Page’s 1st-century adventures
Norvell W. Page and The Spider are almost synonymous. Mention one, and for most pulp fans, the other’s name pops to mind. And it’s certainly understandable. Of the 118 published Spider adventures, Page penned (under the house name of Grant Stockbridge) the bulk from 1933 through 1943, a total of 93 novels.
When Page wasn’t working on a Spider novel, he was busily banging out stories for Spicy Detective, Detective Tales, Dime Detective Magazine, Terror Tales, Horror Stories and an occasional Western pulp.
But in 1939, in the middle of The Spider and other detective yarns, Page holstered the automatics and picked up a sword. In the June and November issues of Street & Smith’s Unknown, Page journeyed back nearly 2,000 years for two novels: “Flame Winds” and “Sons of the Bear God.”
Both sword-and-sorcery adventures starred a tall, bronze-skinned, gray-eyed warrior with flaming red hair and beard. He was known variously in the yarn as Wan Tengri, John of the Wind-Devils, Hurricane John and his birthname, Amlairic. But the legends of history knew him as Prester John.
The Prester John story was widely known through the ages. He was a mythical Christian king of a far-away land, which no one was ever certain where. French scholar C.F. Volney explains in his 1791 work, The Ruins, or Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires: And the Law of Nature, that the person “whom we find mentioned in our old books of travels, by the name of Prester John, (gets his name) from a corruption of the Persian word ‘Djehan,’ which signifies the world, to which has been prefixed the French word ‘prestre’ or ‘pretre,’ priest.” Therefore, Prester John means priest of the world. Volney, though, names the “Delai-La-Ma, or immense high priest of La,” as the actual Prester John.
Others aren’t so specific and placed the mythical kingdom of Prester John in Africa, the Middle East or the Far East, and in periods throughout the Dark Ages.
The ever-inventive Page twisted these well-known tales to better suit his readers. He rips Prester John from that era, casts him anew in the 1st Century and rethinks his origin. No longer is he Priest John, but Hurricane John. Page explains in the preface to “Flame Winds” that in actuality, “prester” derives from the Greek word (by way of Latin) for the fierce storms of the Mediterranean Sea. His fierce ways in the arena when he was a gladiator in Alexandria earned him the nickname Prester John, or “Hurricane” John.
Page says that the legend grew from Prester John’s exploits in the 1st Century and was widely known by the 12th Century, when it was heard again by the Crusaders, who believed that Prester John was a contemporary of theirs and would assist them by attacking the Persian Empire from the East while they invaded from the West. But by then, his bones were dust.
Forced to flee – er – travel east “for his health,” this First-Century Prester John seeks what all good sword-wielding warriors do: battles, women, kingdoms to rule and riches to plunder.
But Prester John also seeks followers for “Christos,” Page’s odd take on the Christian aspects of the Prester John legend. John is a convert to a “new God called ‘Christos’ ” and wears around his neck a piece of “the True Cross” as a talisman. In Page’s first adventure, John vows to bring “a hundred thousand to bow before thee, Christos” and “they shall believe, as I believe, no matter what throats must be slit.” It’s not the religion of Christ, but more one taken from the Crusades (which, in Page’s stories, would occur centuries later).
“Flame Winds,” which appeared as the cover story in the June 1939 number of Unknown, finds Prester John north of Mongolia near Lake Baikul. He is sneaking into the walled city of Turgohl, which is ruled by seven wizards. Seeking riches, he instead finds himself battling to bring down the wizards and restore an enchanted princess to the throne (oh, and with that, gain riches). He’s joined by a monkey–faced, treacherous thief named Bourtai.
(Midway through the story, Prester John earns the honorific of “Thou art the man!” by the people of Turgohl. Humorously to modern ears, that translates into “You da man!” which popped into my mind every time I read the phrase.)
Needless to say, Prester John manages to defeat the wizards and, in typical Page fashion, slaughters thousands, using a blast-furnace-like devil wind. But the victory is bittersweet, and the story ends with Prester John and his reluctant travelling companion Bourtai sailing in a rickety boat across the Baikul Sea.
“Sons of the Bear God,” originally published as the cover story in the November 1939 number of Unknown, opens with the overly boastful Prester John and monkey-faced Bourtai fleeing John’s former friends, the Mongols, through the reed sea of Buryat. He is captured by warriors of a red-headed race similar to John’s. The red-headed warriors are slaves to a dwarf-like race of people called the Tinsunchi, the grandsons of the Heaven-Bear. Again, mass slaughter eventually ensues and Prester John comes out ahead – for a while.
(Incidentally, in both books, Page keeps mentioning the black sand desert of Kara-Korum. But Kara-Korum is a mountain range bordering China, Pakistan and India, rather than a desert. The black sand desert he refers to is actually the similarly named Karakum Desert, which is in Central Asia, in present day Turkmenistan.)
The two novels mesh one into the other rather well, with many references in the second story back to the first. But the second adventure is about 10 percent longer than the first, and could have easily ended a full chapter before it actually does. Blame it on payment via word count.
Neither story is outstanding, but both are typical fantasy adventure. In fact, the stories were so boilerplate that writer Roy Thomas adapted them for Marvel Comics’ Conan the Barbarian comic books. A version of “Flame Winds” appeared in three issues (32-34, November 1973–January 1974), and one of “Sons of the Bear God” ran for four issues (109-112, April–July 1980). Prester John morphs into Conan, with Bourtai as himself in the first story, but as Erfu the Stygian in the second adaptation. (Incidentally, Thomas changes the name of the city of Turgohl in “Flame Winds” to Wan Tengri, the Mongol name that Page uses interchangeably for Prester John.)
Prester John was not a regular character in the pulps, but curiously he did appear elsewhere in 1939. “The Singing Sands of Prester John,” by H. Bedford-Jones, addresses the legend as part of Bedford-Jones’ “Trumpets from Oblivion” series in the February issue of Blue Book Magazine. Though Prester John never actually appears alive in the story, he’s referred to and appears in the story’s main illustration (at right).
Page’s two Prester John novels were reprinted by Berkley Books in 1969, then again in 1978 and ’79. Riding on the popularity of Robert E. Howard’s barbarian, the books were promoted as “heroic fantasy in the great Conan tradition.”
These reprints often turn up in used bookstores or you can track down the original Unknown magazines, so anyone wishing to experience the epic fantasy mayhem of Norvell Page should have little trouble. Just gird thyself for an abundance of florid prose.
This article was originally published in The Pulpster (#16) for Pulpcon 36 in 2007.