Pre-dating the great comic book villains, Paul Ernst’s Doctor Satan stalked through the pages of Weird Tales in 1935 and 1936, bent on world domination and bizarre evil deeds for his own amusement. Opposing him with his own blend of science and sorcery is criminologist Ascott Keane. For the first time since their original publication—from Doctor Satan’s first appearance to his last bow in the pages of “the unique magazine”—at long last, all of Doctor Satan’s appearances are collected in one handsome volume in chronological order. All the stories have been carefully edited and re-typeset, and this edition features a new introduction by author/editor John Pelan.
The Complete Tales of Doctor Satan by Paul Ernst contains the following stories:
- “Doctor Satan”
- “The Man Who Chained the Lightning”
- “Hollywood Horror”
- “The Consuming Flame”
- “Horror Insured”
- “Beyond Death’s Gateway”
- “The Death’s Double”
- “Mask of Death”
Richard A. Lupoff –
Paul Ernst was a prolific pulp writer who flourished in the 1930s. His scores of stories were scattered from Astounding to Thrilling Wonder Stories to Weird Tales to Magic Carpet to The Mysterious Wu Fang.
He also contributed many stories to Dime Mystery, Thrilling Mysteries, and Strange Detective Mysteries. Despite their titles, these magazines contained few if any detective cases, but were devoted mainly to so-called “weird menace” narratives, stories built around apparent supernatural themes, almost always explained away on the proverbial last page, and exploiting scenes of sadistic torture and leering, lurid sexuality.
Ernst also created pulp hero “The Avenger” for Street & Smith, sharing the pseudonym “Kenneth Robeson” with Lester Dent, who wrote the Doc Savage pulp novels for the same publisher.
Yes, a versatile chap, indeed. Along the way he created a series villain, Doctor Satan, featured in eight novelettes about this arch-fiend and his enemy, the self-appointed criminologist and foe of all evil, Ascott Keane. The stories ran in Weird Tales in 1935 and ’36, and led to a motion picture serial a few years later.
If I may be permitted a personal note, I first encountered Doctor Satan in the winter issue of the late Robert W. Lowndes’ wonderful little pseudo-pulp magazines in 1969. I’d made one of my first sales to Lowndes, and there we were, Paul Ernst and I, sharing the pages of Startling Mystery Stories. Ernst’s contribution was a reprint of a Doctor Satan story, and I was well impressed by it.
What Ernst did with the Doctor Satan stories resembled what Sax Rohmer had done when he created the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. Rohmer took the matrix of the Sherlock Holmes stories and inverted it. Instead of focusing on the great detective and his associate, Dr. Watson, in their battles with Professor Moriarty, Rohmer focused on an arch-fiend in his battles with Sir Dennis Nayland Smith and his associate, Dr. Petrie.
It worked. It worked in spades!
Transferring his attention to the realm of pulp adventures, Ernst created a fascinating super-villain. Doctor Satan appears only in red mask, robe, and gloves. His true identity is never revealed. We learn that he is fabulously wealthy, but blackmails industrialists for millions of dollars simply because he enjoys doing this.
Pulp scholar John Pelan, in an introduction to the present volume, suggests that this is a weakness, and he is probably right. In fact, toward the end of the series, Doctor Satan ups the ante by deciding to become the dictator of the world. And as pulp heroes like Doc Savage and the Shadow and Captain Future all have posses of helpers, Doctor Satan utilizes the services of the simian-like Girse and the monstrous legless giant Bostiff.
I wonder how these villains get their helpers to work for them. They must realize that they’re going to come to a bad end. Does the arch-fiend advertise in the help wanted columns? What inducement can he possibly offer to hire someone who will almost certainly be eaten by alligators, burned to a crisp in a flaming death-trap, or at the very least killed in a gun-battle with the minions of the law?
A master of both physical and metaphysical science, Doctor Satan can melt his victims from afar like wax dolls, shrink them to miniature size, or simply drive them mad and turn them loose on city streets as object lessons to other prey. He also has telepathic and hypnotic powers.
A super-villain needs a super-hero for a foe, and Ascott Keane—also fabulously wealthy and posing as a foppish playboy (think of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, Kent Allard, or Bruce Wayne as you will)—wields powers comparable to those of Doctor Satan. He is also accompanied by the beauteous Beatrice Dale, frequently referred to as Keane’s “more-than-a-secretary.” Oh, how those squeaky-voiced young readers of Weird Tales must have sniggered at that!
The stakes were raised from episode to episode of this not-quite-a-serial. Doctor Satan and Ascott Keane battled it out with their psychic powers and superscientific weapons. They even visited the land of the dead, where Keane paused in his pursuit of his devilish foe for a sentimental reunion with his long-deceased father. In this sequence, Papa Keane suggests that Ascott visit Mama Keane as well, but Ascott explains to Papa that he’s really got to get on with his struggle against Doctor Satan and off he goes.
There’s a lot of—well, I was going to say, good writing, but let’s settle for skillful writing—in these eight novelettes. The back-stories are regrettably sparse. The late James Blish used to speak of full characterization and functional characterization. The latter would provide the author’s figures with just those skills and qualities necessary to operate within the constraints of the plot. The former would include those qualities that lift personalities off the page and into the reader’s life.
Doctor Satan, Girse, Bostiff, Ascott Keane, Beatrice Dale—they’re all functional characters. They move and speak but they don’t live and feel. I wish that Paul Ernst had pumped more life into them. But as puppets acting out his sensational stories, they do get their jobs done.