On the surface, The Derrick Devil appears to be a typical Doc Savage adventure from February 1937. We are treated to a story that includes the entire crew Doc, Renny, Long Tom, Monk, Ham, and Johnny along with the two pets, Habeas Corpus and Chemistry. The story centers about a plot to take over the Indian Dome oil field in the sage region of Oklahoma by creating a panic.
Two criminal partners have a plan to terrorize the oil producers in this area by creating the impression that amoeba-like creatures are coming to the surface from deep inside the earth. These primitive creatures fall upon any unfortunate person and immediately devour them. All that is left is the victim’s clothes and a mass of discolored grease that resembles old lube grease of the type used around the oil drilling equipment.
The two villains are operating through a front company, The Best Bet Oil Corporation, and buying up all the leases in the field. The overall idea is to create a situation whereby it appears impossible to operate in the field. Owners would be happy to sell their apparently worthless holdings for pennies on the dollar. The villains would later step in with new equipment and defeat the menace. They would be left holding millions of dollars-worth of oil leases, which they basically got for nothing.
Two gangs are at work here. The first is a newly formed gang, headed up by Enoch Andershott and Alonzo Cugg. They are after the oil leases with a scheme to devalue the wells and then buy at reduced prices. The second outfit is long established and headed by the near legendary bandit leader, Tomahawk Tant.
The other main character in the story is Vida Carlaw, who partnered with Reservoir Hill, firsts encounters the amoeba creatures. It is Vida’s call for help to Doc’s headquarters in New York City that sets the man of bronze and his five companions on the trail of the mystery. Hill, incidentally, is the secret identity of the criminal outlaw Tomahawk Tant. In the end, the two gangs wage a deadly fight in an oil tank farm. As could be expected, the villains all come to a bad end when one of the oil tanks catches fire and explodes.
The story is your basic Doc Savage adventure. It is exciting and a pleasure to read. Especially appealing is the appearance of the entire cast in the story. One thing in the yarn did pique my interest. There seemed to be something more to the primitive amoeba creatures. After some consideration it occurred to me that they reminded me of something from a Lovecraft yarn.
Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with H. P. Lovecraft, here is a little background information. Lovecraft wrote numerous horror stories in the early part of the last century. Many of his stories centered on the concept that millions of years in the past the earth had been ruled by powerful and ancient creatures from beyond time and space. Wars were fought between these alien races. Some of the creatures were destroyed, others retreated deep underground, while the survivors built a colossal city on an island in the Pacific Ocean and were ruled by the great Cthulhu. Eventually a natural cataclysm overtook the island and submerged it deep under the Pacific waters where the creatures sleep in timeless slumber awaiting the day they are awakened and resume their reign over the earth and the creatures living on it.
Millions of years before this transpired the Old Ones inhabited the earth. These alien beings built structures on a huge scale. In order to do so, they created an organic life form to perform these Herculean tasks. These creatures are called Shoggoths. In Lovecraft’s story At the Mountains of Madness a Shoggoth is described thusly. They were normally shapeless entities composed of a viscous jelly which looked like an agglutination of bubbles, and each averaged about fifteen feet in diameter when a sphere. They had, however, a constantly shifting shape and volume throwing out temporary developments or forming apparent organs of sight, hearing, and speech in imitation of their masters, either spontaneously or according to suggestion.
Lovecraft explains that the Shoggoths developed intelligence and rebelled against their creators. The Old Ones had used curious weapons of molecular and atomic disturbances against the Shoggoths, and in the end had achieved a complete victory. Further into the story we come across the following. Pictures of this war, and of the headless, slime-coated fashion in which the Shoggoths typically left their slain victims, held a marvelously fearsome quality despite the intervening abyss of untold ages. Reading further we come across this passage. I came only just short of echoing his cry myself; for I had seen those primal sculptures, too, and had shudderingly admired the way the nameless artist had suggested that hideous slime coating found on certain incomplete and prostrate Old Ones those whom the frightful Shoggoths had characteristically slain and sucked to a ghastly headlessness in the great war of resubjugation.
Now comes an interesting hypothesis. Could the amoeba-like creatures in The Derrick Devil be immature Shoggoths? Here is how the Doc Savage story describes the creature. The thing going into the oil well casing had substantial reality to it, that was certain. It was not transparent, like a jelly. It flowed as some jellies will melt and flow when dropped on a hot stove. It was going into the sixteen-inch casing.
Another interesting item is the reaction of the flowing jelly creatures to artificial light sources. The creatures in the Doc Savage story retreat before artificial light sources. If we accept the appearance of the creature at the Andershott-Cugg mansion as genuine, regardless of Andershott’s ultimate motives, then we have another curious fact to toss around. This attack occurred in full daylight. Hence, we can say the creatures are not adverse to sunlight, only artificial light. This takes us back to the Lovecraft story where the rebelling Shoggoths were subjugated though the use of energy weapons. Is the reaction of the jelly devils to artificial light a vestige of a racial memory? Do the creatures have an instinctual fear of energy weapons as a result of their defeat in the War of Resubjugation?
Another noteworthy trait is the jelly devil’s speed. At the Andershott-Cugg mansion, Doc Savage attempts to cut off a piece of the creature before it retreats under a locked door. The creature is simply too fast and Doc fails to obtain a sample. This animal is extremely fast. Monk especially is amazed at the animal’s speed.
The gruesome discovery of the partial remains of two of Tant’s men brings up another point. Parts of the torsos, arms and legs of the victims were missing. There was a mysterious substance resembling common lubricating grease under the body fragments. Police refuse to explain what the greasy material is. This is also the same description of the mangled human remains found at the Seminole Field incident. One wonders why the victims would be members of a rival gang. We learn the leader of the jelly monster gang had approached Tant about forming a partnership. Tant found the proposed arrangement not to his liking and rejected the offer. It would appear that Tant had his men out looking for the rival gang. They had the misfortune to be caught.
Examining the condition of the remains points to curious similarities with the Lovecraft story. Is this the same type of death the Shoggoths dealt to the Old Ones? –This sucking off of appendages?
An analysis of the slime found at the oilmen’s home leaves the police chemist confused. It is something more than just slime. It is digestive juices. Interestingly the police chemist attempts to go into detail about the substance but Doc cuts him off short by suggesting that there is no need for further discussion. This brings up an interesting point. Did Doc Savage have some secret knowledge of what the juices were? Was Doc aware of the Old Ones? Was it his purpose to quell discussion of the matter and end it there rather than have it lead to other unpleasant speculations?
During Doc’s visit to the oilmen’s home and during the encounter with the creature Andershott’s dog is simply terrified at the presence of the jelly creature. The sledge dogs in Lovecraft’s story are equally disturbed in the presence of the Old Ones. While there is no direct contact in the story between dogs and Shoggoths it is not illogical to suppose that the canines would react in a similar way to something so alien.
Toward the end of the account, the Jelly Devil gang captures all of Doc’s men. Johnny gets a much too close-up look at one of the creatures and is thoroughly convinced it is genuine. This is a very powerful point in favor of the creatures being authentic. Johnny is professor of natural history in addition to his expert knowledge of geology and archeology and his opinion carries a lot of weight.
Meanwhile, the governmental authorities react strongly to the threat. Doc encounters a military convoy on his way to a meeting with the outlaw Tomahawk Tant. These are not simply a few trucks loaded with national guardsmen. We learn there are thousands of soldiers being deployed to the oil field to cap the wells. The wells are to be sealed with cement and lead.
The governor has declared martial law, which is not a light undertaking. The authorities apparently have decided that any additional panic created by the declaration of martial law is far outweighed by the advantage of getting the situation under control as quickly as possible. It is likely that someone in the government, someone with access to restricted information, declared an emergency in an attempt to regain control of the situation.
Doc meets up with Tant. In the ensuing encounter, the outlaw chief is captured and his secret identity as Reservoir Hill is revealed. Doc captures Tant, but in the end, the Andershott gang seizes both him and Tant. Tant reveals that the jelly devil gang first contacted him about the scheme to take over the oil fields. Throughout the entire story it seems pretty clear that Tant is convinced the jelly devils are genuine. Tant, in his identity as Reservoir Hill is plainly spooked by the amoeba creatures and their slimy trail.
After the capture of all the Doc Savage crew, one of the Andershott gang members reveals to Doc that the setup is a fake. We are told that the organisms are simply comprised of rubber balloons and that the digestive fluid is a man-made chemical compound. The gang member explains immersing the victims in acid vats creates the partially digested bodies.
I view this confession by the criminal gang as somewhat self-serving. I would imagine that the creatures were extremely difficult to control. Probably Andershott and Cugg were the only ones who knew how to fully control the beasts. It was not a secret they are likely to share with their underlings, especially if the two are more than mere criminals. The pair may have been acolytes of some secret order perhaps the Cult of Cthulhu.
Then there is the sheer magnitude of the gang’s operation. The creatures are reportedly seen at three separate locations in one night Seminole Field, Bartlesville, and at Indian Dome. These locations are relatively spread out. The police report indicates that Seminole Field is forty to fifty miles away from the Indian Dome Field. This is a pretty ambitious operation on the criminal’s part. Regardless of the reason, the gang does use mock-ups and other cover-ups when neither of the two leaders is available to control the actual creatures.
Going one step further, it would appear that the creatures were not always under anyone’s control. This is evidenced by the incident in Andershott’s home. The fact that Enoch Andershott had to tie himself to a chandelier indicates that the creature was not fully responding to its new master.
In examining the victims, it does seem a stretch to suggest that the police laboratory would not be able to distinguish the difference between a body immersed in acid and one that had been subjected to something else entirely.
In the conclusion of the story a huge battle erupts between the two gangs ending with the destruction of both gangs and their leaders. Afterwards there are no more reports of the jelly devils. Is it possible that all the creatures were destroyed in the fire? The inferno was no small affair and the creatures appeared to be little more than a viscous mass. It would seem that their bodies would leave little behind in the aftermath of a large fire.
It appears only a few of the creatures existed — maybe even only one. The creature could have been an immature Shoggoth. Another scenario could be developed whereby the creature was an adult that had been trapped beneath ground since prehistoric times. The creature had gone into a state of suspended animation and had subsisted on its own tissues over millions of years. Hence its relatively small size when compared to a full-grown Shoggoth.
There are a couple of more interesting items to explore. We are told in the Lovecraft story that the Old Ones retreated to the warmth and darkness of the inner earth in order to escape the coming ice. In the Doc Savage novel, Reservoir Hill explains an old Indian legend to Vida Carlaw.
“The papoose dug the hole in the tepee floor, anyway,” said Reservoir. “An earth devil that lives in the center of the world sent his mean, red spirit up through the hole and grabbed the little papoose and ate him all up, except his grease, which would fry and sputter in the hot place at the center of the earth.”
The reader now asks the question is this tale a corruption of the fate of the Old Ones? Are Andershoot and Cugg members of the Cthulhu Cult? It is odd that the two men live together. It appears that Andershoot is the leader and Cugg is his assistant. The description of Cugg is interesting. Alonzo Cugg had big eyes with a permanent scare deep in them, and a way of holding his hands as if ready to sprint. No one knew of any reason why he had ever been scared of any one or why he should be. He seemed about one hundred and thirty pounds of skin over wires, and was about two shades lighter than a khaki shirt. Cugg is a man who is scared and he is scared all the time. Has he seen things that simply are too much for mortal man to behold?
Another interesting item is the airplane abandoned by the gang. Someone has left a strange message for Doc Savage. After much study, Doc announces that the message is meaningless and is only a ruse to delay them. Is there more to this message than we are told? Could it be a something a follower of Cthulhu wrote on the plane in an attempt to invoke the protection his unimaginable god?
There is interestingly similar subject matter in both stories; amoeba-like creatures, agitated dogs, strange hieroglyphics, flashlights and energy weapons, and mangled corpses. There is an underlying structure of fear permeating the stories. All-in-all one could make a good argument that The Derrick Devil is only a version of events and has been painted so as to dispel any uneasy feelings that might have arisen from the actual situation.