that has slowed them down. It’s clear from the get-go that Wang-ba is the villain and there’s no fooling around trying to find out his secret identity. 

Another recurring schtick is that the novel opens with Wentworth arlready on the job, as it were. He’s walking along Fifth Avenue at 2:30 in the AM, hoping to lure an attacker – we’re told earlier that evening he prevented a “Chinese houseboy” from poisoning a judge aquaintance of Wentworth’s, and now our hero is sure he’ll be attacked himself for foiling the plot. This happens, but randomly enough it’s courtesy a Bengal tiger. This is our first indication of the control Wang-ba has over the animal kingdom. After stopping the tiger Wentworth returns to his penthouse, where he’s visited by a pretty young Chinese woman; Page twice uses “langurous” to describe her, and we’re told she has a “cruel smile.” 

It won’t be until later in the novel that we learn her name is White Flower. She’s not as depraved as the Chinese henchwoman in The Red Death Rain, and Page ultimately develops a subplot in which White Flower is drawn to Wentworth due to his charisma. But at the start the relationship, such as it is, is more centered around White Flower trying to test Wentworth as being worthy to join Wang-ba’s army. Because yet again, the villain knows of course that Richard Wentworth and the Spider are one and the same, and wants to offer him the chance to rule at his side. However he goes about his invitation rather strangely, kidnapping Nita and luring Wentworth to his submerged submarine – even trapping Wentworth inside at one point to see if our hero will kill himself or wait patiently for Wang-ba to visit him. 

Page is very fond of taking his hero through the wringer, and that’s brought to the fore here. Wentworth is trapped in a chamber that’s submerging with water. He’s here to save Nita, but he knows that Wang-ba must also be on the submarine. Here we learn that Wentworth always carries on his person two vials of an experimental liquid explosive which, were the two liquids to be combined, would be able to destroy the entire sub. Wentworth struggles with himself whether he should combine the liquids and destroy the sub, thus stopping Wang-ba’s plot – but also killing himself and Nita in the bargain. Of course our hero cares nothing for the loss of his own life, but it is Nita’s fate he worries about. No surprises then that Wentworth decides it’s more important to stop Wang-ba…and of course the villain finally appears at that moment. This too had been one of Wang-ba’s tests. 

“We are two mighty killers, thou and I,” Wang-ba announces. The Turtle doesn’t have a fancy costume or mask, going around in the expected “Oriental” style robes, but he does have the unusual gimmick of a mysterious green light always shining in his face. His murdering of innocents almost comes off as perfunctory; there’s a hellish part where his minions kill everyone in a tenement building, and later in the novel his attacks become more frequent, culminating in his ultimate plan to ransom New York City for one hundred million dollars. The green light gimmick extends to the “guns of devil flame” he’s armed his soldiers with; they spout green flames. In a curious subplot we learn that Wang-ba’s soldiers, Chinese all, are under his mental sway, and there are parts in the end where Wentworth is trying to save them. 

As mentioned Wang-ba challenges Wentworth to a mental duel; if he wins, Wentworth too will become his vassal. But our hero has more than enough mental power to defeat Wang-ba, so the villain pricks Wentworth with a dart, thus distracting our hero and conquering him in the challenge. The Oriental fiend! Now follows a long stretch where Wentworth becomes the willing proxy of Wang-ba. This sequence climaxes in a cool bit that comes off like a prefigure of the scene in John Milius’s Conan where Conan is brought back to life by his friends. Here Ram Singh and Nita reclaim Wentworth’s soul, Nita the key to the affair as she shares the “same karma” as Wentworth. Cool stuff, and one of the best scenes yet in the series. 

Wentworth only dresses up in his Spider digs once in the book; this is another typical element of Page’s novels. But it’s another sterling sequence where Wentworth, with the hunchback and fangs Spider getup, runs a train filled with food into New York, braving Wang-ba’s soldiers, who throw grenades at the train. This sequence reveals that Wentworth also carries special cigarettes in his case – four “narcoticized” ones. Unfortunately he never lights one of them up; we’re informed they are there solely for emergencies. I was hoping we’d get a coke-fueled Spider moment. We do get the usual Page craziness, though, in particular a bit where Wang-ba, ever the host, shows Wentworth how he punishes soldiers who fail him: Wentworth watches in disgust as the poor men are torn apart by turtles. Of course Wentworth himself will need to get past these same bloodthirsty animals later on. 

Page also does a good job of tying together all the subplots in a typically-harried finale, which sees Wentworth prove to White Flower that her master is a bit of a fake in the mental powers department. As I say, these Yellow Peril storylines really inspired Page to cut back on the fluff. The fate of the various characters is not unexpected, but touching in some ways. With a cooler villain and a more depraved villainness, Emperor Of The Yellow Death could’ve given The Red Death Rain a run for its money, but it comes down as relatively meek in comparison. Still, yet another entertaining Spider yarn, and it’s a testament to Page’s skill that he could turn out memorable tales month after month, in addition to the plethora of stories he was writing for other pulp mags.

1 comment:

Gene Phillips said...

I haven't read the majority of the Spider-tales you've reviewed here, but of those I have read, I've almost always liked something about each of them. That's a lot more than I can say for either of the "big two," the Shadow and Doc Savage. Like you I'm a particular fan of "Red Death Rain," which does not disappoint even when you know what's coming.