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Volunteer Corpse Brigade by Rafael DeSoto
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Stop Me From Reading Another Spider!
By Will Murray
The Spider in question was 1934's Reign of the Silver Terror, said by many to be one of the best early Spiders. I violently disagree. Oh, I found it was full of headlong action and wild bullet-tossing, but it seemed to careen all around the nation, and lost much of its impact for that. I think the scene at the climax, where Richard Wentworth arranges for a coffin to be carried into the Senate chambers, so that the corpse pops up on springs and rods to point an accusing finger at his killer might have sent me over the edge.
So naturally, I read another. Death's Crimson Juggernaut was much better, although three months later the details of that one have since melted into a crazy crimson blur. Immediately upon finishing it, I cracked King of the Red Killers.
Now this is a real gem of Norvell W. Page lunacy. A deposed Balkan king has organized the underworld and is pillaging Western US cities. Off goes the Spider to battle him. Single-handedly, because as we all know, in Spider novels, the U. S. Army and the National Guard, not to mention the local police, are too slow, too stupid, or too overwhelmed to put up much of a fight.
My favorite line of this one came when Page is trying to rationalize how the lone Spider, armed with only two .45 automatics, is the only man for the job. Page wrote: "It was a task for an Army--or one man!"
And sure enough, Wentworth pulls it off--even if Page doesn't quite. Plot holes. Illogical deductions. Senseless motivation. Welcome to the world of the Spider!
I don't know what possessed me to read another Spider after this. Maybe it was a psychological death wish. But I did. And was reminded why Norvell Page drives me crazier than a bedbug on flypaper.
I was reading along, enjoying the ride, trying to figure out who the mystery villain was, when--
Maybe I should back up here. I won't name the novel. Let's call it Death March of the Murder Monkey. The Murder Monkey is poisoning Manhattan. That won't give much away. Manhattan was poisoned by leprosy, cholera and assorted plagues and poisons from Page's first novel Wing of the Black Death right up to the bitter end of the series in 1943.
Anyway, Manhattan is succumbing. Wentworth is valiantly trying to save the stricken populace and track down the Murder Monkey at the same time. It's tough. After chapter upon chapter of New York horror, Wentworth--and the plot--take a weird detour into darkest New Jersey. Just when you think the story is taking a fascinating new direction, Norvell Page realizes that he's got only three chapters to wrap this puppy up. So he sends Wentworth back to Manhattan to finally track down the Murder Monkey, who up to this point, he has had no clue as to the true identity of. (I know how that reads, but after reading a few dozen Spiders this is how my prose goes.)
But once he hits the big apple, it dawns on the Master of Men who the Murder Monkey must be. Wentworth even has good solid reason for suspecting this man. Even if those reasons haven't been apparent up until now.
Well, of course Wentworth tracks him down, virtually excutes the malign wretch, solemnly planting the scarlet seal of the Spider on his cooling forehead.
The story winds down, and in the last sentence of the story's final paragraph, Wentworth's paramour Nita van Sloan says, basically, "Who would have imagined that Bobo Ballinski was really the Murder Monkey?"
I took in this sentence absolutely riveted. And then read it a second time. A Spideresque rage began coursing through my very being.
"Who the hell is Bobo Ballinski?" I shouted.
I could remember no such character. So I forced myself to march back through the novel in question. And I tracked him down. Sort of. He was mentioned in passing. Twice, actually. He had been discreetly murdered offstage in a middle chapter. We the readers never meet him. Not once.
Then I began having flashbacks to why I had long ago stopped reading the Spider. The mystery villain--when there was one--was often revealed as a minor, unmotivated character. The last person you'd suspect because he had hardly made a dent on your consciousness reading the tale. My mind reeled back 20 years to the time I read two consecutively-published Spiders in succession, and both denouments named as the master plotter a guy who never once showed his guilty face in the prose.
After this travesty, I vowed I would never be ambushed by Norvell Wordsworth Page again.
So I evolved an approach to reading the Spider designed to protect my poor sanity.
It came about by accident. I jumped into another Spider. Never mind the title. I'm already too embarassed that I kept going. Clearly I had Spider fever.
I had ventured one, two, maybe three chapters into Blood Reign of the Cow Master, when I did something I had never done in 35 wasted years of reading Spider novels.
I peeked at the last chapter until I spied the paragraph where the mystery villain is revealed. And fortified with the certain knowledge that Moo-Moo Muskowitz was unquestionably the Cow Master, I plunged ahead, unafraid.
I wish to report that I enjoyed this novel very much. The fact that I knew the identity of the villain before he made his entrance did not harm my enjoyment of this story. In truth, it enhanced it.
True, the revelation was a little anti-climactic, but I'm willing to pay that minor price to protect my sanity.
You might be thinking right now what a terrible way to approach a mystery story. But you're wrong. Spiders are not mystery novels. Norvell Page doesn't plant clues. He doesn't even play fair with his readers. In fact, he sometimes writes as if none of us are actually reading his words--only that he's getting paid for them.
There is, I maintain, no such thing as figuring out in advance who a Spider villain really is. You can't do it. Not logically. For there are no hidden clues, no red herrings, no traditional macguffins. I'm convinced that not even Norvell Page himself knew who his villain really was until he typed the offender's name in the last revelatory chapter.
I suppose that's one way to build suspense: Conceal the masked mastermind's true identity even from yourself, the author.
I was reading another Spider not long after this. And armed with the master criminal's true name, followed along as Suspect #1, a Southerner, vied with Suspect #2, a Damn Yankee, over the hand of a murdered man's widow. Now I knew in advance that the Damn Yankee was the bad guy. You might guess this too if you knew that Norvell Page hailed from Richmond, Virgina. But that required inside knowledge not available to most readers.
So how do you explain the climax when the Damn Yankee is unmasked as the Dipheria Demon, and for one paragraph inexplicably says "you-all"? He then mutters that this Southern accent is slipping out!
Did Page get his characters mixed up? You wouldn't think so. A Virginian should know a Southerner from a Yankee, even if he'd gone a little fuzzy on their exact names in the white-hot heat of composition.
Or did he change the villain's identity in a last-chapter rewrite, but neglected to fix this speech? That's more likely. As if anything in the weird world of Norvell Page is likely. Or even logical.
I must have picked the right time to switch tactics because not long after I started peeking, I read a truly amazing Spider in which the mystery villain disguises himself as his next victim on the eve of each murder. So I was forewarned when the bad guy popped up as--himself! That's right, he disguised himself as himself, in preparation for faking his own death, thus diverting the reader from guessing his identity. As if. And not even the Spider suspected the insane truth. Although, Peeping Tom that I had become, I knew everything.
I think I enjoyed that one the best, although I have to say much of it confounded me. The villain called himself the Death Fiddler. Why? Well, in an early scene, as the Spider brands one victim, the Death Fiddler places the tip of his cane against the skin of his victim and burns an image of a tiny violin into the flesh.
Why? Search me, because he never does it again. Nor is he shown playing the violin. Not even a lowly fiddle. So why is he called the Death Fiddler?
Your guess is as good as mine.
This to me is further proof that Norvell W. Page merrily made it up as he went along. There's no other explanation. Oh, he might have named the villain in his outline--if he ever wrote an outline--but no doubt Page was no slave to outlines. His denouments would make more sense if he did.
Not that Page didn't sometimes pull off a really clever fast one. Once I read a Spider where the villain was revealed to be a common newspaper reporter. Yes, the reader had actually encountered him before. He had been hanging around Wentworth in the previous novel! That takes the grand prize in pulp foreshadowing. Walter Gibson was never that brazen.
So, next time you feel the urge to read a Spider novel, take a leaf from the Will Murray Book of Sanity, and sneak a peek at the ending.
It won't hurt you or the reading experience. Trust me. Because I can say with certainty even if you do figure out the villain's true identity, you're probably wrong. Dead wrong. You can't solve a puzzle that isn't.
In the weeks and months since I first took this new approach to The Spider, I've burned through Spiders I've owned for decades and never dared read.
It's been an experience. Everyone, I think, knows about The Red Death Rain, otherwise called the orang-outang book. I had a half memory that I'd borrowed someone's copy of this back in the 70s, and read it.
Now I wasn't sure. Taking up the Carroll & Graph reprint, I dipped my mental toe into the red-hot prose.
None of it seemed familiar. Of course I already knew the end. What Spider fan doesn't? So I kept reading and reading and reading until I came to the last chapter, where Wentworth has to save Nita from a novel variation on the proverbial Fate Worse Than Death: ape rape.
"The orang ripped the last shred of clothing from Nita, slid a red-furred arm beneath her and twisted its bestial face toward the men who started in upon him. He bared his teeth in a snarl. Wentworth stiffened in the grip of the men who held him. His teeth were bare, too... Suddenly he threw back his head and from his chest and throat burst a savage screaming roar. It filled the room, banged against the padded walls. Nita stirred in the embrace of the beast and Wentworth screamed again, and the sound that came from him was the mating challenge of the orang-outang!"
Well, I imagine Page was a Tarzan fan. Although it was original writer R. T. M. Scott who first gave Wentworth that throbbing knife scar on his forehead in emulation of the Lord of the Jungle's signature cicatrix.
Recently, I actually reread Hordes of the Red Butcher, an early Spider reprinted by Pocket Books in bowdlerized form. I was too far gone to care any more, so figured, why not read the uncut version? It went down as smooth a silk. It was as if I'd never read it before. Well, it had been 30 some years....
One of the more infamous Spiders, it involved hordes of unkillable Neaderthal men rampaging through the Kentucky hills. No explantion is ever offered as to where the monsters came from or how the criminal mastermind controls them, but no matter. It's a wild welter of a ride from slaughterous start to sanguinary finish.
The minute I put it down, I picked up another, just like it was a harmless Lays potato chip.
It was The Grey Horde Creeps. I dug in. It concerned a horde of albino submen marauding through the Kentucky hills. I read it with amazing sense of deja vu. Wentworth once again blew ragged holes in these beast men. Unkillable, unstoppable, they charged on. The girls in this story even wear the same coronet braids as the girls in Hordes of the Red Butcher. And did I complain? No. Not me. I read it with as much relish as its predecessor.
Then there was The Pain Master. Deep into the novel, the cast begins talking about a mysterious masked man whom the illustrations clearly depicted, but who hadn't been in the story until then. Undescribed scenes were clearly being referenced. It was then that I discovered another Spider secret: Page apparently wrote very long stories, but his editors thought nothing of chopping out whole scenes, if not characters and chapters. This was one of the butchered tales. Maybe they all were...
A lot of blood has rushed under the doorjamb since then. I suppose I've read about 40 Spiders, one after another, much the way some pop amphetamines. And I've a bunch still to go. If I was a pulp novel, I'd be entitled Slave of the Spider.
Do you think it's time I stop now? Can I stop? Is it even possible when you've been infected with Spider fever? Could I resist Slaves of the Crime Master, the last early 30s Spider I've not yet devoured? Can I continue ignoring The Spider and the Flame King, whose blurb has haunted me for over 30 years and which I've finally tracked down? Have cobwebs of confusion completely taken over my will and my resistence?
I say again: Stop me before I read another Spider!