DOCTOR DEATH VS. THE SECRET 12, VOLS. 1&2 (Altus Press)
Doctor Death was originally a minor character in some pulp stories of the 1930’s. The forward in this collection suggests that the publisher decided to give him his own magazine after the edition of All Detective magazine featuring a Dr. Death cover sold very well. The success of the story never transferred over to the larger format and the Dr. Death magazine was canceled after three issues. Vol. 1 of the Altus collection contains all three of these plus a pitch writer Harold Ward did for a Dr. Death comic strip.
In Vol.1, Dr. Death is revealed to be Professor Rance Mandarian, a once highly respected university researcher who had gone insane. Recreated himself as Dr. Death,Mandarian has decided to wage war on human civilization. A master of the occult sciences, Dr. Death has discovered the means to create zombies and harness elementals, deadly spirits who can destroy anything in their path. At the beginning of the book, he issues a warning to the world: destroy the wheels of industry and return to living off the land or face his wrath. To make his position clear, he pronounces a death sentence on 12 leaders of science and industry. He then dares anyone to save them.
Opposing Dr. Death is The Secret Twelve, a council made-up of the leaders of society (and the underworld). Death’s main adversary is Jimmy Holm, a privately wealthy police detective and Detective Inspector John Ricks, a hard-boiled copper from the old school.
The writing style is crisp and to the point. No long scenes of descriptive dialogue here! The pulp audience wanted entertainment in the way of action. We do get a detailed tour of Dr. Death’s subterranean lair and it comes complete with the walking dead and stacks of bodies. Plot devices tend to be quick as well; when Jimmy Holm and Death’s assistant Nina Ferrera fall in love it takes place over the course of two pages.
The next novel, The Gray Creatures, has Dr. Death traveling to Egypt to find the lost tomb of Anubis, the ancient god of the dead. Death has learned of an amulet in the tomb which will enable him to raise the dead of Egypt and complete his conquest of the world. Of course, Nina gets kidnapped by the fiendish scientist right before his trip, forcing Jimmy Holm to head off in hot pursuit. This is the best novel of the three as Ward is able to build an effective sense of tension in the scenario as Death gets closer to his goal. And along the way we encounter a lost tribe of pyramid builders. Jimmy Holm thwarts Dr. Death in the last few pages of the novel, but the crafty old test tube cleaner manages to escape once again.
The final novel, The Shriveling Murders, has it’s name taken from Dr. Death’s latest invention: a ray gun which sucks all the moisture out of a person’s body, reducing them to a dead doll. Death has plans for his new toy and the means to carry it out. Although not quite as good as Gray Creatures, it has numerous scenes which are wildly out of control. There’s even a riot at an insane asylum where a herculean lunatic leads a mob of madmen against Death’s army of the living dead.
But Shriveling also has a voodoo cult scene which is embarrassingly racist. I’m glad Altus didn’t censor it; future generations need to experience this sort of thing for comparison.
Once again Nina is conveniently kidnapped and falls into Death’s clutches (this being her main profession). Of course, Jimmy saves the day at the end, but Dr. Death escapes.
The collection has a nice introduction by pulp historian Will Murray. It concludes with a proposed daily comic strip script by Harold Ward. The script neatly distills the major plot devices of 12 Must Die down to the essentials.
This second volume of Dr. Death novels is significant because none of them were ever published at the time they were written (in 1935). Although Waves of Madness, the first novel included in this collection, was promised in the third and final issue of Doctor Death magazine, it would be 45 years before it was discovered among the papers of the late writer Harold Ward. The introduction to this collection, by Matthew Moring, describes how pulp collector Jack Irwin ran an ad looking for old pulp magazines and was contacted by Gladys Ward, the widow of writer Harold Ward. After Harold Ward passed away in 1950, she kept his old manuscripts, which have been a godsend for literary research. The other unpublished Doctor Death novel, The Red Mists of Death is also included in Vol 2. The collection is rounded out with a brief interview of Ms. Gladys Ward and some reproductions of artwork used in the Doctor Death magazine.
Waves of Madness has Rance Mandrain Dr. Death robbing a bank by using a sonic generator which can unleash madness on anyone unlucky enough to be in hearing range. With his undead zombie assistants, it’s a cinch for him to drive away with the deposits while people are killing each other. Next we get to see Dr. Death interviewing a rich industrialist who wishes to finance the old horror’s latest bid to destroy civilization. Dr. Death wants to unleash world war to restore humanity to a state of nature. The industrialist and his cabal wants the riches war will bring, so it’s a good working relationship for them both.
Out to stop Dr. Death is Jimmy Holm again. He’s helped by his fiance Nina (when she isn’t getting nabbed by Death’s minions) and hard-boiled Inspector Ricks. Death is aided by the Egyptian princess Charmion and whoever he can rope into service. Of course, Death has the ability to project his will onto ordinary mortals and to move his soul around from one host body to the next.
Once the original deep ecologist is foiled, he returns with The Red Mist of Death. Presenting himself as Yama, the god of death, the old fiend steals a valuable jewel from a Tibetan monastery. He teams up with a “half Russian half Mongolian” mercenary named Kham. Together they invade China from Tibet using the weapon featured in the novel’s title: a blister-inducing chemical which condemns anyone coming into contact with it to a slow and agonizing death. But again, Jimmy Holm stops Death before the lunatic’s plans can become manifest. And Death escapes in the last few pages, of course, to terrorize the world once more.
The Red Mists of Death is the better of the two novels. Although Ward writes about China in the most stereotypical way imaginable, he does take care to portray individual Chinese in a positive light. He even seems to have done his research on contemporary China. I just wish he’d have been able to do something with Charmion, Death’s sidekick. You can only take so much of her “Now we weel keel” dialogue. But you also get some insight into Death’s vendetta against civilization: he believes both God and Satan have urged him to bring humanity back to the stone age (making him the original processean).
A good wrap-up to a pulp magazine remembered mostly for it’s lurid covers and outlandish plots.