My introduction to the "hero pulps" came from some old Bantam Books Doc Savage paperbacks a friend loaned me at the tail end of our elementary school years. My friend, whose name was, I think, Jamie, came from an impoverished family where the only leisure items, it seemed, were some old books, including maybe a dozen of the Doc Savage novels. Jamie had, in true geek fashion, read them many times and memorized everything in encyclopedic detail—he knew who did what to whom in which particular story, how that contradicted some of what was in a later story, which story was originally published when, and what it all meant. I was impressed in the same way I was impressed by my friends who had memorized various baseball statistics, but I was fascinated by books much more than by sports, and so, once Jamie was able to secure permission for me to borrow one of the novels, I, too, dove into the world of Doc Savage. This new enthusiasm only lasted a few months, though, because Jamie and his family moved away; without access to the books or, more importantly, someone to discuss them with, my interest waned.
Since my Doc Savage days, I have not paid much attention to the hero pulps, but the most recent issue of Rain Taxi Review of Books includes an intriguing article by Stuart Hopen, "The Spider: America's Prophetic Epic of Terrorism" (alas, not online), which gives an overview of the pulp character the Spider, particularly the Spider novels written by Norvell Page (under the house pseudonym Grant Stockbridge):
In his first two appearances, [the Spider] seemed cut from a standard template. Secretly Richard Wentworth, millionaire, sportsman, dilettante of the arts, the Spider hunted run-of-the-mill criminals as ordinary sport. Like an artist signing a canvas, he proudly took credit for each of his kills, marking his victims with a vermillion spider tattoo, generally on the forehead above a bullet hole between the eyes. But starting with the third issue, which flowed from the pen of a gifted and visionary new writer named Norvell W. Page, the Spider took on a wildly imaginative sensibility at once absurd yet terrifying, apocalyptic yet heroic. Critic Robert Sampson would later call the Spider "one of the more curious heritages of American letters."
Hopen does an excellent job of laying out the qualities that made Page's tales more than ordinary hero pulp stories, and he particularly focuses on how eerily contemporary the stories feel—they are, he notes, full of the sort of terrorism that we know and fear today: biological and chemical weapons that wreak havoc through densely-populated areas (Hopen notes: "Thousands of people, sometimes tens of thousands, died in the course of a typical Spider adventure"), poisoned products, suicide bombers, attacks on major cities and landmarks.
I was so fascinated by Hopen's article that I sought out some reprints of the Spider stories—since the late 1960s, when Bantam's Doc Savage reprints provided a successful model, there have been a few paperback reprints of Spider tales, as well as various replicas and facsimiles of the original pulps, but they never found the same success as the Doc Savage books.
I started with the item that had most fascinated me from Hopen's article: Pocket Books' 1975 reissue of The City Destroyer, a story originally published in January 1935. Aside from being hideously ugly, the Pocket Books editions are notable for having attempted to update the Spider stories by changing some of the references to more contemporary ones (Wentworth becomes, for instance, a veteran of the Korean War instead of World War I). The update to The City Destroyer—in which, originally, an evil mastermind uses a steel-eating compound to level much of New York City—becomes deeply unsettling when the first target is changed from the original imaginary skyscraper ("The Sky Building") to a new but entirely real feature of the Manhattan skyline:
These men talked of making one of the world's tallest buildings collapse as if it were no more than a hill of sand on the beach. Yet the World Trade Center's collapse, even in the dead of night, would kill hundreds. And by day with the thousands teeming past . . .
The disturbing thing about the book—aside from the eerie updating—is that the Spider's enemies commit utterly devastating crimes. The Sky Building/Trade Center collapses in the fourth chapter:
It smeared five city blocks off the face of the earth. It hammered buildings down into the ground, drove them in on their own foundations. It obliterated them.
One huge girder catapulted twenty blocks, pierced the roof of a subway tunnel and jackknifed the leading car of an eight-car train. Passengers were pulped. There had been sixty persons in that first car. There was nothing that could be called human in the wreckage.
Wentworth actually saw the building splash its carcass into the street, saw giant jagged blocks of steel that weighed a ton bounce like golf balls. Then the gust of concussion slapped him flat and jarred out his senses.
After that, even more of New York falls. The resolution of the story and the motivations of the evildoers are far less compelling than the imagery of destruction, which is both sadistic and surreal, an orgy of apocalypse:
The slaughter went on relentlessly. Bridges were smashed. Buildings tumbled into the streets. Ships shook their plates to pieces in the battering of the Atlantic gales. Airplanes foundered in midair. Trains found rails dissolving under their swift wheels and spilled pitiful dead across the countryside. . . .
Still buildings continued to crash to the streets and bridges collapsed beneath puny loads. Cities were deserted by every man and woman who could possibly escape, fleeing to the rural areas where steel was not used for building. Men who had to remain sent their wives and children away. Going to work, they walked in the middle of the street with fearful eyes continually alert for the first hint of a building's collapse. On windy days, all shops and offices closed.
The original readers of The Spider were people whose families had experienced World War I, the influenza pandemic of 1918, and the Great Depression—and who were now watching Hitler and Mussolini rise to power in Europe. Death, suffering, and destruction on a grand scale were not abstract or imaginary ideas for them. Like much similar fiction, The City Destroyer brings readers through imagined horrors, gives those horrors clear (if irrational) perpetrators, and finishes the tale with justice being dealt and order being restored.
But in the case of a story like The City Destroyer, the effect is not necessarily cathartic. The bad guys are taken care of, of course, and given some painful and hideous deaths, but there is no sense that the wave of destruction unleashed on the world has been revenged. Revenge for such destruction is impossible. The perpetrators have been stopped and the basic structures of civilization returned, yet what reader could possibly find any but the coldest comfort in this?
In terms of the characters, the moral arithmetic of these stories is grade-school simple, and even with a brutal, almost Existentialist, not-quite-antihero like the Spider, it is still clear that his occasional excesses and mistakes are justified in comparison to the massive horror unleashed by his foes. He is no Meursault, though his existence is one that makes anything imagined by Camus seem rosy and optimistic. Wentworth's is a world in need of vigilantes, a world where the police are noble but hamstrung by the law— despite proclaiming his determination to capture and imprison the Spider, Police Commissioner Kirkpatrick admits more than once that he hopes the worst of the villains face a more painful fate than the law could offer them.
The real interest for me with such stories lies not in the characters, who are variations on pulp caricatures, but with the imagined destruction. "A violent poetry of devastations rips through the pages" of the Spider novels, according to Hopen, and poetry seems to me the best word to describe what these stories are doing—Hopen describes it as "prose so past purple that it can make your teeth glow in the dark," but he also understands why certain passages rise above the ordinary: "This is literature played at full volume, improvised like hot jazz, and as grandiose as opera." Like poetry, it has rules of its own, a particular aesthetic logic irreducible to something other than itself, which separates it from the more familiar elements of the book. The plots are a skeleton over which to drape the imagery, and it is in the imagery—in the imagining of destruction—that the stories transmute anxiety, allowing us to find entertainment and pleasure in that which we can also recognize is, in reality, traumatizing.
Susan Sontag said something similar about science fiction movies in her 1965 essay "The Imagination of Disaster," where she pointed out that films about the end of the world, the destruction of humanity, etc., "lift us out of the unbearably humdum and . . . distract us from terrors" while they simultaneously "normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it." (Quotidian life is "unbearably humdum"; destruction is "psychologically unbearable"—what, then, can be borne?) These effects are not morally neutral. "There is a sense in which all these movies are in complicity with the abhorrent," Sontag says. Such complicity has frustrated artists for centuries as they have considered what the representation of the reprehensible accomplishes, and as they contemplate their own profit and loss in utilizing the material of horror.
What a strange, surreal, and unsubtle tale such as The City Destroyers shows us, though, is that imagining disaster is even more complex than Sontag made it out to be in her essay. The horrors of the Spider stories are visited upon places familiar to readers, not far-off planets and galaxies. The human cost is not foregrounded, but it is impossible to avoid imagining it. The characters may claim they can return to life as before, but what reader could buy into that delusion? The real fantasy in such stories is the idea of justice, because there is no satisfying return from the abyss. The Spider stories heighten the madness to such an extent that their amoral surrealism and vast violence open a space for a certain sort of metaphysics, a place where the unexamined inheritance of Truth, Justice, and the American Way has little to offer.
Though they are clearly products of their era, these stories feel frighteningly familiar in their anxieties. The imagery is so bold that nothing can truly heal the trauma. The hero survives and tells himself what he has done is just, but there is no convincing sense that anything may ever be right with the world, and that absence is what makes the stories so radically compelling.