Without any forewarning, the madness struck. One moment the busy steel-mill town of Keystone was a peaceful industrial community… the next, it had become a shambles of murder, madness and ruthless midnight slaughter. Horror walked its streets, and terror lurked in every close-locked home… Could the Spider, hastening to answer the distressed call of the dismayed inhabitants, prevail against the death which struck from darkness? A stranger in a place of madness, unsupported by friends or allies, Richard Wentworth faces his greatest test—alone!
“The Mill-Town Massacres” is the 41th Spider novel and was originally published in February 1937.
In many ways, this story resembles closely one of Gibson’s Shadow stories where Cranston/Shadow go to another city to work alone bringing about justice. Indeed, some of the descriptors of the Spider seem to come directly the Shadow Magazine, such as these two quotes from the third chapter in back-to-back paragraphs:
- “The Spider’s weird laughter ceased as quickly as it had begun. And now, echoes of his hilarity died away among the rafters…”
- “The Spider’s glowing eyes under the low-turned brim of the hat seemed to be everywhere at once.
Also in Chapter 2, the following is a description given for Wentworth: “Throughout the telephone call he had maintained a well-bred attitude of disinterest while Kirkpatrick was talking to Gaylor. The deepest keen blue eyes were everywhere…” Robert Sampson points out that Richard Van Loan, the Phantom Detective, appears to be Tepperman’s model for Wentworth.
Perhaps, Tepperman had directions to make the Spider more like the Shadow and the Phantom Detective, and this was the result. Certainly the story does not have a Spider “feel” to it; much of it could easily have been another masked vigilante without making any other changes beyond the name of crime fighter. Before this story, Tepperman’s Spider seem to be part Page’s Spider and part Gibson’s Shadow, but now Tepperman has made a sharp turn toward the Shadow. Maybe Tepperman forgot the magazine for which he was writing!
The story begins with a mystery, much like one of Dent’s Doc Savage novels of the early 1940s. Men go mad and start a rampage of killing where over a hundred men are killed. Apparently some agent has entered the blood of their killers causing them to do it. Oddly, the mayor of the town calls Kirkpatrick, from which the above stated comes. The mayor wants Kirkpatrick to contact the Spider and send him to investigate the tragedy. Kirkpatrick denies an ability to contact the Spider, but fortunately Wentworth is in Kirkpatrick’s office when the call is made. When told of the request, Wentworth tells Kirkpatrick that he is planning a trip that he had previously forgot to mention. Both men know that Wentworth and the Spider are headed to the town… Kirkpatrick’s only sign he understands is a bit of a smile at Wentworth’s words.
The overall story is quick moving. From chapter 3 on, only one night of elapsed time occurs. While it does not have the feel of a Spider novel, if you can get around that, the story is actually rather good. For me, though, I found myself lingering over the differences from Page’s Spider rather than concentrating on the story. We should not worry as Page will return and will reverse the changes introduced by Tepperman and by others.
One major goof involves Nita showing up at the end of the story. In Chapter 2, Wentworth had left word not to inform her of the Spider’s potential involvement. According to the story, NYC is a thousand miles from Mill Town. Since the action of the story takes place in one night, there is simply no way that she could gratuitously make an appearance. Perhaps she is there simply so that the picture of pretty, recognizable woman in distress can be put on the cover. Perhaps, it is a reminder that this really is a Spider story. Consistent with earlier stories, Nita is once again kidnapped, thereby providing a pathway for the climax of the book.