John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #42
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
"Bells of Doom" was originally published in the March 15, 1935 issue of The Shadow Magazine. The bells were rung when someone in the community had died. But then murder began to strike. And the bells continued to ring, even though no one was in the old tower. The Shadow was determined not only to find the killer, but to discover who... or what... was ringing the bells of doom.
We meet four men aboard the steamship Laurentic, bound from Liverpool, England, to New York. One of the four men is Lamont Cranston. And it doesn't take us long to realize that this is not the "real" Lamont Cranston, but The Shadow in his preferred disguise. Cranston sits in the smoking room playing cards with three other men.
The first of those men is Augustus Messler, a portly gentleman, a wealthy New Yorker who is completing a voyage around the world. In the ship's safe, he carries a fabulous collection of jewels acquired in India from the Rajah Salgore. Next is Charles Rosling, a man with the hatchet face, who declares himself to be a frequent transatlantic traveler. And third is Milton Claverly, a suave young chap, coming from Australia.
And just what is The Shadow doing on board the Laurentic? It's those jewels of Messler's. As Messler had traveled from India across Europe, there had been radioed reports of several attempts to gain the fortune in jewels. Reports received by The Shadow. They had been sufficient to bring The Shadow from New York to Liverpool, in time to board the steamship Laurentic. The Shadow will attempt to thwart future crime involving the treasure in jewels.
It's not long before we realize that this story will follow young Milton Claverly as he returns to America and to his small-town home of Torberg. His purpose in returning is to collect his legacy; his father only recently died. And, we might add, died under mysterious circumstances.
When old David Claverly died, the bells of doom had begun to ring. The bells in the tower that old Claverly himself had built and donated to the city of Torberg. It was David Claverly who had named them the bells of doom, although in a most gristly manner.
Old David Claverly had died somewhat suddenly, and just minutes later the bells began to toll. But then, a most horrifying thing happened. Old David Claverly, sat up in bed. That's right, a dead man sat up. Sat up, and shrieked, "The bells! Bells of doom! They are ringing for me! But when they ring again, they will tell new doom! Doom for those who -" At that, he fell back, dead. This time, for real. It's to this dark and foreboding location that young Milton Claverly intends to return.
It's clear from the beginning of the story that Milton Claverly is intended to be our proxy hero. It is he that we will follow throughout the story. It is he that we are intended to root for. Ah, but there's a twist. Author Walter Gibson presents us with a young man who may not be as innocent as he appears. Perhaps our proxy hero is in actuality a proxy villain!
While still on the ship making its way from England to America, young Milton meets surreptitiously with Charles Rosling. Rosling suggests the two join forces to steal Augustus Messler's jewelry collection. Because of the ship's security, they decide to wait until the jewels have been taken ashore at New York. And it's in Messler's New York home that an attempt is made upon the jewels. It's an unsuccessful attempt, but still leaves the reader wondering if Milton Claverly was involved in the failed attempt.
Suspicion builds when Milton Claverly returns to Torberg and the family mansion. He learns that three men cheated his father of most of his wealth shortly before he died. And soon those men begin to die. Milton Claverly has no alibi. And each sudden death is accompanied by the sound of the bells from the old tower. The bells of doom!
Yes, Walter Gibson goes out of his way to paint a picture of a young man tortured by inner demons. This young man could easily have committed the murders in Torberg. He glowers. He has outbursts of anger. When he vows vengeance, men die shortly thereafter. Could our proxy hero be not so heroic after all? The faithful reader can only hope that all will be safely explained in the end.
With The Shadow on hand, we're sure that right will triumph and the sinister forces will be defeated. The Shadow travels to Torberg and investigates the strange goings-on in the small town. He sends for his long-trusted agent Harry Vincent. With the assistance of only one aide, The Shadow sets about to discover the secrets of the Torberg inhabitants and solve the mystery of the bells of doom.
Usually, The Shadow calls upon a core group of agents. But Harry Vincent carries nearly all of the action, here. Underworld agent Cliff Marsland is used early in the story, to help thwart the jewel thieves at the New York home of Augustus Messler. But after the first four chapters, when the action moves to Torberg, he's left behind in New York, supposedly to continue tracking down Charles Rosling, the other suspect in the attempted robbery.
While the story spends two chapters in New York, we also meet our old friends Detective Joe Cardona and Detective Sergeant Markham. Cardona is currently serving in the capacity of acting inspector. All making the slow transition to his eventual title as Inspector Cardona. Cardona and Markham are present at the Messler house, acting as security for the jewel collection. But once the robbery is prevented, the story moves on to Torberg and we see no more of these two.
As for New York Police Commissioner Ralph Weston, he doesn't appear. His name is mentioned along with that of previous commissioner Wainwright Barth. Weston is back at his old job, now. This was in reference to the year he spent in South America helping clean up the small country of Garauca. But other than the one reference, neither the commissioner or the ex-commissioner show up.
The only other character representing the law is Sheriff Wheaton Locke of Torberg. He appears after the first murder in the small town, and has a fairly good-sized role to play. Walter Gibson portrays him as a competent lawman, but doesn't flesh out the character more than needed for the purposes of a pulp novel.
After four chapters of preliminaries -- two aboard the Laurentic and two set in New York -- the story settles down to the strange occurrences in the small town of Torberg. And that's where this story really shines. The dark atmosphere is compelling. The moonlit skies. Murder at midnight. The tolling of the phantom bells. And The Shadow skulking invisibly through the black night.
And what a backstory there is! Old David Claverly, wealthy but afraid to die. Afraid he'll be buried alive. The fear grew as he aged, until he finally had a special crypt built, a recent addition to his old mansion. And when he died, under mysterious circumstance, David Claverly was buried in the special stone crypt for a week. Then, after that time, having confirmed his death was authentic, the body was removed to the cemetery. The crypt itself was then locked and the keys destroyed, all as per the directions in his will.
And there's a potential romantic angle, here, too. But it goes nowhere. David Claverly took in young, attractive Phyllis Lingle as his ward. Her father had been an old friend of David Claverly. When young Milton returns to Torberg, she's still living in the old house with the crazy servant Lester. I expected Walter Gibson to insert a little chemistry between the two, but no. There are no sparks. Milton treats Phyllis rather remotely, and she does the same.
As for The Shadow, himself, this is a typical version of the mid-thirties Shadow. Not yet toned down, this Shadow shoots straight and often. The hoodlums drop with a bullet through their hearts. In later years, The Shadow would prefer to battle it out with his fists, using his .45 automatics to sledge down his opponents. But this Shadow prefers a gun battle. And he's mighty accurate, too.
We get to see The Shadow demonstrate many of his amazing abilities in this pulp mystery. He climbs the outside of a hundred-foot bell tower without the need for assistance from his rubber suction cups. They are mentioned as an aid he uses when ascending smooth surfaces, but are not needed on the rougher stones of the tower. And we get to see The Shadow pick locks that would have been impossible for anyone else. Even though the keys to the stone crypt were all destroyed, The Shadow is able to pick them and enter the strange, cold abode of the dead.
Some of the best Shadow pulp novels come from the mid-1930's, and this is one of them. With a nod to Edgar Allen Poe's "Premature Burial" this story kept me on the edge of my seat, reading far into the night when I should have been sleeping. What is the secret of the crypt? Why are the dead mysteriously increasing? Will The Shadow be able to unravel this strange mystery? And can he stop the ringing of the Bells of Doom?
Oh, yeah! It's a top-notch Shadow thriller. You can't go wrong with this one.
"The Murdering Ghost" was originally published in the November 15, 1942 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Ghosts. Seances. Spirit cabinets. Floating bells and tambourines. Glowing hands suspended in the dark. Seers. Mindreaders. Mystics. Mediums. And death. A shot in the dark. A knife stabbed in the back when the lights are out. There's a ghost, and it's murdering people.
It all starts at the psychic laboratory conducted by Professor Hayne, a very dapper man. He's trying to prove if, or not, there are ghosts, psychic materializations, telekinesis, or other strange phenomena. One way or the other. He neither believes or disbelieves. He's neutral; he just wants to know the truth.
He's going to test old Leander Hobgood. Hobgood is the inventor of many queer devices that resemble perpetual-motion machines. Such machines have been proven scientifically to be impossible, except that in Hobgood's case they actually work. At least, they work whenever Hobgood was around, but they have a way of bogging down when investors buy them and take them over.
Leander Hobgood has been called a defaulter, embezzler and swindler. Others think that he has some mysterious psychic power that powers his strange machines when he's present. That would explain why the machines fail to work outside his presence. Professor Hayne is going to test Hobgood in his laboratory for any such psychic power.
That's just the beginning of the story. Hobgood is electrocuted but survives. Gangsters attack his house to steal his inventions, but Hobgood ends up dead and house and all its contents go up in flames. Professor Hayne rounds up true-believers to fund a three-hundred-thousand-dollar prize to anyone who can prove their psychic powers. A list of mediums, seers, and other psychics grows, as they are drawn to the immense reward. Test seances are scheduled.
During one such seance, Don Tarkingham, the famed psychic investigator is killed by a shot in the dark. The murder could only have been committed by a ghost - a murdering ghost. Another seance is scheduled. This time, the medium Kalvah, in the middle of the seance, is killed by a knife thrust deep into his back. Everyone was holding hands; the only possible suspect is the murdering ghost.
Only The Shadow can unravel this mystery. Only The Shadow can peer beneath the trickery of the seance parlor. Only The Shadow can solve the riddle of the perpetual-motion machines. Only The Shadow can trap the murdering ghost. And so he does in the grand style to which we've become accustomed.
Everybody's here in this tale. Police Commissioner Ralph Weston and Inspector Joe Cardona are present representing law and order. Representing The Shadow are his agents: Clyde Burke, Rutledge Mann, Harry Vincent, Moe Shrevnitz, Cliff Marsland, Hawkeye, Jericho Druke, and Margo Lane. And The Shadow appears as his "other self," Lamont Cranston. Whew! The gang's all here!
In the early Shadow novels, Commissioner Weston didn't believe that The Shadow really existed. He considered him to be a myth. But as the years went on, Weston gradually began to accept The Shadow as real. How could he do otherwise? Too many times Weston actually saw The Shadow; heard the voice of The Shadow; was saved by The Shadow.
In this story, Weston has apparently reverted to his old belief that The Shadow is a myth. It's not logical, considering how many times he's actually seen him, but we're told he doesn't believe in The Shadow's existence any more than he does spiritualism. If he doesn't believe at the beginning of this story, he should have no doubt by the end. As our story ends, Weston is again in the presence of The Shadow as The Shadow explains the solution to the mystery and traps the culprits. He certainly can't deny The Shadow's existence now!
The Shadow's suction cups are in constant use in this story. Those concave rubber disks are used by The Shadow on four separate occasions. They're a pretty nifty gadget, and it's always good to see them in use.
Another of The Shadow's gadgets that we see in use, is his explosive powder, sometimes referred to as "The Devil's Whisper." The concoction actually exists in real life, but the formula isn't revealed in the pulp story because of its extremely dangerous nature.
Scotty Phillips, a magician for over 30 years, wrote me the following information about his experiences with "The Devil's Whisper" recently:
"I performed with it last August for a special performance for magicians only that I did. It is rare and dangerous to use. If not done correctly, it can be very painful. It is two chemicals that when rubbed together explode (friction, not snapping causes the burst). One is white and one is red. The red is the power in the blast and the white sets it off. Just the smallest dab of red and double the white will do it. You must keep the chemicals separated. I keep mine in a contact lens holder. Any way, you can get it on the web; it is called "fingertip flash" these days, and its very rare that anyone uses it. It got a very bad rep after some silly lad lost several digits playing with it. But it is real and still made today. Several times I have done it, and it jarred my body so that it ached for the rest of the day. It feels like it rattles your very frame."
He included this picture of himself with "The Devil's Whisper" exploding at his fingertips, with the comment, "Boy was that blast loud and powerful! Amazing stuff!"
But in this pulp story, "The Devil's Whisper" doesn't work out exactly as planned. The whole thing backfires on The Shadow. You'll have to read the story to get the details, but this is the first time I recall seeing that happen!
One small annoyance with this story is that The Shadow is repeatedly referred to as "chief" by his agents. In the earlier Shadow stories, he was their "master." In the later stories, he lost some prestige and became their "chief." This particular story indicates that the gradual change has begun. Personally, I liked it much better when he was their "master."
But let's not be picky. It's a really cool story that takes a closer look into the spiritualism that was so popular at the time.
John Olsen was first introduced to The Shadow in the early 1960's, tuning in to rebroadcasts of his adventures on KEX radio in Portland, Oregon. Several years later, John was drawn to a hardback book entitled "The Weird Adventures of The Shadow," containing three Shadow novels reprinted from the old pulp magazines. The pulp Shadow was a far different character from the beloved radio version, but the stories drew him in and opened his eyes to a richer version of the hero. Today, John is retired in Sherwood, Oregon. He has read all 325 of the old Shadow pulp mysteries and enjoys them so much that, as of this writing, he is well over half way through reading them all again for a second time.