Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Almost The Spider: CITY OF CORPSES by Norvell Page

I expected this collection from Black Dog Books to be good - I’ve yet to meet a Norvell Page story I didn’t like - but I didn’t expect these stories to be so Spider-like. Norvell Page, you see, was the chief driving force behind the pulp hero The Spider, penning over 80 Spider adventures between 1933 and 1943. 

Most of the stories in City of Corpses were written before Page took on his Spider duties, and offer a tantalizing glimpse of what’s to come. That’s what makes this book so interesting. While these stories are great reads on their own, they’re also fascinating on another level, as we see Page developing themes, props and character traits he would put to good use over the next eleven years.

It might even be fair to call Ken Carter, the hero of these stories, a sort of proto-Spider.

All but one of the stories in this collection appeared in Ten Detective Aces in 1933.  And all exhibit that Norvell Page trademark - frantic action from start to finish.

In the first tale, “Hell’s Music”, Carter is a relatively normal lone-wolf private detective. The only thing that makes him unusual is his background - he was once a  juggler in vaudeville. His case, though, is anything but normal. Passengers aboard an ocean liner hear an unearthly music and promptly fall dead.

In the second story, “City of Corpses”, Ken Carter faces the Blue Death. People on the streets of New York keel over with no apparent cause and turn a livid blue as they die. In this story we learn Carter has other operatives working for him, and that his vaudeville experience included work on the high wire.

In “Statues of Horror” innocent victims are being turned to stone. Ken Carter now has a corp of assistants at his command, plus a private plane - a low red-winged Lockheed Orion -  stocked with weapons for every emergency.

“Gallows Ghost” presents Carter in full almost-Spider mode. He now has a Daimler sedan (just like the Spider’s alter-ego Richard Wentworth) and a chauffeur. This time it’s the governor who needs Carter’s help, as dead people in noosed parachutes are floating down from the sky. In this one we meet seven of Carter’s operatives (“as queer a group as ever-assembled under one leadership”) likely inspired by the aides of Doc Savage.

And things just get stranger. “The Devil’s Hoof” finds Carter in New Orleans, where crushed bodies bear the imprint of an enormous hoof. Carter reveals yet another old vaudeville skill - knife-throwing.

There are still two more stories, as weird and thrill-packed as the others, but you get the idea. At this point, Ken Carter is operating very much like Richard Wentworth. In fact, if someone wanted to play L. Sprague de Camp to Page’s REH, he could expand these stories into full-blown Spider novels.

As a bonus, the book ends with an essay from the 1935 Writer’s Year Book called “How I Write.” This, too, is great stuff. Using one of his own stories as an example, Page walks us through his process, everything from getting and developing the idea to the painstaking revisions and final product. Page, we learn, was not one of those legendary fictioneers who mailed his stories off as fast as he could type them. He often wrote many thousands of unused words in search of just the right opening scene, and this attention to craft shows in his work. It’s a fascinating article, and a rare look inside his mind - much like the story collection itself.

For anyone interested in the Spider, or just thrill-a-minute pulp fiction, I recommend City of Corpses most highly. 

City of Corpses is available direct from Black Dog Books. Click HERE to buy. And check out the rest of their new website, where you'll find info on books by Lester Dent, Cornwell Woolrich, Robert Leslie Bellem, Roger Torrey, H. Bedford-Jones, Talbot Mundy, Harold Lamb and Murray Leinster.

And there are more Norvell Page books on the way. Did you see “Death Plays Knock-Knock”, the Page story I posted yesterday? It featured a hero named Bill Carter. Well, I’ve just learned that Black Dog publisher Tom Roberts is now assembling a collection of the first ten Bill Carter adventures from Spicy Detective, and will follow up with a second collection of ten more. If those books are as good as City of Corpses, I’m going to be a very happy Page fan.


Steve Lee said...

Thanks, Evan! I'm a longtime Spider fan, but was not aware of this book. I need it immediately.

Richard R. said...

Fine post. Your summaries make me want to pick up the book and read it RIGHT NOW, something I can't do as I've not the book at hand. So I'll order it, and probably another from Black Dog as well.

Question: I have seen some collections of the Spider stories, is there one nice fat one available, or must one buy several 2 or 3 story trade paper collections from Vintage House, or? What's the best way to go?

Evan Lewis said...

Jeez, what a tough question. There are so many Spider reprints in so many different formats. Baen Books has done three nice trade pbs recently, and they even have Page's name on them (most just have the house name "Grant Stockbridge" on the cover). Each Baen book has three novels, and at least the first two have new Steranko covers. I found the first, titled Robot Titans of Gotham remaindered at Barnes and Noble last month for about 5 bucks.

Richard R. said...

Thanks, Evan. It's a start.

Deka Black said...

I'm so jealous of you, Evan... You live in the land what give birth to pulp, and have near you the sale points of these works.

Me, here in Europe, well, Amazon, trans-ocean mail... But the feeling of just walk in a bookstore and purchase in person these works...

Anyway, thanks again for this blog and all your work.

Evan Lewis said...

Actually, Deka, this stuff is almost never found in stores. I bought most of my pulps 20 or more years ago, and even then they were rarely encountered in person. Since there was no Internet, I had to send out want lists to dealers and search through catalogs, then order the magazines by mail. Collecting seems much easier (though more expensive) today.

Deka Black said...

I see. i was thinking, well, pulp is a very important part of popular culture. And my idea was a certain amount of respect.

Ramblin Liz said...


I'm Norvell's Great-Niece and love this/your blog too! Thanks so much for writing it.

I've started a new blog for Norvell here I hope you'll check it out.

The Spider Tweets too -