The Spider #42: ‘Satan’s Workshop’
“Satan’s Workshop” was originally published in the March 1937 issue of The Spider Magazine. There was no clue to the kidnapping of wealthy, powerful men and beautiful, talented women. The Man Who Dealt in Death — a devil-brain that was using science and surgery, death and torture and extortion, to enslave the city’s great. The Spider answered the challenge of the Laboratory of the Lost — gambling life and more against weird dangers that no man had ever faced before!
I found I really liked this story, but for reasons that had nothing to do with plot. Now, don’t get me wrong. It was a great plot. There’s some fantastic weird-science stuff in it: transplanting a person’s abilities by stealing their hormones, giving a person a ten-year case of leprosy in only three months… and then let’s not forget “the grinder” which is basically a gigantic meat grinder intended for living humans. (See the cover.) Oh, yeah, the plot’s great. But that’s not why I liked this story. I liked it because it was a bit slower paced, and as a result was better thought out. Very few loopholes in the plot. The action actually makes sense. And it’s all because this story was written by Emile C. Tepperman, instead of Norvell Page.
Emile C. Tepperman
Emile C. Tepperman was a writer of many popular pulps at the time, including Secret Agent X, The Avenger, The Phantom Detective, Operator No. 5 and of course, The Spider. He knew his way around the pulp magazine trade. He also did some radio scriptwriting on Counterspy, Suspense, Inner Sanctum and Gangbusters. So when it came to thrilling writing, he knew his way around, too.
This story lacks the frenzy of a Norvell-Page-authored Spider story. And I did miss that. But it also lacks the gaps in logic, the dropped characters that seemed to important and then just disappeared from the story. When reading a Norvell Page Spider story, I always get the feeling it wasn’t thought out in advance. He just started writing and making things up as he went along, it seemed. This Tepperman Spider surprised me with a logical plot that showed signs that it was thought out… perhaps even outlined before the writing started. As a result, it makes for a smoother, more enjoyable reading experience… although perhaps a bit less frantic.
Thousands of innocent victims don’t die in this story. The entire nation is not menaced. No, that was the stuff of Norvell Page. In this story I doubt if there are more than 50 innocent victims, and that’s pretty restrained for a Spider pulp story. But The Spider himself is still as bloodthirsty as ever. He still shoots unerringly, killing his foes with a single shot to the forehead. And then his platinum cigarette lighter plants its crimson Spider seal upon their foreheads. No, this is not a watered down Spider. He just doesn’t run about crazily.
It starts with a wave of kidnapping
The story itself is that of a wave of kidnappings that has been going on for five months. I’m not sure why The Spider has taken until now to get involved. I always figured after a week or two of kidnappings, The Spider would have started investigating and would have had the entire mob mopped up within a couple days. But for some inexplainable reason, this has been going on for five months.
In one spot we are told that six wealthy, important people have been abducted. Later the number is reported as a dozen. A little inconsistent, but whatever… people of wealth and influence are being kidnapped, and there’s no ransom demands. Anne Hale, actress, is one of them. Morgan Johnson, banker, is another. And there’s Dr. Peter Humphries.
Only Johnson came back. Morgan Johnson had been found, several days ago, lying in the street in the front of his home… none the worse for the experience. Now, Johnson is president of the Citizens’ Bank and Trust Co. So, when the bank is broken into, after hours, Wentworth suspects there is a connection between the kidnapping and the robbery.
The character of Ben Laskar is introduced. He was a big-time bookmaker on Broadway in past years. When he was released from prison, he was forced to work unwillingly for the gang. They threatened his 7-year-old daughter Virginia’s life if he didn’t join them. So he was lookout for the bank robbery, but was captured by Richard Wentworth. Laskar talks willingly. All he knows is that the big boss is a doctor… who dresses like a surgeon in a white gown and white skull cap and antiseptic mask.
The Spider goes into bookmaking
Wentworth has a plan. He will finance Laskar, get him back in the bookmaking game. Laskar is to open a downtown office, start taking bets; let it be known that anyone who wants to contact The Spider can do so through him. It’s a great plan that pays off in the end, and gives us hope to see Ben Laskar in future Spider tales, helping out our hero in his new role as contact man for The Spider. Kinda like Burbank was to The Shadow.
Nita van Sloan, Wentworth’s true love, gets into trouble in this story, as she is wont to do in so many of them. She is wanted for the murder of Albert Flood, a former member of the Parliament in England. It seems that shortly after entering the country, both he and his sister, Lady Stella Flood, were kidnapped by this gang. He was released; she was not. And then he was killed at a party where Nita was guest, and the murder weapon matched the one in her bag.
So Nita is on the run for a while. But she soon falls into the evil clutches of our medical mastermind. It turns out he calls himself Dr. Kesten. He has done some pretty foul things. He has taken a perfectly healthy man and infected him with an advanced stage of leprosy… something medically impossible after only three months. And the evil doctor threatens to do the same to others if they don’t follow his orders.
Nita has skills
I found it interesting how Nita tracked down the doctor, before falling into his hands. She “overheard” a conversation between two women. And since she was too far away, she did this by lipreading. Yes, Nita can read lips quite easily. Pretty cool! One woman tells the other that she will pay $40,000 if the doctor will transplant the hormones of Anne Hale, the celebrated actress, into her, in order that she can acquire Miss Hale’s acting abilities. Back then, I guess they figured if you can move one person’s glands to another, why a person’s talent? Sounds kinda crazy today, but maybe it sounded more reasonable back in the thirties. Anyway, Nita follows the two women, and that’s how she becomes a captive of the malevolent Dr. Kesten.
Yes, this gang is pretty cold-blooded. With a machine gun, they mow down a street filled with school kids, just to create a diversion so the two women can enter the sanitorium without being noticed. What, she couldn’t just pull down a veil over her face? Yes, Tepperman could write blood and violence just as well as Page.
The woman who aches to be an actress, a Mrs. Fleshmore — interesting name, there — gets double-crossed by the villainous doctor. He takes her $40,000 and feeds her to “the grinder.” It’s a horrible machine with giant gears that grind her up, then whatever is left will be soaked in lye for 48 hours. Yeck! What a fate! No wonder she faints!
Yes, Emile C. Tepperman was quite adept at adding pulpish, ghoulish thrills to his stories. And he wasn’t averse to adding a dash of sex, either. When the doctor takes Mrs. Fleshmore to see his captives, they are all kept in individual glass cages, chained with their hands above their heads, naked and blindfolded. The fertile minds of adolescent boys could take that scene and fantasize about it for days. A minor thrill as written, perhaps, but hey this was the 1930s!
And then there is the scene where Dr. Kesten begins to operate on Nita van Sloan. She is strapped to a table, naked. He plans to operate upon her and send her back to The Spider horribly disfigured. He is going to cut off her nose and her breasts. The knife descends… blood flows… and… That’s all I’m going to describe here. I don’t want to spoil the story for anybody. But the above two scenes are examples of how Tepperman added a hint of sex to his stories.
Final points of interest
You know in the end that The Spider will prevail. And the villain will bite the dust. And often, there is an unmasking, where the baddie turns out to be someone you never suspected. Yes, it’s all here in this rousing Spider tale.
I found some points of interest in the story. Readers are told that Wentworth lives in a sixteen floor penthouse apartment house called the Hopecrest Apartments, which he has had built to his specifications. His premises consist of 11 rooms on two floors. Interestingly enough, since he owns the entire building, he has filled it with employees — doormen, porters, elevator operators — all ex-soldiers. He knows that there is always the danger that his stronghold will be attacked by enemies, and he wants capable fighters on hand.
Another point of interest is Wentworth’s system of telephone rings. When butler Jenkyns answers the phone, he learns who is calling. Then he transfers the call to his master, using a special code, to indicate who is on the line. For example, two quick rings followed by two slow ones indicates Nita is calling. Hey, it’s an early version of caller ID! Pretty cool!
And one more thing, I just had to mention. When one man receives a threatening message from the Doc, the ink disappears. “The letter was written in a careful, meticulous longhand, and almost before they were finished with it, the writing began to fade from the paper!” Hey, that sounds like the same ink that The Shadow uses! There’s been some plagiarizing going on here! But, seriously, I suspect that sort of thing happened between pulp series quite a bit in those days.
If you’re looking to read a well-plotted Spider story, perhaps a bit less frenetic but with all the action and violence you’ve come to expect from The Spider, this would be a good one for you. The threat is more localized to New York, as opposed to some of The Spider tales set on a grander scale. But it makes the story no less exciting and really satisfying to read. And it’s available today in paperback and ebook reprints! So, what are you waiting for?