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Norvell Page’s Ken Carter: a proto-Spider?

Posted by at 10:00 am Monday, July 17, 2017 in Ace, Pulps, Reprints, Review, The Spider
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Norvell Page’s Ken Carter: a proto-Spider?
Norvell W. Page

Norvell W. Page

For most pulp fans, if they’ve heard of Norvell Page (1904-61), it’s for his longtime work on The Spider, where he was responsible for the bulk of the stories and turning the character from an ordinary vigilante hero into the manic character going up against weird menaces.

But he had a long career in the pulps, and one of the earlier works he did was the short-lived Ken Carter series. This series should be of interest to many because it was apparently this series that brought Page to the attention of Popular Publications and landed him the job of The Spider, which he started with the third issue (after The Spider creator RTM Scott left) in December 1933. Page would write 92 of the 118 issues!

This is similar to what happened with Lester Dent and his work on his Lynn Lash stories leading to getting Doc Savage.

The Ken Carter are all short weird mysteries that ran in Ace Magazine’s 10 Detective Aces. There were a total of six stores from May to November 1933. A seventh one was published much later in Popular’s Dime Detective Magazine in 1935. That story was a little different in style, so don’t think this was a leftover story unpublished by Ace. Perhaps it was an attempt to revive the character?

Carter is described as a tall, lean man with gray eyes and dull hair. As with most pulp heroes, there is not much personality to him. He mentions in most stories he’s “sentimental.” He is a private detective (one story a partner is mentioned, but he was killed “off screen” in that story), and must be successful enough that several times he is willing to work to solve the mystery at hand with no reward. We know he had worked in a circus as a juggler — over time more hints of this past are dropped — and that he decided to become a detective.

As with most short-story series, there are few continuing secondary characters. No secretary, love interest, or police official to appear in each story. However, as the series progresses, more details are added to Carter and the world around him. We meet some of his other operatives in a couple of stories, but they have little action. And a police inspector appears in three stories.

'Ten Detective Aces' (November 1933)These are all “weird mysteries,” not to be confused with weird menace. This means there is some weird or bizarre means of death. Carter must not only contend with that, but also solve the mystery behind things. Most cases, the mystery behind it all isn’t that bizarre. It’s usually about revenge or money. What marks them as proto-Spider stories is the frantic action once things get going.

“In Hell’s Music” (May/June 1933), people on a ship are being menaced by bizarre music that kills! One of its victims is a former governor. Carter must resolve things before he or others are killed. In “City of Corpses” (July 1933), people are falling over dead and turning blue! Among their victims is Carter’s partner. Can Carter figure out and stop the Blue Death? And figure out what is behind it all?

“Statues of Horror” (August 1933) has a sinister man named Achmed ben Hassan threatening others with the Stone Death, which turns people to stone. Ken is on his trail, but there are few clues, as ben Hassan’s henchmen commit suicide by using the Stone Death on themselves. We learn that Ken is now living in a penthouse after the affair of the Blue Death, and has a cadre of agents, as well as a special plane. We meet two of his agents, and one helps him with the plane.

People are floating from the sky at the ends of noosed parachutes in “Gallows Ghost” (September 1933), and the governor calls in Carter to help. Can he figure it out? Now he is chauffeured around in a Daimler auto, and we meet a group of his operatives, who are all pretty bizarre. They include a Japanese and a woman. But they don’t impact the story.

“The Devil’s Hoof” (published as “Satan’s Hoof,” October 1933) takes Carter to New Orleans, where people are being crushed by a phantom hoofprint. Carter is on vacation, so doesn’t want to get involved. But he’s “sentimental,” so does despite the efforts to frame him.

Something is crushing people in “The Sinister Embrace” (November 1933). Can Carter crack the case or will he be the next victim?

“Satan’s Sideshow” (September 1935) has Carter help his former partner from his circus days to figure out who among a group of sideshow freaks may have done him in. Carter makes interesting use of bulletproof silk.

It would have been interesting to see how the series progressed had more stories been done. But I think Page dropped the series when he landed the job doing The Spider. Oh, well.

Black Dog Books has reprinted the whole series in City of Corpses as part of their Signature Series. In addition to the stories, we get a nice intro by Robert Weinberg, a brief bio of Page, and an article by Page on “How I Write” that ran in 1935. He makes use of a story he had previously published in Dime Detective Magazine: “Dance of the Skeletons.” I almost wish they had reprinted that story as well. If it has been reprinted, I have no idea where.

So if you want to read more of the works of Norvell Page, especially the series that landed him The Spider, check this out.