The Spider: America’s Prophetic Epic of Terrorism
By Stuart Hopen
“ A clammy fungus of a moon had fastened itself upon the horizon and swelled there, feeding.”
Between December of 1933 and October of 1936, a strange series of thirty-five novels were published as pulp magazines. In their time, they were widely read, selling millions of copies. Over the succeeding decades, they have become almost entirely forgotten. Printed on the cheapest of paper, the original pulp magazines have all but turned to dust. When read with a contemporary perspective, however, these obscure dreamlike books ring with what appear in retrospect to be eerie prophecies, forming a mythology for wars based upon terrorism. They are an Iliad for the Twenty First Century.
The books feature a hero known as The Spider. In his first two appearances, he seemed cut from a standard template. Secretly Richard Wentworth, millionaire clubman, sportsman, dilettante of the arts, the Spider hunted run-of-the-mill criminals as ordinary sport. Like an artist signing a canvas, he proudly took credit for each of his kills, marking his victims with a vermilion spider tattoo, generally on the forehead above a bullet hole between the eyes. But starting with the third issue, which flowed from the pen of a gifted and visionary new writer named Norvell W. Page, the Spider took on a wildly imaginative sensibility at once absurd yet terrifying, apocalyptic yet heroic. Critic Robert Sampson would later call the Spider “one of the more curious heritages of American letters.”
Thousands of people, sometimes tens of thousands, died in the course of a typical Spider adventure. Death would strike in the form of swarming poisonous vampire bats, or marauding legions of Neanderthals, or flocks of pigeons infected with bubonic plague, or compounds that turned steel as brittle as glass. In one book, a multitude marches to suicide like lemmings, influenced by a pagan god and an ancient drug. In another, a toxin causes its victims to break into epileptic dances while a salt dissolves their flesh; the two agents combine to create a choreography of seizure and dissolution. In yet another, the nation’s tobacco has been poisoned, and those who smoke cough themselves to death. The Spider tries to warn about the dangers of smoking, but no one will believe him. The Spider’s enemies, these perpetrators of vast calamities have vaguely stated, often irrational reasons for unleashing their bizarre weapons of mass destruction, but whatever motive they profess, the reality is clear: they are terrorists.
In response to the monstrosity of the Spider’s new species of enemy, Page brought a new brutality to the Spider. There is an illustrative sequence in King of the Red Killers.
The villain offers to pay for the Spider’s head with its weight in gold. Wentworth responds by lopping the head off the first wrongdoer who has the misfortune to cross his path. He then applies his Spider disguise to the severed head, and delivers it with a bomb tucked into the brainpan.
“Crooks who found The Spider often lived–briefly– to regret it.”
Wentworth, in short, was as suave and sophisticated as James Bond, yet as savage as Conan the Barbarian.
See how Page revels in his own preposterousness without surrendering a bit of menace as he describes the Spider’s battle disguise in The Citadel of Hell :
“Just a cheap show-off!” the man with the rasping voice jeered again. “Those teeth are a little absurd. What are they, celluloid?”
Wentworth formed a laugh low in his throat. It was at once guttural and sibilant. It was not loud, yet it penetrated to the farthest point of the room. He enunciated slowly and the words fairly hissed from his unmoving lips.
“They are,” he said, “the fangs of the Spider!”
The two men in black shrank back still farther. Wentworth thrust forward his head. The white, unshaded light from the ceiling made his sallow skin glisten, threw the beak-like nose into sharp relief. In the shadow of his hat’s brim, his eyes seemed to burn and those teeth, those white fang-like teeth . . . Wentworth bared them with a thin-lipped, evil grin. The gun leveled shakily, the finger tightened…
With another shrill laugh, Wentworth darted forward. His hand brushed the light switch, and the scene blacked out like magic…
The man’s scream, high and wavering, tore out. “God! He bit me!”
From Citadel of Hell (March 1934 issue of the Spider)
It is difficult to describe the allure of the Spider novels. Page was writing at a pace of over a million words a year, not all of which went into the Spider. This invariably led to plot holes, inconsistent character histories, and scenes that repeat themselves like fragments of a recurring dream. But somehow, these flaws don’t detract from the reading experience. Is it possible to over-praise a masterpiece of hyperbole? This is literature played at full volume, improvised like hot jazz, and as grandiose as opera.
Page conjures prose so past purple that it can make your teeth glow in the dark. A violent poetry of devastation rips through the pages, as in this passage from The Flame Master (featuring villain Aronk Dong, the lion man from Mars who has the power to control lightning):
Rain was pouring down in cascades, but a shimmer of blue-white fire still played over the apartment building. From its roof downward for half of its fifteen-story height, a great gaping crack had been rent in the bricks.… the crack widened, the wall swayed outward. A few separate bricks became detached and whipped away. Then, with an appalling lack of sound, the entire wall crumpled. It smashed downward, disintegrating, shredding fragments and dust, like a violently hurled shovelful of ashes. The mass of debris struck—half upon a terraced projection five stories above the street and half in the street itself. Then came the sound of the destruction, a rumbling echo of that fearful crash of thunder. It beat upon the deadened ears.
He also uses the darkest of humor to spike his brew of disaster and turmoil. Consider this scene from Masters of the Death Madness:
Had the world gone mad? The Spider shook his head savagely to clear it, rubbed a heavy hand across his forehead. Before this, he had witnessed mad scenes—criminals out of their minds and killing like Seljuk Turks on a jihad; men writhing to death by a thousand foul means—but this utterly wild self-destruction!
That middle-aged woman was still struggling to mount the rail. He dashed toward her and she spun on him like a cornered cat, spitting curses in an ancient voice, striking furiously with her rubber tipped cane. A lurch of the ship threw her off balance and she pitched down, clutched frantically at the rail and struck her head. Well, she was safe…!
With set lips, The Spider sprang to the rail, automatic in hand. “I’ll shoot the next man or woman who tries to commit suicide!” he shouted.
An equally sardonic exchange appears in Satan’s Sightless Legions:
A man sauntered from the darkness—a man in the crumbled clothes of a mendicant, whose eyes were shielded by the black glasses of a blind man, who tapped before with a can as he advance. He was chuckling under his breath, as though he laughed to himself at some private joke. His cane twitched the automatics from beneath Wentworth’s helpless hands, then he had poised the ferrule just above Wentworth’s neck.
“How do you wish to be punished, my friend?” the man asked gently. “My cane can bring you the death of hemlock which will paralyze your body and leave your brain alive for awhile, or I can throw you into quivering convulsions which will last throughout your lifetime. Or.”—he bent close—“I can merely blind you.”
The cane touched Wentworth’s neck.
“Which would you prefer?”
Abruptly, and for reasons lost to history, Page quit the series after the October 1936 issue. Other writers took over, all sharing Page’s house pseudonym, Grant Stockbridge. Page would later return, but none of the other writers, not even Page himself, ever regained the magic of Page’s first thirty-five issues. The issues that followed are like the passages of Kubla Khan written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge after the person from Porlock interrupted his opium delirium—none of the basic elements have changed, but there is an indefinable quality that is missing. Richard Wentworth, like Sherlock Holmes after he returned from his fall off the cliff, may have survived, but he wasn’t quite the same.
Until recently, reprints of the Spider novels have been few and hard to come by, but these days the Spider can be found skulking in a variety of formats. The web-site vintagelibrary.com offers some Spider titles as PDF files—very affordable, and an inexpensive way to get many of the very best Spider novels. There are also paperback reprints of several novels from presses such as Carroll & Graf, Baen and Wildside currently in print. There is also The Spider vs. the Empire State, from Age of Aces Books. Finally, there are replica versions from Girasol Press at three hundred times the original cost of a pulp magazine; pricy but beautiful, these replicas look almost exactly like their original counterparts, as if plucked off a newsstand on 5th Avenue and shipped through time. Their authenticity extends down to occasional smudges of ink to crooked lines of typeset that warp and blur.
Expensive as they are, the replicas provide what seemed to me the best reading experience one could have for the Spider these days, given the way originals crumble at the touch. The painted covers, the interior pen and ink and scratchboard illustrations, and even the printing errors are as much a part of the reading of the Spider as are the plot holes, the inconsistent histories, the improbabilities of the plots and the deus ex machina resolutions. The replicas don’t have the wonderful smell of antique carpentry that the originals have, but all the old ads are preserved: self-improvement books for a quarter, jewelry for a dollar, cures for ruptures and piles, and cigarettes strutting in their former innocence. This format gives the novels their temporal context, a reminder of where they came from and what has happened since in the world.
On that subject there is also much relevance to be found in Page’s stories. The poisoned products found in The Red Death Rain and The Pain Emperor call to mind the Tylenol killings of the summer of 1982, and the hundreds of poisoned products cases that followed. Bio-terrorism plays large in the Spider mythos, with bubonic plague in Wings of the Black Death, rabies in The Mad Horde, and cholera in The Cholera King foreshadowing the Anthrax scare of 2001. The same could be said of the terror gases from Kingdom of Doom and Green Globes of Death and the nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subways in March of 1995. Masters of the Death Madness unfolds as a nightmare meditation upon suicide, which has become one of the principal weapons of modern terrorists. One scene involves suicide bombers. Another scene chillingly presages the Jonestown massacre of 1978: a grand procession lines up to drink from a bowl of poisoned wine while surrounding gunmen pick off anyone who refuses to drink.
Written with an eye to the horrors festering in Germany at the time, The Mayor of Hell now reads as an infernal vision of the Homeland Security Act. When Wentworth’s penthouse is attacked by machine gunners, the only weapon he can bring to hand is his priceless Stradivarius violin, which he hurls at his attackers. His apartment burns, and he is pumped full of bullets. Finding refuge in the home of a small-time crook, he passes out from loss of blood. When he regains consciousness six weeks later, a crime boss called the Mayor of Hell is running the city as a military dictatorship. Wentworth has lost everything: he is bankrupt, his loyal servants are in prison, and his fiancée lies comatose with grave wounds. Even the Spider is dead, at least according to the press, so Wentworth assumes a new identity to fight the Mayor of Hell—”Corporal Death,” literally death of the body. It is as if Wentworth did not survive the machine gun attack and finds himself in an actual Hell, where the cops are all crooked. Mounting a rebellion against the regime, he becomes an inversion of his former self—a terrorist in fact—and allies himself with the underworld. He still marks his victims, though. Abandoning the vermilion spider seal, he cuts his fallen enemies with the mark of Corporal Death: a cross. The novel resonates with political and mystic implications.
The modern reader will recognize the psychological and sociological effects of a citizenry living under the threat of terrorism, so chillingly evoked by Page: the grating loss of safety, the imminent threats lurking in familiar objects, the way security can no longer be taken for granted, the kind of skittishness that empties a building at the first sign of an unknown white powder. As Wings of the Black Death puts it:
Newspaper headlines flung the ghastly news at their readers in letters two inches high. Whenever people gathered in frightened groups on street corners and public squares, they repeated over and over those grim words. They were shouted above the clatter and roar of the subways, whispered in awed tones over the supper table. Mothers glanced with worried faces over their children: and men went about their work with drawn lips and haggard eyes.
One telling sequence from Masters of the Death Madness epitomizes the conundrum of waging a war against terrorists, against an enemy who wears no uniform, and blends into the anonymous throng. Grappling with the question of how to deal with a mysterious agency that has suddenly caused mass suicides:
Wentworth dropped his head into his hands, squeezed the temples between his palms. He was being ridiculous. He could not go around killing all the suspects in the hope he might get the right one. Perhaps no one was guilty…
The eeriest of all the modern terrorist parallels appears in a novel called The City Destroyer, originally published in 1936. It features a set piece involving the collapse of a fictitious gigantic building, supposedly the tallest in New York City, called “The Sky Building.” When it fell, it wiped out five city blocks and claimed 1,000 lives. And perhaps it’s worth noting a further parallel that occurred in the 1970’s, when Pocket Books tried to revive the Spider; they repackaged him in a paperback series, striving for an image of what was then cool and thrusting Richard Wentworth into a contemporary setting. They replaced his cape and mask on the cover with a blond wig and a turtleneck. They re-christened the character “Spider,” as if the vigilante wreaked his terrible vengeance under a hip nickname. When Pocket Books reprinted and updated The City Destroyer in 1975, the collapse of the Sky Building was replaced with the collapse of the World Trade Center.
Original publication in Rain Taxi Review of Books, VOL. 13 NO. 1, SPRING 2008