A Brain, A Spider, and the Killer Bs

1. A brain more than 2000 years old has been discovered in a muddy pit. On examination it doesn’t appear to be mine, though, so I guess I’ll have to keep looking. (I know I left it around here somewhere.)

2. Ryan Harvey has posted a couple reviews of the new(ish) Spider collections from Baen at the Blog Gate (here and here). I was just reading the first volume over the weekend and now that my ears have stopped ringing I have to raise my virtual voice in tribute to the Spider. Up to now I’d just thought of Norvell Page as the author of Flame Winds which seemed to me (when I first and last read it decades ago) as just a bombastic ripoff of Harold Lamb’s Genghis Khan: Emperor of All Men.

But the Spider, despite some resemblances to other hero pulps like the iconic The Shadow, is really like nothing else I’ve ever read. The story, as Ryan fairly says, makes no fricking sense. Someone who could pull off the technological and industrial feats involved in creating a crew of gigantic killer robots would not use them for the strangely trivial ends that the villain does in “Satan’s Murder Machines.” The preposterous motive is there only to create a semblance of a mystery where the villain can be unmasked in the final scene, as in countless episodes of Scooby-Doo. The plot is an almost randomly selected string which serves to connect a set of bizarre action scenes where the Spider rams his car (or some other large vehicle) into a killer robot, or, armed only with a knife, he dives into the East River to combat one of the robots, or some of the equally crazy stuff his reckless sweetheart, Nita van Sloan, engages in.

This is pulp at its pulpiest, somewhat past the point of ripeness. Every fourth or fifth sentence ends in an exclamation point–often for no clearly defined reason! But Page is actually a pretty good writer and his evocations of the horrors wrought by the killer robots are genuinely disturbing. Plus, his broadly drawn characters are quite likable. After Nita rescues the Spider (by firing into a group of policemen–injuring no one but disabling their vehicle–and then sweeping her true love away from the scene on the running board of her coupe), the hero has her stop the car so he can give her a kiss. Doc Savage or The Shadow wouldn’t be caught dead doing something like that. (Maybe the radio The Shadow would; he was a bit more suave than his pulpish avatar.) The Spider‘s conflicted relationship with Police Commissioner Kirkpatrick (enemy of the Spider, but friend to the Spider‘s daylight persona, Richard Wentworth) plays out in interesting ways, not all of them involving explosions or gunfire.

Was good. I liked it.

I was not so crazy about the volume’s “foreword”, a fictionalized fragment about Norvell Page which assumes background for him and the Spider rather than providing much. I’d have preferred something less inventive and more informative–even a dramatis personae of regular characters for the series might have been handy.

3. On the political front, I can’t decide which is funnier: Bush having shoes thrown at him or Blagojevich’s comically inept corruption. Each, of course, is a smile painted on a dead clown: the reverberations from Bush’s bloody disasters will be with us for the rest of our lives, and Blago’s epic blundering is just one example of the damage that can be done by power wielded without thought for consequences, something we’re seeing a lot of these days (a point Frank Rich makes pretty well this week, so I won’t dwell on it). But let’s laugh while we can: the next show might not be as funny.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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15 Responses to A Brain, A Spider, and the Killer Bs

  1. shsilver says:

    If you’re looking for political humor, there is also the so far underreported fact that two lawsuits for corruption, leading to an FBI investigation, have now been attached to MN Senator Norm Coleman on the eve of him possibly being declared the winner in the Minnesota Senatorial race with Al Franken.

  2. jordan179 says:

    … the reverberations from Bush’s bloody disasters will be with us for the rest of our lives.

    Since when does winning wars with very light losses count as “bloody disasters?” If Iraq was a “bloody disaster,” what was the battle of Okinawa?

    • JE says:

      Bush himself says the Iraq war is not over, so you’re a little premature there, and the news this year from Afghanistan has been less than promising. If you think the Iraq war has not involved enormous bloodshed, you’re in error. If you think that war has improved our strategic or even our tactical situation, I think our minds will never meet on this matter. If you want a sense of the difference between WWII and Gulf War II, you might compare contemporary attitudes toward the presidents who led their nations into those wars.

      And foreign policy is only one zone where Bush’s presidency can fairly be described as a bloody failure. (Consider the disastrous consequences of repoliticizing FEMA.)

      • jordan179 says:

        If you think the Iraq war has not involved enormous bloodshed, you’re in error.

        I said I thought that the Iraq war has involved “very light losses.” Toppling a hostile regime and putting down three insurgencies at the cost of only a few thousand KIA is “very light losses” by any normal historical standards. The “enormous bloodshed” has been suffered by other countries, and to the extent that it has been inflicted on the enemy counts as a success, not a failure.

        • JE says:

          I was the one who called the Iraq war one of Bush’s bloody disasters; you were the one quibbling about that. I take it we’ve established the bloodiness and we’re merely measuring the disastrousness. I don’t propose to change your mind about that; I’m aware that nothing could.

          “The ‘enormous bloodshed’ has been suffered by other countries, and to the extent that it has been inflicted on the enemy counts as a success, not a failure.”

          A lasting strategic victory may or may not be bloody, but its success is not measured in buckets of blood.

          [edited for clarity (and grammar)]

  3. Anonymous says:

    Since I gotta crawl into that attic and muck about in insulation anyway, I can look for your brain while I’m up there. Does it bite? What name does it answer to? Does it have one of those postage-prepaid tags?

    –Jeff Stehman

    • JE says:

      It calls itself “Mentor of Arisia” (but I think it’s bluffing).

      Good luck with (or in) your insulation.

      • Anonymous says:

        I went through all I could reach and poked at the rest with a long sharp stick. Sorry, no luck.

        Regarding the shoe throwing, I thought Bush handled it well. Nice moves, and a good assessment of the threat level. (Is that a newly acquired skill?)

        –Jeff Stehman

        • JE says:

          “I went through all I could reach and poked at the rest with a long sharp stick. Sorry, no luck.”

          I think the Hubble recently spotted it orbiting an exoplanet. So I might have to travel a little over the holidays.

          “Regarding the shoe throwing, I thought Bush handled it well.”

          True enough. He’s kept in shape in the last eight years (which is more than I can say).

  4. peadarog says:

    It’s not much of a brain if it couldn’t find its way out of a mud pit… Or then again, maybe it just did.

    • JE says:

      Well, who knows? A mud pit might be a good place for a disembodied brain. No distractions, a chance to get a millennium or two of thinking in.

  5. davidcapeguy says:

    If you really want to try the Spider at his loopiest — and I mean that with all due affection — try to dig up a Dimedia 1980s paperback reprint of “Satan’s Death Blast.” A villain in a bulletproof Lucifer costume is blowing up everything in sight with a remarkably potent explosive made from a new species of electric eel. (A NY state senator is blown to atoms with an exploding cigar, leaving a 30-foot crater behind.) That’s the “normal” part of the story. Wentworth takes a head injury early on and goes into the most massive bout of paranoia you ever heard of. Everyone is against him, everyone is conspiring against him, including and especially his chauffeur Jackson, his manservant Ram Singh, and his beloved Nita. Oh…and his leg is also going gangrenous from an untreated bullet wound. Great fun!

    I’m a Spider fan for about 20 years now. I used to have nearly 70 of the original pulps and having to sell those things was heartbreaking. I’d rate him right behind Doc and The Shadow for good pulp fun.

    • davidcapeguy says:


      Forgot to mention: Norvell Page wrote his Spider stories by writing & rewriting the first chapter until he had it exactly as he wanted it and everything after that was purely first draft. And that was as the editors at Popular Publications wanted it, if I remember correctly — fast & furious and to hell with the real world. (For instance: a character in Satan’s Death Blast leaves a room in Albany to drive to New York City, and telephones from Manhattan ten minutes later.)

      Page also wrote a pretty good science fiction novel called “But Without Horns” about a mutant very reminiscent of Asimov’s “The Mule” trying to take over America. I think it originally appeared in Unknown, and was later reprinted in a three- or five-novel omnibus volume in the 1950s. It’s not bad.

      • JE says:

        Re: addenda…

        It must have been tough to sell them. Necessity is the mother of regret, or so I often find.

        Thanks for the tip on the Spider story and “But Without Horns.” Sounds interesting.

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