Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Norvell Page -- Master of Mystery

Recently I wrote about one of my literary heroes, Walter B. Gibson. Another prolific pulp author of the 1930's who's also worthy of attention is Norvell Page. Like Gibson, Page could produce vast quantities of fiction very quickly. At the height of his career, he was writing about 100,000 to 120,000 words a month. And like Gibson, most of what Page produced was top-rank stuff.

Page specialized in non-stop action, and plenty of it. He was brought in to save Popular Publication's lackluster mystery man, the Spider -Master of Men. The Spider was in reality wealthy playboy Richard Wentworth. He would don a fright wig, fake nose, and fight crime as a masked vigilante. The Spider had no compunction about killing, leaving a red spider seal as his calling card.

During Page's tenure (writing as Grant Stockbridge), the Spider fought villains who were just as casual with human life, which meant the body count often ran high in a Spider adventure. Even the titles promised action and mayhem on a grand scale: "Hordes of the Red Butcher," "Slaves of the Laughing Death," "Satan's Sightless Legions," and my favorite, "Death Reign of the Vampire King."

To give you an idea of Page's writing, here's a sample from "Death Reign of the Vampire King." The remarkable thing about this is that Page maintains this fever-pitch pace throughout the entire novel. And he did it again, and again, and again, issue after issue.

A master criminal holds New York hostage with vampire bats starved to make them aggressive and injected with a variant of the bubonic plague. Early in the book, the Vampire King unleashes a horde of bats into crowded Times Square just as the theaters are letting out.

Richard Wentworth is riding through the area in his limousine as the bats attack. Page puts a face to the mass slaughter in the following passage. Note how the breathless prose keeps the action moving forward to its (for the genre) unusual conclusion.
The car swung a corner and a woman's screams rang out. Wentworth could see her, a dark, dodging form, as she frantically ran toward him along the street. She held a child in her arms and was bent far over it, protecting it with arms and head and bowed body. Around her head one of those poisonous vampires of the Bat was flitting, seeking an inch of bare flesh in which to sink its deadly teeth.

The car was already sprinting toward where the woman stumbled in a heavy, hopeless run, her screams despairing as she shielded her child against the attack of the flying beasts. Wentworth whipped open the door, felt the wind snatch it from his hand and slam it back against the body of the car.

"This way!" he shouted. "This way! I'll save you!"

The woman cried out in joy and ran with increased spread towards the braking limousine. Once she was inside... Wentworth's revolvers were in his hands. The Spider's gun blasted, hammering a bat into extinction. The woman was running toward him eagerly. She lifted her face, held the child out from her body in an effort to get it first into the protection of the car.

It happened in a heartbeat of time. Before the woman's face, a black shadow flitted. Leathery wings covered the baby's head. Wentworth could not shoot. He sprang forward and another of the loathsome black things flicked out of the darkness. The woman's scream rose high, higher. She stopped and stood rigidly, arms lifting the baby high. Its cries had ceased now and abruptly her own scream strangled into nothingness. She crumpled to the pavement while Spider was still ten feet away.

The black cloud lifted and he saw that the body of the woman and the child was a moving black mass of leather-winged creatures.
During the Second World War, Page gave up fiction and produced government reports. After the war, he served on both Hoover Commissions and spent the rest of his career with the Atomic Energy Commission where he served with distinction.

But for a brief time, he was one of the most sought-after authors in the pulp magazine field. His fiction continues to be reprinted and enjoyed by another generation of readers. A tribute to the craftsmanship of Novell Page's fiction writing.

- Ralph

Day 158 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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