“The Lost Oasis” from December 1933 has an intense situation in Chapter 8 titled “The Voice From Hell.” Doc Savage and his men have captured four prisoners. One of them named Balid regains consciousness with the shocking realization that he must be dead. He cannot move, he is hot, and it is very dark.
The first thing he sees is a towering skeletal figure enveloped in a greenish flame. The skeleton shoots flame and balls of smoke from its mouth as it questions Balid. The bony arm grows magically in length, and points accusingly at the terrified man.
The smoke clears and Balid sees the gory head of Mohallet with his throat cut. The long arm of the skeletal demon reaches out and fills Balid’s body with pain from his touch. The apparition begins to question the horrified Balid who answers fearfully and earnestly.
This scene goes on for several paragraphs as Balid tells all he knows. After he is finished answering questions the spectral scene is revealed to be nothing more than some clever tricks and fast thinking. The skeleton is something made of wood and rubber with a liberal application of phosphorous to make it glow in the dark. The fire and smoke came from flash powder and the painful touch of the demon was an electrical shock.
It is a good trick and well written. Readers might wonder where such an idea originated. Lester Dent may have simply thought it up but there is another possibility. A fellow named Frank Roberts posted an article on the Facebook page for the Doc Savage Flearun group. This article dealt with a patent application submitted in 1927 by a woman named Helene Adelaide Shelby. Patent #1,749,090 was granted on March 4, 1930, for a device designed to obtain confessions from criminals. The basic idea is to put the criminal in a darkened room that has a skeleton standing on the opposite wall. The skeleton has red electric bulbs for eyes and a speaker designed to make it appear the sound comes from the skeleton’s mouth. There is a movie camera mounted in the skull that records all actions of the suspect being questioned. Directly behind the wall on which the skeleton is mounted is another room in which the operator controls the skeleton and interrogates the suspect. The eyes of the skeleton appear to blink in response to answers from the suspect.
It was a very interesting idea, but it does not appear to have caught on with law enforcement agencies of the era.
There is very little information available on Helene Shelby. She was born Helene Adelaide Delot in France in 1870. She arrived in the United States in 1894 and married Edgar Leroy Shelby in 1905. Newspaper records show she and her husband were active in real estate in the immediate years following their marriage. The 1920-1940 Federal Census shows she was living in Oakland, California with her husband. She died in 1947 at the age of 76.
Readers may never know what prompted Lester Dent to use this idea. Dent was a voracious reader and I suspect that he ran across an article on this in one of the multitude of magazines published at the time.