1933-08 The Red Skull

Cover Date: August 1933
Volume 1 #6
Copyright Date: Friday, July 21, 1933
Author: Lester Dent
Editor: John Nanovic
Bantam Edition # 29, May 1967
Sanctum Edition # 25
Story Length: 47,800 words
WHMC: The collection contains eight folders for this story, f. 89-89.
Recurring Characters. The entire Iron Crew are all present in this story.

I first read this story back in 1967 thanks to the Bantam reprint series. In fact, it was my first ever Doc Savage story! I notice a lot more about the stories these days. One of the first notable items is that Monk’s secretary, Lea Aster, is named after Lester Dent.

The story calls it the Red Skull Dam but the dam on everyone’s mind was the Boulder Dam which was also under construction on the Nevada-Arizona border. Construction began in 1931 and was completed in 1936. Readers should note that the dam was alternatively called Hoover Dam with both names appearing frequently in the newspapers of the era. Hoover Dam became the official name in 1947.

There are a couple of interesting points in this adventure. Early on in the story an attempt is made to trick Doc and his crew into heading to Canada to aid a hijacked radium miner named Ben Johnson. This sounds suspiciously like Ben Lane who appears ten months later in “Mystery on the Snow.“

After the ruse is revealed, Ham bemoans the fact they are not going to Canada and that he would enjoy a vacation there. Five months later, Ham gets his wish in “Brand of the Werewolf.”

These two items seem to show that Dent was either thinking about the two later stories while writing “The Red Skull” or else used them for a springboard in writing the latter two adventures.

Some other factors influenced this story. In 1930, Canadian prospector Gilbert LaBine discovered a rich deposit of radium and uranium ores in the Northwest Territory of Canada near Echo Bay located on the Great Bear Lake. In 1933 Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited began mining these ores.

Doc Savage’s comments about the scarcity of radium are spot-on. An earlier article in the October 13, 1930, issue of Time Magazine cites another mining discovery in Ontario. The article, “Science: Radium in Ontario,” remarks that the price of radium varies from day-to-day $50,000 to $70,000 per gram.

Dent’s use of “Ben Johnson” raises an eyebrow when the Northwest Territories appear. Another character by the name of Johnson achieved great notoriety in the area. He was Albert Johnson who is more commonly known today under the guise of the Mad Trapper of Rat River. Johnston led the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on an arduous chase across the frozen wastes.

Time Magazine covered Johnston’s death, “Foreign News: Death On Porcupine River,” in the February 29, 1932, issue.

Button’s gang uses a. 30-30 carbine and a. 45 caliber six-shooter at the golf course ambush. A likely candidate for the revolver is the Colt Peacemaker. This was a single action revolver chambered for a. 45 cartridge. Modern readers might mistake the. 30-30 carbine for the M1 carbine but that would be a mistake as that particular weapon was not available until 1942. The carbine in question is probably a Winchester Model 1894 lever action rifle chamber for the. 30-30 round.

Contact poison makes an appearance but the exact chemical is not named. Hydrogen cyanide would be a likely candidate. Another fascinating item is the hypodermic needle tipped thimbles Doc uses. The chemicals used in them produce a mindless state in the victim that is much akin to that later used by Lawrence Donovan in “The Men Who Smiled No More.”

The Valley of the Vanished: We are told that the value of an individual shipment is as much as five million dollars.

Buttons Zortell and his outlaw gang spy on Doc Savage’s 86th floor headquarters from the observation deck of an adjacent skyscraper. This is likely the same building that was under construction in “The Man of Bronze.”

One of the death devices uses a dog equipped with poison fangs. This gag is reused in the December 1942 issue as “The Devil’s Black Rock.”

Doc’s Utility Belt: One really important fact here is the first appearance of Doc’s utility belt. Immediately before he parachutes over the side of the gyro, he dons a canvas belt with large boxes attached. It is also something Batman adopts for himself.

The outlaw gang escapes from their Red Skull hideout by using the new gas to melt the rock. This is amazing when you consider the high temperatures required to melt rock. The temperature would have to be over 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit. Add the fact that a large quantity of rock was melted in the story, and you have really got something very interesting.

Doc later explains that this is some hitherto unknown gas. Identifying this substance outside the story context is something of a challenge. Certainly, it is no ordinary gas in the same family as acetylene, butane, or propane. An oxygen-hydrogen reaction would be the most logical explanation along conventional lines.

One possible explanation for the incredible temperatures at the Red Skull hideout would be the use of thermite coupled with the new gas in order to reach the extreme temperatures and amount of energy required to melt so much rock. The hideout takes its name from the Red Skull formation. Iron oxide is a naturally occurring mineral which can give rocks a red tint. Iron (III) oxide is also one of the main components of thermite. Naturally occurring deposits of iron oxide in the cave reacting with the new gas could account for the extreme temperature environment. We should also consider the possibility that the criminal mastermind had a chemical laboratory at the hideout that he was using to test the new gas. The presence of esoteric chemicals may have contributed to the extreme exothermic nature of the reaction.

The story concludes as many of the stories do with the mastermind’s death. Monk made sure that Buttons Zortell was along for the trip. Doc Savage questions Monk about Button’s escape. It is clear that Doc knows the truth as the story describes Doc as keeping a straight face while questioning Monk about the escape.