The Spider #53: ‘The City of Lost Men’
“The City of Lost Men” was originally published in the February 1938 issue of The Spider Magazine. Over New York’s police force felt the blight of lunacy, sweeping on like wildfire until it had turned Manhattan into a chill, whimpering madhouse! Richard Wentworth, in The Spider’s strange vestments, took up the fight — to strike blow for blow against the merciless emperor of idiocy who had captured a metropolis by addling its brains!
Here’s another slam-bang Spider adventure that is tons of fun. This time, Richard Wentworth must overcome a strange blight that attacks only policemen. They become incurable lunatics! Yes, it’s another wild and wacky threat that only The Spider can defeat. While not the best Spider novel, this one is packed with plenty of action and weird happenings… plenty of violence… and a hint of sex… that will keep you turning the pages until the very last one.
It all starts when Doctor Thornton Sprague, president of Columbia University, is killed and his daughter Alicia is kidnapped. Richard Wentworth and Nita van Sloan are on the scene and find a strange soap figure clasped in his hands. A two-inch oval of a human face… a leering, idiot stare of a madman.
The police are becoming madmen…
Police Commissioner Stanley Kirkpatrick arrives. The police department is in chaos. There have been a dozen cases where policemen have been turned to madmen, vacant-eyes, mumbling to themselves. In their pockets are found mad soap faces like Thornton Spragues’. Police suspect Manny Green, who has just been sent to Sing Sing prison for running a city-wide policy racket. (A policy racket was a lottery, and back in those days, it was illegal. My how times have changed!) Or maybe it’s his brother Solly, who is still free.
They are next drawn to a murder in Central Park. A young woman lies stabbed. Eight young men are rounded up, all with identical stories. They had been attacked by men from the bushes. Their girlfriends had been seized and dragged off.
Barry Winant, Special Prosecutor, lives nearby. Wentworth and Kirkpatrick rush to Winant’s hotel only to find Winant gone. There has been a struggle. In the garbage can, Alicia Sprague‘s handkerchief. On Winant’s desk, a note warning him not to interfere. In place of a signature, a leering soap relief face. Winant himself lurches out of the elevator. His face is twisted in an insane grin. The man is completely mad.
Things go from bad to worse. Kirkpatrick’s resignation is demanded by the newspapers, and eventually by the Mayor. In his place is put a fool who is incapable of running the police department. The newspapers dub the mastermind behind this terrible scheme the Mask of Madness. And an appropriate name it is, too.
More police go mad. Experts are puzzled. They seem to be incurable. How is this happening? Well, near the end of the story it is explained that it’s all done with a metal box, the size of a portable radio. (And portable radios were pretty big back in 1938.) It contains an electrical vibrator which produces a succession of current waves that batter against a human brain until it is demoralized… destroyed. Policemen had been grabbed, taken inside one of the trucks, strapped in front of the infernal machines, then, once hopeless maniacs, they were turned loose again.
The explanation that wasn’t
Of course, that explanation doesn’t really mesh with a scene from earlier in the story. Then, Kirkpatrick spoke with Sergeant Mulroy, who had been involved in the smashup on Central Park West. Although out of his mind for a while, he’s come around. He can’t explain it. Suddenly he had felt queer. Blood pounded in his head. It seemed those seizures struck anywhere. No mention of his being taken into a truck and sat down in front of the madness box. Strange… and a bit of a contradiction of the explanation we are later given.
And, it should be pointed out, Sergeant Mulroy is the only character in the story who is restored to sanity. Everyone else is incurably insane, and at the story’s end, they remain so. No magical cures here, such as might have been found in some other pulp series like Doc Savage or The Shadow. No, those victims turned to lunatics stayed that way!
Richard Wentworth spends a great deal of time in this story in the guise of Blinky McQuade. McQuade is a resident of the Bowery. Blinky McQuade was Wentworth’s underworld personality, a character he had brought into being and established there in the slums so that he might have access to criminal haunts and underworld rendezvous closed to any but the initiate. Places where Richard Wentworth could not have gained admittance, where the police never penetrated, where even The Spider could have blasted his way only with flaming guns — Blinky was welcome.
To the underworld, Blinky McQuade was a safe cracker who ended his career years ago after a premature explosion that left his eyes weak. Now he wears powerful glasses with metallic hoods over the lenses. He is an insignificant appearing, round shouldered hanger-on of the Underworld, tolerated because he still can crack safes, using his sensitive fingers alone.
I found it interesting that in Blinky McQuade’s apartment, he has a mammoth sized bed, the principal article of furniture in the shabby room. He presses his fingers against the secret springs concealed in the massive headboard. They release a panel which opens and becomes a completely equipped makeup shelf in front of a brightly lighted mirror. It seems wherever The Spider goes, there is a hidden makeup table for him to use in changing disguises.
Macy’s Department Store… no, it’s Lacy’s!
The gang that is terrorizing the city decides to loot Lacy’s Department Store. This is obviously meant to be Macy’s. It’s a huge store, over 15 stories high, taking up an entire block. Sure sounds like Macy’s to me! But I guess they couldn’t call it that in this story, so here it’s called Lacy’s instead.
When The Spider battles it out with the gang in the store, he is described as ugly faced. He has shaggy eyebrows and snaggly teeth set in a lipless mouth. Note these are not fangs, as portrayed on some of the pulp covers, but snaggly teeth.
The Spider is known as the Master of Men for good reason. In the besieged department store, he whips a group of clerks into an army of fighting men, willing to follow him into battle. They grab weapons from the sporting goods department and leap into action.
A couple more points of interest: Nita checks into the Raleigh Hotel under an alias she has used before. Apparently this alias is one she uses in emergencies. The name is Mary Cordova, although later in the story it is mysteriously changed to Maria Cordova. Just an author’s error, I’m sure. But the beauty of aliases is that they do change…
And, on the far west side is a ramshackle building which had once been a blacksmith’s shop. There, Wentworth houses an emergency car for times such as occur in this tale. He must have a bunch of them stashed all over the city.
One of my favorite scenes is near the climax when Wentworth along with other innocent victims are trapped in a room. Long spear-like rods shoot from the walls, extending from one wall to the other. And in the process they skewer whomever stands in their way. It’s an amazing death trap, and it’s terrific to see The Spider overcome the odds and escape.
By the story’s end, the city is in chaos. Thousands of vigilantes jam Broadway. The mob rifles an arms warehouse and runs amok. Anarchy rules. The Governor (called Governor Clinton… hmmm…) is helpless. His children have been kidnapped by the Mask of Madness.
So what’s his motivation?
And why did the Mask of Madness go through all this? It was all done to crumble real estate values, and allow him to pick up the pieces through various dummy corporations.
This is Wayne Rogers‘ fourth Spider story. His writing style is very similar, and most readers probably won’t notice any difference. The one major difference that I found is that where Norvell Page wrote in a linear style, Rogers tends to jump around in time. He’ll tell the story from Wentworth’s point of view, then jump back in time and tell the story from Nita’s point of view, then jump back in time and tell what has been happening to Kirkpatrick during that time. This occurs several times during the story.
Rogers adds a few hints of sex in his story. Remember all those women kidnapped at the story’s beginning? What was that all about? Well, at the climax, The Spider stalks through hidden underground passageways beneath Central Park. Down there he finds fragments of food, empty bottles… and fragments of women’s clothing. The conclusions should be obvious.
It seems that many of the underworld’s most notorious characters live down there, unsuspecting beneath the city and have reached out to snatch mates from those who came too close to their den. And all done without the benefit of clergy, I would imagine. So we have women kidnapped to become mates for undergound denizens of the underworld.
It also makes me wonder, how did this underground complex get created without anyone knowing about it? We’re talking about extensive underground tunnels, huge passages, even gigantic caverns. All underground… all under Central Park… and no one knows about them. It’s a cool concept, but you shouldn’t ask yourself who did the excavating, and how they escaped notice. Not to mention where all the dirt went. It’s fiction… it’s pulp… so just enjoy the ride and don’t ask questions.
Who’s here and who’s not…
There is no sign of Ram Singh in this story. No sign of Jenkyns, either. Jackson is mentioned twice, but that’s it. It’s just Wentworth, Nita and Kirkpatrick. And Kirkpatrick doesn’t get much action, actually. But the many scenes with Blinky McQuade make up for the other absences. Those are all well done.
And, as mentioned earlier, when all is said and done, everyone does not live happily ever after. All those victims of the Mask of Madness who were turned to lunatics are still raving on. They are not restored to sanity, and there were quite a few of them, too.
The Spider series was a darker one than most of the other pulp heroes out there. And this story is a good example of that. It’s a typical Spider pulp adventure in many respects, and that’s not a bad thing. A lot of fun and action is poured into its 40,000 word length. It’s available in ebook form at Radio Archives and in paperback reprint from Girasol Collectibles. You should read it! I liked this one and think you would, too.