“The Devil’s Black Rock” debuted in the December 1942 issue of Doc Savage Magazine. Several elements and plot devices first seen in “The Red Skull” back in August 1933 reappear in this story.
The Cole brothers make an appearance – Wickard and Devlin. The names seem to a pun on “wicked” and “devil” especially given the brother’s character.
- This story recycles many of the same elements first seen in “The Red Skull”
- There are dogs with poisoned mechanical fangs.
- Cowboys are the bad men.
- Part of the story occurs in Arizona.
- Guns are hidden in in golf bags.
- The treasure is a new mineral that a criminal gang seeks to control.
- Doc’s gyro reappears.
- The villains are killed in an explosion.
Despite being a retread, it is a surprisingly good story. It is well written and moves along at a fast pace. Unlike “The Red Skull,” there is no mystery about the villain’s identity. The gang of crooks is bigger, meaner, and more efficient than Buttons Zortell’s gang.
The dogs with the poisoned mechanical fangs play a bigger role than they did in “The Red Skull.” There is more detail about the mechanics of these death dealing canines. Unlike their first appearance, people die from their bite in this story.
This story hit the newsstands on November 6, 1942. The United States had been at war just short of eleven months. The story introduces some German agents, but they play a very minor role and could have been eliminated from the story with little effect. The material would be very useful as an industrial explosive.
In some respects, the ending of both stories is similar. “The Red Skull” climaxes with the destruction of the Red Skull dam and the death of the mastermind and his chief henchman. “The Devil’s Black Rock” ends similarly with an enormous explosion that kills the villain and his entire gang.
If you have any doubt that Dent looked back at “The Red Skull” and grabbed some ideas from it consider this. The million-dollar reward idea first appeared in “The Lost Oasis” but it was printed in “The Red Skull” as a teaser for the next issue.
Dent describes the black rock as resembling cassiterite which is an oxide of tin used as a raw product in the smelting of tin. It could be that the mineral Lester Dent was really thinking about was pitchblende which is also known as uraninite. Pitchblende is a source of uranium used to make atomic bombs.
“Harder than coal. Fully as black. Had a sheen something like a crocidolite, but of course it didn’t have the tiger’s eye coloring of crocidolite. It was a little like the black stuff of cassiterite, so-called tin stone,”
Britannica describes pitchblende as amorphous, black, pitchy form of the crystalline uranium oxide mineral uraninite.
It is clear from the description Doc Savage gives at the end of the story that the explosion is “atomic” in nature. Doc explains that the compound changes the atomic structure of matter. The force is so great that the resulting destruction of matter goes on to destroy more matter. What Doc Savage describes is the chain reaction that occurs in a nuclear reaction.
It is interesting to note that atomic energy was still being mentioned in newspaper and magazine articles at this time. Wartime censorship had not yet clamped down.
Author Anne Rowe published a story in 1941 titled “Curiosity Killed a Cat,” The story was serialized in the Tucson Citizen and appeared in other newspapers in early 1942.
Rowe uses the idea of the discovery of pitchblende deposits in Central America of extraordinary concentrations repeatedly throughout the story. The raw ore possesses the strength of refined radium making it enormously powerful. The similar plot ideas used in this “Curiosity Killed a Cat” may simply be a coincidence, but it is food for thought that Dent may drawn some inspiration from it.
Doc does not pay attention to details as he once did in the past. Donkey Sam Davis casually follows Doc and his men into an elevator, pulls his gun, and gets the drop on them.