Friday, September 02, 2011

Forgotten Books: Empire of Doom - Grant Stockbridge (Norvell Page)

(This post originally appeared in slightly different form on June 26, 2005.)

Back in 1969, I picked up a couple of paperbacks in a drugstore in Stephenville, Texas, while I was on the way to Brownwood with my parents. They were wrapped together in plastic, in a "buy one, get the other free" ploy. Their titles? THE SPIDER STRIKES and THE WHEEL OF DEATH. They were reprints of the first two stories from the long-running pulp series about the crimefighter known as The Spider.

By this time I'd been reading the paperback reprints of Doc Savage and The Shadow for quite a while and was fairly familiar with pulp magazines. I hadn't heard of The Spider, but the books looked interesting and exciting, so I didn't hesitate to buy them. I read and enjoyed both of them and would have bought more books in the series, but I didn't run across them. Paperback distribution was much more haphazard in those days, when there were still hundreds of independent book distributors. It was several years later before I came across used copies of the other two Spider novels Berkley published. By that time I had learned that the first two books, the ones I'd read, were somewhat atypical of the series. They were also the only ones written by R.T.M. Scott. The others were by somebody named Grant Stockbridge. I read those two later paperbacks and was hooked on the crazily plotted, sometimes illogical, but always fast-paced and exciting adventures of The Spider. Naturally, the reprint series came to an end after four books, and I couldn't afford to buy original Spider pulps. They were already highly sought after and out of my price range.

Over the years, a few more reprints trickled out from various publishers, some of them small presses, others mass market paperbacks. I bought them all. I even came across one Spider pulp in an antique store and gladly paid the five bucks someone wanted for it. Then, a few years ago, the Spider novels began to be reprinted as handsome trade paperbacks under a variety of imprints. I've bought and read quite a few of these, and today, after many years, I finally read the fifth novel in the series, the one that was promised as a Berkley reprint but never appeared: EMPIRE OF DOOM.

Grant Stockbridge was a house name, and the author responsible for most of the Spider novels -- and the reputation the series has today -- was Norvell Page. EMPIRE OF DOOM is Page's third Spider novel. As an early effort, the plot hangs together better than some -- it was later in the series before Page's plots got really goofy. In this one, a gang calling itself the Green Hand gets hold of a terrible flesh-eating gas and threatens to turn it loose on various cities unless huge ransoms are paid. This extortion on a gigantic scale is a well-used plot -- think about Ian Fleming's James Bond novel THUNDERBALL, for instance -- but Page was one of the first to come up with it. There are a few minor twists to the plot, but mostly this novel is one nerve-wracking adventure after another as Richard Wentworth, the dashing, wealthy playboy who is really The Spider, tries to foil the schemes of the Green Hand and uncover the identity of the gang's leader. Only once that I noticed did Page lose control and throw in some developments that make no sense. That's pretty good for him.

The real appeal of the Spider series is the amount of punishment -- physical, mental, and emotional -- that Page puts Richard Wentworth through. Some pulp fans insist that Wentworth is almost as psychotic as the villains he fights. How could he not be, after all the punishment he takes? The reader is dragged along through all these ordeals, and reading a Spider novel can be exhausting, if rewarding. Many fans have advised me not to read too many of them too close together. That's good advice, I think. I love 'em, but it's better to space them out a little.


Bill Crider said...

Remember those reprint editions in which The Spider was just called "Spider"? They had covers that made The Spider look young and hip and '70s. You're the one who warned me against them back all those years ago. I still bought a few of them, though.

Randy Johnson said...

I have this one in my Kindle TBR pile. Need to get to it.

I have those first four you mention and those abominations Bill mentions as well.

George said...

I've bought and read a few of the reprint omnibus editions. Like you said, you need to space reading The Spider novels out a bit. Very intense!

Charles Gramlich said...

I agree. I love these stories but one every few months is about the rate at which you should read them. The action is non stop though. Page really knew how to do that.

Tom Johnson said...

Thanks for the memories, James. I remember finding the R.T.M. Scott paperbacks in Hawaii while on R&R from Vietnam in 1970. It was buy one, get the second free, but the gal at the counter was confused and charged me for both of them. I eventually bought the complete run of the series, and tried to read the things in order! Impossible. The emotional drain of Page's writing left me worried about my own sanity (lol).

Todd Mason said...

Are they under copyright now? Will the whole series likely be in ebooks soon if not already?

Walker Martin said...

I have to admit that I have trouble reading most of the hero pulps. But THE SPIDER is the main exception and definitely my favorite title among the single character pulps.

I love the insane plots, the weird menace villains, the fast paced action, and the J. Fleming Gould interior illustrations for each novel, often 10 full page drawings. Girasol is reprinting the entire series, illustrations and all in a pulp sized reprint. The only thing missing is the great pulps scent and the crumbling pulp paper shreds.

Richard Moore said...

In Austin last weekend I picked up two Spider Berkley reprints: WINGS OF THE BLACK DEATH and CITY OF FLAMING SHADOWS which were numbered 3 and 4 in the series.

Never read a Spider novel but have been curious about them since reading a fanzine article years ago. I think it was Xenophile. It reprinted correspondence between a young woman who was a fan of the series and Norvell Page. It was fascinating and I wish I knew what box it resided in right now so I could reread it.

James Reasoner said...

I believe the whole series is still under copyright. I haven't heard anything about e-book versions, but it wouldn't surprise me if they show up someday.

I think you'll enjoy those books.

Keith said...

I've got a couple of the Baen reprints. Need to dig them out and read them.

AndyDecker said...

Were those Berkley reprints not "modernized" by editorial?

I love the Page Spider. The plots are so over the top and he put his hero through hell each time. But he was so ahead of his time. You just knew that Wentworth and his lady Nita van Sloan didn´t just held hands.

michael said...

Amazon has a half a dozen of so available as e-books for 99 cents each. Credited to Norvell Page, titles include "Satan's Death Past", "Serpent of Destruction", "Citadel of Death" and others. There are two versions of "Empire of Doom" (one by Norvell Page, the other by Grant Stockbridge). "The Spider Strikes" by R.T.M. Scott is also available.

Richard R. said...

I have the first 20 Spider Pulp Doubles published by Girasol. They aren't publishing the stories in the original order, instead choosing what are in their editorial opinion better stories in appealing pairs. I have read the first couple, spacing them out as suggested, and enjoyed them even if the plots are over-the-top. I've read Doc Savage, which I liked, but none of The Shadow.

James Reasoner said...

To the best of my memory, the four Spider novels reprinted by Berkley weren't modernized. If they were, the changes were very minor. I think they were reprinted straight from the pulps. The four from Pocket Books were the infamous rewritten ones (which I just edited in my head back to what was likely their original form as I was reading them).

beb said...

The Girasol Spider doubles at $14.95 for two novels is a great bargain. Girasol also reprints the entire magazine as a replica for $35. They reprint one a month starting with the first and are up to around #50 already.

As for eBook versions... I'm sure Joel Friedman would approve of them if he can find someone willing to do the work.

Anonymous said...

Great blog post. I enjoyed it. Thanks. This morning I tweeted it. Sorry I didn't to comment until now.

Ed Lynskey

Creature said...

About a month ago I picked a Baen Trade with three stories about "The Spider." The book came out with the title; "Robot Titans Of Gotham," and included the stories; "Satan's Murder Machines," "Death Reign of the Vampire King," and "The Octopus."
I haven't read it yet but I did read the foreword and even it was exciting.
Thanx for a Great post.
Have a Great Day!!!
The "Creature"