The news spread like wildfire. A man had solved the problem of the ages—he was bringing the dead back to life! Operator 5, ace of the American Secret Service, recognized the grave menace. He realized the danger if the gigantic advances of modern science were employed selfishly by unscrupulous men. And that precisely was the danger facing his native land! The Master of Death, using the promise of life everlasting, was cunningly building an army of fanatic, half-mad followers, men who were burning, pillaging and slaying at the will of the man-monster they worshipped!
“The Army of the Dead” is the twelfth Operator 5 novel and was originally published in March 1935. .
Zombies!!!!! And in 1935! Actually Zombies were not uncommon to the pulps. For example, Gibson’s Shadow deals with zombies in several of his tales, generally with a connection to Haiti and voodoo. Anyway, the Zombies of the 1930s were reanimated dead people who were generally the slave of the reanimator. In other words, we do not see this process: Being bitten by a Zombie, dying, and then becoming a zombie. Usually there was a zombie master.
Operator 5 is alerted to such a master in the first chapter of this novel who actually calls himself “Master of Death,” operating in a rural coal-mining region near Carbonville, Pennsylvania. He see the dead walk and realizes that the next strike against the US would be a zombie invasion.
Davis uses a scientific basis for the reanimation in this story, basing it in part of the real-life experiments of Dr. Frank Cornish of the University of California who supposedly reanimated a dog in 1934. Dr. Cornish actually made a proposal in 1947 to reanimate a man on death row in California to be done after he was executed, but the state refused the request citing the possibility of double jeopardy. In the 1950s, he turned to marketing Dr. Cornish’s Tooth Powder. Davis seems to like this concept of reanimation, though, also using it as basis for a work published the next year in 1936 in his Ravenwood series, “Master of the Living Dead.”
The Master of Death, Dr. Kalmar, has an extensive espionage organization, including double agents operating in Operator 5’s intelligence organization. His power over people includes the ability to reward them with life if they die and to punish by taking away that life so that resurrection is not possible. He has a Temple of Death and special ceremonies used during reanimations, involving his people and making them more compliant with his will. His goal is to become the monarch of the United States.
This tale is very lively and fast moving, and has several episodes that are interesting in a standalone way. For instance, Tim Donovan dies at the end of the novel, but is then resurrected.
Could the Master of Death have pulled off taking over the country? He had a strong, widespread espionage thrust and had many politicians as his followers. Yet, the non-spy, infiltrator part of his organization seemed very small. It would have required an enormous effort coupled a strong, long string of good-luck events to get to the point where his followers would be numbered in the millions. It might have been possible, but would have required a lot of work.
Since the organization appears small, Operator 5 could have destroyed it as described in this novel.
A good story, and one highly recommended. Perhaps the story is a bit more science fiction that other stories, but personally I like that. The novel is credible given the various bits of supporting data provided by Davis.