In the heart of New York’s Chinatown, on his imperial throne, guarded by swordsmen and gunmen and a labyrinth of death traps, sat the Arch-Criminal of all time. Master of life and death, of disease, of horrible, crawling things—the Emperor of Vermin released destruction over city and nation. The Spider, Master of Men, champion of humanity, fought with every ounce of his cunning, against the monster who personified evil incarnate—while one faithful servant gave his life in this, the Spider’s most bitter, hopeless battle, and Nita herself was faced with a doom more ghastly than any criminal mind had conceived before!
“Dragon Lord of the Underworld” is the 22nd Spider novel, the 20th consecutive by Norvell Page, and was published in July 1935. This is Page’s second use of the Chinese as villains, an overused tactic in pulps, perhaps because the Chinese often segregated into “Chinatowns” as in this story such that most pulp readers were not familiar with their ethnicity, thereby making Asians appear all the more exotic. In the review of "The Red Death Rain," the earlier novel using Chinese for the bad guy, Page did not dwell too far into ethnic characterization as the villain of that piece, the Red Mandarin, could easily have been transformed into the Black Nigerian without changing much else. In this tale, the stereotypical 1930s pulp Yellow Peril portrayal is in full swing. Even if you think that you are imperious to racial slurs, you might be offended by this one.
The bad guy is named Ssu Hsi Tze, which according to Page means four vermin where “four” is the imperial number implying that the Chinese is the “Emperor of Vermin.” He is a master of poisonous gases and venoms, and uses vermin such as snakes, scorpions, insects, and spiders to deliver death to thousands, apparently dispersing so many bodies that the streets are blackened with them; entire towns are killed when millions of these critters are dropped from the air on them. Ssu Hsi Tze unites all criminal elements under his rule, whether Asian or Caucasian or otherwise, as tools to extract monies for China. His success leads him to proclaim himself “Emperor of America” toward the end.
The death toll in this story might well be the highest that we have seen so far from Page (but not the highest that we will see). At one point, the bodies were so numerous that Wentworth orders a chauffeur to drive over a throng of fallen, dead victims in pursuit of the bad guys. Mercifully, the bodies are not described afterwards, but a graphic picture of the car lurching over the bodies is included in the magazine. Flynn, the current Police Commission, is so affected by this event and the aftermath that he starts guzzling his Scotch with his hands trembling.
Professor Brownlee also dies in this story, but unlike Jackson will stay dead. His death will deprive Wentworth of his technological prowess which has served the Spider well up to now, obliterating a major tool in his fight against evil… but don’t worry, we will soon see Wentworth and Nita in the lab working wonders. I am not sure how they became so adept, but they will be good at applying the necessary science in the nick of time to foil future threats!
As usual the story is fast moving with all kinds of kidnappings, shoot outs, torture, undercover antics, all kinds of thrusts and counter-thrusts, even Ssu Hsi Tze attacking Wentworth with his mind; we have a couple of evil sexpots, one interestingly named Flo Delight. The road is long and treacherous but once again the Spider will prevail, just barely beating the deadline for the death sentence for all seven million New Yorkers. If you can get by the racial aspects of the story, it is overall quite good.
Frankly, the extent of the battles are so horrendous that if the events of this account happened for real, the US would probably have joined Japan in its invasion of China that had been off and on since the 1931 invasion of Manchuria. (Note: The Japanese are referred to as the “Yellow men of the islands.”)