The Spider #18: The Flame Master, by Grant Stockbridge
February, 1935 Popular Publications
The Spider features its wildest villain yet: Aronk Dong, the Lion Man of Mars, who threatens the world with his man-made lightning. It’s up to Richard “The Spider” Wentworth to stop this latest threat to humanity. Dong claims to be the vanguard of a Martian invasion, but ultimately author Norvell Page ignores the sci-fi aspect and delivers what you expect from the average Spider yarn: endless sequences of Wentworth gunning down gangsters.
It’s a month after the previous volume, which I don’t have. Looks like it was a momentous volume, as we’re informed at the outset of The Flame Master that Jackson, Wentworth’s loyal ally, “laid down his life” while in the guise of the Spider. Thus the world now believes the masked crimefighter to be dead, and also Wentworth is no longer suspected of being the Spider. We meet Wentworth as he’s chasing leads in his latest caper; he wants the world to continue believing the Spider is dead, but Page will eventually drop this subplot as well.
The latest gang to plague ‘30s New York has been using artificial lightning to rob banks and kill cops; Wentworth has tracked them here to the rural home of Brandon Early, a young scientist who specializes in lightning. Instead Wentworth, in his Spider disguise, meets Aronk Dong, the Lion Man, “six feet one of whipcord manhood,” with a leonine mane and the face of a lion. (The interior illustrations make him look more like The Wizard of Oz’s Lion Man rather than the fierce creature shown on the cover.) He also has claws, which he uses to occasionally rip off heads – and also to inflict some serious damage on Wentworth, slicing his shoulder.
Aronk Dong is the most memorable Spider villain yet, I think, but unfortunately as is with the case with all other such villains, Page doesn’t spend nearly enough time with him. Following the usual template, Dong only shows up in the opening, a handful of times later, and then for the harried finale. That being said, Page does something in this book I don’t think I’ve seen him do before – he relays a few sequences from Aronk Dong’s perspective. Usually Wentworth is the sole star of the narrative show. Anyway, Dong’s servants believe his story that he’s from Mars, but Wentworth instantly disbelieves it, particularly given Dong’s claim that he perfected his artificial lightning on the red planet. As Wentworth later says, the air on Mars is “too thin for clouds of any kind, much less storms!”
The opening sequence is pretty good, with Wentworth already in desperate battle within the first few pages. Here he meets headstrong Bets Decker, fiery-tempered assistant of Brandon Early, who remains unseen – as usual, Page fills the novels with red herrings, keeping Aronk Dong’s identity a secret. Could it be Early himself, as Wentworth suspects? He guns down various thugs who work for the Lion Man, but as mentioned is clawed in the shoulder and then tied up – but manages to free himself and come in blasting again, delivering one of the greatest pulp lines ever: “I have more bullets to plough through your putrid flesh!”
Wentworth is so injured that he wakes up in the hospital, where he remains for two days, even getting four blood transfusions, one of them courtesy ever-suffering fiance Nita van Sloan. He spends a further ten days recuperating, during which the Lion Man sows more chaos – 200 dead so far around the US in “unconnected” attacks, each of which employ the artificial lightning. Gradually Wentworth will determine that Aronk Dong is hiring out his manmade lightning and attacking these places for pay. Humorously, Wentworth’s injury will be forgotten well before novel’s end; Page only mentions it a few times, making it sound like the most horrific wound our hero has ever endured, before abruptly dropping all mention of it.
Researching leads with best friend/worst enemy Kirkpatrick, police commissioner, Wentworth meets Horace Jones, a pulp writer aquantaince of Kirkpatrick’s. Unfortunately Jones is in the novel even less than Aronk Dong himself. It’s a lot of fun to read about a pulp writer in a pulp novel, particularly when he’s defending the genre – and even Wentworth offers a defense of pulp, saying “there’s a lot of truth” in many of the tales, no matter how outrageous they may seem. Nevertheless, Horace Jones is a one-off character, there long enough to talk about his own research on Mars, stating that he believes Aronk Dong’s wild story.
As usual with a Spider book, the middle changes direction. With the appearance of a French arms dealer named Toussants Louvaine, Page goes into a subplot in which the wily Frenchman seeks to use Wentworth as bait to capture Aronk Dong. Louvaine knows he’ll make a mint on that artificial lightning, and given that he like all other criminals knows that Wentworth is really the Spider, he’s gone to the trouble of abducting Nita to ensure Wentworth obeys his orders. It’s all very old-hat and a bit disappointing given the sci-fi angle we were promised in the opening chapters.
We do get some of that patented Norvell Page insanity; after a long sequence in which Wentworth fights gangsters and then tries to evade the cops, our hero takes his shot-up sedan – which Page has carefully informed us earlier looks like a hearse – and “hides” it in a funeral procession that just happens to be passing by! Otherwise I found the middle half of The Flame Master to lag, other than periodic sequences which hop over to Aronk Dong as he wages war on hapless citizens; here we learn that Bets Decker, whom Wentworth thought was such a swell gal, is actually the Lion Man’s moll.
It gets back on the crazed path with Wentworth at one point standing on the girder of a half-constructed skyscraper, far over the sidwalks below, blasting away with a machine gun at the “doom balloons” of Aronk Dong. While Wentworth staves off the villain’s schemes, the novel ends with everyone a prisoner of the Lion Man, tied to electric chairs in a penthouse apartment – this after Wentworth has even ditched a plane on the penthouse itself in a desparate attempt at gaining entry to the place. Here Page delivers another of those stellar sequences of bravery he specializes in: to free himself with the knife Aronk Dong has left behind, Wentworth will cause the death-by-electrocution of Kirkpatrick. The Commissioner accepts his fate, urging Wentworth to grab the blade – a stirring scene, one ruined by the deux ex machina (but necessary, as these characters don’t die) realization that there’s a way around the entire setup.
Once again though Page denies Wentworth the luxury of killing the villain himself; instead, Wentworth and Aronk Dong battle it out with swords as Louvaine watches – there follows the most gory scene yet in the series, as Wentworth hurls his sword through the Frenchman’s throat to prevent him from tugging a cord which will shine a light on Dong’s followers below, signalling them to begin their destruction of New York’s dam. But Aronk Dong is taken out off-page by another character – only for it all to turn into a Scooby Doo finale, as Wentworth deduces that the dead “Aronk Dong” is just an imposter…and the real one is really so and so!! Unsurprisingly, Wentworth has already figured all this out, despite being in constant action for the past few days with no sleep.
Overall The Flame Master is as enjoyable as the average Spider yarn, but the outrageous villain had me expecting something more…well, outrageous. Instead, it’s business as usual – though to be sure, there’s a lot of action and thrills. My favorite volumes are still The Corpse Cargo and The Red Death Rain, though.