An Ongoing Exploration into the Many Worlds of Early 20th-Century Escapist Literature

An Ongoing Exploration into the Many Worlds of Early 20th-Century Escapist Literature -- Crime and Adventure, Fantasy and Science-Fiction, Horror and Weird

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"The Wings of Kali" -- Grant Stockbridge (THE SPIDER, May 1942)

If there's one enduring legacy of the pulps, it's the superhero genre.  Figures like Superman and Batman borrowed heavily from such pulp icons as John Carter, Doc Savage, The Shadow and Zorro, and these early figures formed the prototype for all future superheroes, with their secret identities, strange costumes and "rogues' galleries" of villains.  While The Shadow is perhaps the best-remembered of these masked heroes, rivaling him in popularity during the 1930s and 1940s was a similar character called "The Spider."  Real name Richard Wentworth, The Spider donned first a mask, and later elaborate, ghoulish make-up complete with fright wig, to terrorize the underworld.  For around a decade, The Spider fought gangsters, robots, monsters and assorted sundry supervillains.  The brain child of R.T.M Scott, The Spider was designed from the start to rival and challenge the Shadow's popularity.  Scott provided two Spider novels before being replaced by Norvell Page, a prolific pulpateer, under the pen name Grant Stockbridge.  The final story in The Big Book of Adventure Stories' section on "Megalomania Rules," dating from May 1942, is a Spider story recounting the masked hero's first foray into heroism, before he'd even created the persona of the Spider.

"The Wings of Kali" finds Wentworth in Benares, India, in a small, discrete nightclub called the Beano Club.  Here, he overhears a young woman by the name of Melissa James who has found herself in trouble.  Trouble in the form of Walter Bishop, an American consul official rotten to his core.  Hearing what Bishop is trying to pressure - blackmail, really - Melissa into doing, Wentworth intervenes, letting Bishop know that his vile scheme is known to someone besides himself and his intended victim.

Angry, Bishop leaves suddenly -- to arrange an assassin, Wentworth surmises, and he leaves a bracelet with Melissa to show him when he returns.  Bishop's eyes blaze when he sees the bracelet on the table, but his blood runs cold when a dagger (thrown by Wentworth, hiding in the shadows) embeds itself in the table.  Bishop flees, and Wentworth takes Melissa and heads in the opposite direction, explaining as they go that the bracelet belonged to a girl Bishop had murdered, and the dagger was the murder weapon.  The two take to the streets of Benares, Bishop's hired assassins hot on the heels...

Now here we've got some real PULP! Masked heroes like The Shadow and The Spider are what drew me to pulp in the first place, and "The Wings of Kali," written late in the Spider's tenure but set at the very beginning of his crime-fighting career, is a great example of everything that makes these stories great.  A villain whose evil seeps from his very pores, exotic locale, exotic "mooks" (nameless, faceless enemies who exist solely to be beaten by the hero on his way to their master) in the form of "Mahommedan Assassins," a woman whose sensuality puts her in peril (while what Bishop asks of her isn't explicit, it's implied he wants her sexually; he threatens to have her deported on grounds of moral turpitude if she won't comply)... and it's all packed in to a lean little package, the story filling just five pages (six, counting the editor's introduction) in The Big Book of Adventure Stories.

With this story, I do have to address something I haven't really been looking forward to addressing.  There are elements in the pulps that would be appalling to the sensibilities of the 21st century.  Many stories of this era are filled with elements that would be deemed racist, sexist, and variably offensive to various peoples.  However, it's unfair to judge these stories by the standards of today; times change, attitudes change, and what was acceptable then is not acceptable now.  It doesn't make stories that include racial slurs or "insensitive" elements inherently bad - it makes them of a previous era, and should be treated as such.

That being said, Wentworth drives away a group of Muslim assassins sent to kill him by reaching into the back seat of his car, pulling out live piglets, and throwing them at the crowd of would-be killers.  He explains that he'd been observing Bishop for some time, and knew that when the corrupt official needed someone killed, he hired Muslim assassins to do the job.  He also knew, he continues, that the assassins won't kill if they've been defiled by the touch of pork, preferring to retreat and purify themselves before resuming their bloody business.  Hence, throwing baby piggies at them.

I do not advocate needless cruelty towards animals, nor am I generally one to make a mockery of others' faith, but that act rockets this story straight up into the Outer Batshittosphere, and audaciously rocketing up into the Outer Batshittosphere is one of the things I love most dearly about Pulp.

I don't know that "The Wings of Kali" has been reprinted outside of The Big Book of Adventure Stories, but I'm linking to a line of Spider reprints for those interested in reading more of Wentworth/The Spider's exploits.

The Spider Pulp Doubles Series on Amazon

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