By Will Murray
Let’s be honest. If Street & Smith had not launched The Shadow in 1931, Popular Publications would never have followed suit with The Spider.
The Shadow was a sleeper in the pulp field. Coming in just as the Depression exerted its chilling grip on the traditional flock of detective and Western magazines, The Shadow’s stock kept rising as other genres simply sank. By spring 1932, the Bloody Pulps were awash in a different kind of red fluid—ink. That autumn, S&S reluctantly cut the weekly Detective Story Magazine back to a semi-monthly, while The Shadow went twice-a-month.
The minute the industry saw that, competitors began scrambling to cash in on the only positive pulp trend anyone know—mysterious crime avengers.
Beyond that mercenary impulse, the origins of The Spider are clogged with cobwebs. He burst forth in the September, 1933 issue, with R.T.M. Scott’s The Spider Strikes! A marvel-sleuth of the traditional millionaire-clubman-and-sportsman turned criminologist school, Richard Wentworth, alias the Spider, was nothing new. Even his Sikh aide, Ram Singh, was unoriginal. For Wentworth and Ram Singh and the obligatory girlfriend, Nita Van Sloan, were hardly more than cold recastings of Scott’s Secret Service agent Aurelius Smith, Hindu aide Langa Doonh and girlfriend Bernice Asterly.
There’s probably a wonderful story behind a hardcover novelist agreeing to turn pulpster. Even the loose jigsaw pieces are fascinating. There were two R.T.M. Scotts, father and son. The son worked for Popular Publications, and wrote pulp. Father and son were heavily into the occult. It’s not clear which Scott penned The Spider.
I’ll float a theory: R.T.M. Scott Senior had an Aurelius Smith novel kicking around loose, orphaned by Depression-wary publishers. Scott II mentions this to Popular’s publisher, Harry Steeger, who claims a spider walking along a tennis court inspired the character’s name, and a deal is struck. Aurelius Smith becomes Richard Wentworth. Very little magic is required. The Spider is simply an alias, nor a distinct person, known for a trick cigarette lighter that leaves his spidery scarlet seal on the foreheads of dead criminals.
The second novel, The Wheel of Death, is much weaker than the first. Could be Scott found the monthly deadlines not conductive to doing good work. Perhaps the son took over. Or they collaborated. Anyway, suddenly R.T.M. Scott bows out.
Enter new writer Grant Stockbridge—a naked attempt to evoke the Shadow byline Maxwell Grant. In reality, this house name concealed Norvell Wordsworth Page, formerly of Virginia.
A rising star in the pulp world, Page broke into the field writing Westerns as N. Wooten Poge, shifted to action detective stuff under his own name and had just started a significant series for topshelf pulp, Black Mask.
Page had a dream: to become the next Edgar Allan Poe. Page shared Poe’s Southern roots and interest in the bizarre. He dabbled in the Tarot, was fascinated by the Holy Grail legend, and developed an interest in spirit communication—and like Poe, he got his career start via newspaper journalism.
Page once recounted his days as a reporter, writing:
“I don’t know why it is, but men who aspire to write the Great American novel always become newspapermen. I did, too, and for the last twelve years have been sliding about the country doing one dirty job after another. I didn’t know, when I was patting corpses familiarly on the shoulder in the morgues, that it was all going to come in mighty handy some day. In fact, when I began to write fiction finally, I chose the one part of these United States I knew absolutely nothing about: the West. I wrote Western stories and, what’s worse, sold ‘em!
“One day the editor who purchased them looked at me sourly and said, ‘Why don’t you write about something you know…like gangsters.’ Well, he paid for that remark—for I’ve been writing detective stories ever since. Amazing how many midnight murders can chill your blood after a lapse of many years when at the time they happened it was ‘just another stiff.’ And we newspaper men grumbled about leaving our cans of coffee in the press room and pushing out into the night. We thought that was work. I could get wistful about newspaper work and I would swear that when I sidle into a police-headquarters press room and whisper ‘I’m an old newspaper man myself,’ my voice is positively mournful.”
Page jumped in with Wings of the Black Death, and the true Shadowization of The Spider commenced. A proponent of the Black Mask school of hardboiled writing, he also dragged in elements of a new subgenre Popular pioneered when they converted the dragging Dime Mystery Book Magazine into a horror title. Page had written the grisly lead story of the retooled Dime Mystery, “Dance of the Skeletons,” just months before. This sale probably won him the Spider contract.
In short order, Norvell’s Page’s Spider metamorphosed into a high-strung emotionally-charged human-arachnid-turned-predator who saw himself as a crusader with a holy mission: the extermination of criminals.
And what criminals! Where The Shadow was a cold-blooded crimebuster who operated in the shadows, The Spider blazed a bloody swath through a mad procession of psychopathic killers hell-bent on mindless plunder and destruction.
Issue by issue The Spider mutated as a personality. He took to donning black slouch hat and cloak in imitation of The Shadow. He wore a spider ring. He packed twin automatics. He laughed vengefully as he slew. Sometimes he augmented this ebony ensemble with a fright wig and vampire teeth, suggestive of a hairy fanged spider in human form.
“His deft fingers flew swiftly about their familiar task,” Page wrote. “Under their touch, a lotion tautened his skin so that it shone across the cheekbones and became darkly sallow. Circles now appeared under his eyes, and his lips vanished, leaving his mouth a sinister, knife-thin line. That was all, except a reconstruction of the nose so that it became a hooked predatory beak, crowned by harsh, shaggy eyebrows, all topped by a lank, long wig, while the face that stared back at Wentworth bore no resemblance at all to the debonair countenance of Richard Wentworth, clubman, dilettante of the arts, and amateur criminologist. This was a face from whose glare the criminal guiltily shrank as from a death ray! This was the face of the Spider!’”
He was The Shadow for grownups.
Another person also played an important part in the eerie evolution of The Spider. Rogers Terrill, the magazine’s first editor, and originator of an approach he called “emotional urgency.” To Terrill, the plot could run off the rails, the characters could descend into irrationality—just so long as the story was told in white-heat prose that grabbed the pulp reader by the throat and never let go.
Terrill believed in keying up the action to an unbelievable degree. It was not enough, he liked to say, to impel the hero into a race against time to save a subway full of innocents about to be slaughtered by blood-simple madmen. He had to face a soul-testing choice: save the precious innocents or rescue his about-to-be-tortured one true love, who was in equal and simultaneous danger. That impossible choice spelled drama to Rogers Terrill.
He described it to his writers in typically intense terms:
“Primarily there must be real emotion in our stories; in addition to the physical conflict, they should have emotional drama. A story, for example, on which conflicting forces are at work, in which the hero has strongly conflicting desires, where he must make a choice that will reflect his true character, his most vital interests and desires require one course of action, but a debt of honor demands sacrifice of his own free will. And while he is sorely tempted to protect his own interests, his better nature triumphs.”
Over the years Spider titles went from the relatively sedate City of Flaming Shadows to high-pitched fever dreams like Hordes of the Red Butcher and King of the Fleshless Legion.Wentworth battled the depraved, the insane, the wanton. Forerunners of the supervillains of today, they included the obligatory Tarantula and the Fly, the Wreck, who delighted in turning his victims into broken cripples, the Iron Man, who controlled a rampaging platoon of slaughter-bent robots, and the Living Pharaoh, whom Page introduced in a multi-book sequence he abandoned as mysteriously as R.T.M. Scott had walked away from his crimecrushing creation.
Page’s yearlong absence is as unfathomable as the puzzle of the two R.T. M. Scotts. Editors agreed that the longer he penned the Spider, the more spiderlike Page became. He took to wearing floppy slouch hats, black velvet pants and carrying a brace of matched .45 automatics as if he were coming to identify with Richard Wentworth a little too closely. Page also started talking about the Spider cast like they were familiar friends instead of the fictional creations they really were.
Page’s friend, Shadow author Theodore Tinsley, recalled him vividly:
“Yes, Norvell’s personality was not ‘subdued’ in the manner of a young blondish bank clerk. He did like to wear a Spider ring. He did like to wear a cape. He did like a slouch hat. And he did wear a beard, a black scrubby one. At times his flamboyant cape suggested he might be a Bolshevik. With a small bomb concealed for socially corrective action. Actually he was a nice guy, with a yen toward theatric, who simmered down considerably after he took his talents (they were many) to Uncle Sam during and after WW2.”
Maybe it was burnout. Perhaps a breakdown from overwork. Possibly Page asked for a raise and was replaced by a younger, cheaper pulpster. Whatever, Emile C. Tepperman took over for most of 1937. When Page returned, he alternated with Wayne Rogers, who under the name Archibald Bittner, had once been a pulp editor—until Bittner allegedly absconded to Florida with a Munsey secretary and some loose cash.
It took a few years, but eventually Norvell Page reasserted his dominance over his spidery cast and crew. As the 1930s shaded into the ‘40s, the novels cooled somewhat. Reader tastes were shifting, and the old “bang-bang” wild action was growing dated. Page retooled as best he could and branched out to writing classic fantasy novels for Unknown that are still remembered today.
Occasionally he moonlighted by ghosting a Phantom Detective novel like Death Glow, or the odd spiderized Black Bat tale. He revived N. Wooten Poge for the salacious Spicy Detective Stories. Whenever Popular Publications launched an important new title like Detective Tales or Strange Detective Mysteries, they tapped Page to help kick off the first issue.
More and more, religious symbolism and mysticism crept into his writing. Richard Wentworth grew more messianic. He had always possessed a strong streak of it, but now it was out in the open, like a case of stigmata. This climaxed in the 100th novel, Death and the Spider, where aided by a Tibetan monk, a bullet-riddled Spider struggled back from the near-dead to rescue the nation on Christmas Eve. On a later occasion, the Master of Men battled to the death the villain of Zara—Master of Murder on a rooftop Manhattan statue of Jesus Christ, called simply the Redeemer of Men.
Another writer would have set his climax on the Statue of Liberty and let it go at that. Not Norvell Page. He invented over-the-top melodrama.
The Spider began winding down in 1943. Ten years is a long time in the pulp game. Everything had changed. The Depression was a fading ache. The nation faced another World War. Paper shortages were pounding the pulps. When new editor Robert Turner came in, he rewrote Page’s pulpy purple prose into the naturalistic style then in fashion. Page may or may not have cared. His first wife died of tetanus after stepping on a rusty nail that October. It was an end as horrible as anything a Spider villain ever inflicted on a suffering victim. Page fled The Spider, and forever abandoned the familiar pulp jungle of Manhattan for a government position in Washington, writing for the Office of War Information. He never returned to Black Mask, where he was starting to make a major name for himself, never became the next Edgar Allan Poe—and never looked back. He is remembered today as the soul of the Spider.
Near the end of his Spider career, Norvell Page wrote one fan: “Think of me as Wentworth, if you will. The line between us is not too distinct....”
Perhaps that might be his epitaph.
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