Tuesday, 12 October 2021

The Complete Stories Of Doctor Satan

Satan’s Little Helper

The Complete Stories
Of Doctor Satan

Written by Paul Ernst
Fiction House Press
ISBN: 9781947964891

I first learned of the literary character of Doctor Satan at the beginning of the year, due to a tome dedicated to the cover artist who painted three covers featuring the character, The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage - Queen Of Pulp Pin-Up Art (reviewed here). My mind obviously immediately jumped to a famous cinema serial but, it turns out, this character has nothing to do with the one portrayed in the 1940 theatrical serial Mysterious Doctor Satan. In fact, this predates that character by four or five years.

Doctor Satan was a ‘supervillain’ created by Paul Ernst. He wrote eight fairly short Doctor Satan stories, pitting him against his arch nemesis, the hero of the stories, Ascott Keane. He and his secretary Beatrice Dale manage to, more or less, temporarily defeat Doctor Satan in each story... but the readership of Weird Tales, which is where these stories appeared from August 1935 to August 1936, didn’t think a lot of him and the character didn’t resume his terrorism on the world after those initial eight. The stories included are Doctor Satan, The Man Who Chained The Lightning, Hollywood Horror, The Consuming Flame, Horror Insured, Beyond Death’s Gateway, The Devil’s Double and Mask Of Death.

Now, I have to say, I’m a little bit with the majority of the readership on Weird Tales on this one but, there’s enough interesting features to the stories which made this worth reading. The primary one being the strange and diabolical death traps, a different one in each story, that Doctor Satan uses against his victims to try and inspire huge ‘protection’ payments from others... regardless of the fact that he’s, like Ascott Keane, a rich millionaire playboy and in Satan’s case, doesn’t care about the money... he just likes to bend people to his will and uses the money as his goal. Among the manners of death devised by Satan, are poisonous insects, a spotlight which causes the flesh, muscles and blood of a body to shift their molecular state so that they’re transparent (leaving people looking like living skeletons), a static electricity disintegrator bomb which charges up to the required power to explode according to it storing up enough energy when an automobile hits a certain speed, people who combust from the inside out, a paralysing gas which leaves men dead for a number of hours, a ray which kills people by shrinking them down to the size of a little doll (I wonder if the creators of The Master in Doctor Who had access to these tales?), hypnotic trances designed to make the victim go mad and a device which changes the speed of time flow at whatever it’s pointed at... so that people and objects are slowed down to frozen or, in the case of one, sped up so that his heart shatters.

By far the most spectacular death, though, is used as the opening hook for the very first Doctor Satan story. In it, victims complain of dizziness and headaches for a good number of hours before dying from a fast growing tree sprouting out of the top of their heads. This is quite a spectacular death and I’m surprised that nobody has done this in a film (as far as I know). It turns out that the victims are accidentally inhaling a seed placed in their vicinity which works its way up the nostrils and into the brain, where it quickly grows to a big tree-like plant through the top of their crushed skull. Satan’s deadly skills are a combination of rational science and his studies of the occult, both skills which are also inherent in the main protagonist of the stories, Ascott Keane.

Now Ascott Keane is a quite boring but notable figure. Mostly he’s boring because the stories are so short that no real personality has time to manifest before he’s already tracked down Doctor Satan and is having a ‘final battle’ with him. However, he’s a wealthy individual who pretends to be a shallow millionaire playboy while he secretly helps out those in need with his remarkable crime busting skills. Hmm... sound familiar? I guess he may be partially inspired by Lamont Cranston in The Shadow stories but, either way, this seems like a template for a certain Bruce Wayne, who wouldn’t make it into comics as Batman until that character’s 1939 debut. I would imagine Bob Kane and Bill Finger would have been reading pulps like Weird Tales, The Shadow and Doc Savage at the time. I mention Doc Savage because the fantastical elements of the stories used by Ernst for this character seem pretty inspired by Lester Dent’s iconic hero of bronze. One difference being that these stories are not particularly well written... whereas the Doc Savage novels are little works of art. Another difference being that although the strange components of the mysteries faced by Doc are always explained away by science (excepting the very last of Dent’s stories about the character, Up From Earth’s Centre), the strange devices and devilish plots weaved by Doctor Satan rarely stand up to scientific explanation and are almost always sugar coated with supernatural, occult icing on the cake. Which makes them both less credible and, feeling like a bit of a cheat if I’m honest. However, without those elements we wouldn’t have a story where Doctor Satan and Ascott Keane fight in spirit form in the astral plane, as their bodies are both sent into death for a period of time as they explore this other world.

I can’t find much in the way of information about Doctor Satan but I do have some issues with the order of the stories. Weird Tales often chose to not publish stories in a chronological order (as I found out when I read the Conan stories in the order in which they appeared in the magazine) and there are some dead giveaways here. For the majority of the stories, Doctor Satan has two thuggish assistants working with him called, Girse and Bostiff. Bostiff is interesting because he is quite muscle bound but has no legs, resembling one of the lead characters in Tod Browning’s Freaks... so how the writer can quite casually use this guy to manhandle victims for Doctor Satan is puzzling at best. He never uses a wheelchair, just uses his arms as legs while simultaneously seizing people and lifting heavy objects somehow. This makes no sense to me. He seems a somewhat inefficient kind of ‘right hand man’ to have around, at the best of times...

Anyway, regardless of this, Girse is killed by Ascott Keane in a trap meant for himself in the fourth story, The Consuming Flame. Which is fine but, in the fifth story, Horror Insured, Girse is back in it like nothing had even happened. What’s more, he is killed by Keane again at the end of this one. I’m guessing Horror Insured was, perhaps, originally rejected and so Ernst maybe wrote another story featuring the death of Girse, The Consuming Flame. And then, I suspect, the editor of Weird Tales decided to run his original ‘death or Girse’ story a month or two later. Which makes for a glaring continuity error.

Similarly, Bostiff meets his death at the hands of Keane, wielding the occult powers of the Blue Mist of Death in The Devil’s Double. However, in the next and final tale, Mask Of Death, he seems to be up and about again with no mention of how he’s back from the dead. So I’m assuming the publication dates were flipped for these two stories and they were not printed in the order the writer intended.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about The Complete Stories Of Doctor Satan. It’s a nice enough idea of a character and has some really cool, strange concepts written into its DNA which make the stories worth reading, even though they could have been a lot better written to capitalise on the strength of the sometimes ‘totally out there’ fantastical elements. Not one I’d recommend to many people unless you have read other pulps and these are no comparison to the Doc Savage novels, it has to be said. Still, happy to have had the opportunity to read them and, well, they’ve pointed me in the direction of something else I need to read... if I can lay my hands on another ‘out-of-print’ copy.

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