(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.