“A sailor named Steve ate an apple and killed thirty-eight men.” That’s the socko opening line of THE RED TERRORS, co-written by Lester Dent and Harold Davis (cover by Boris Vallejo, all rights with current holder). It turns out that Steve ate an apple contaminated with diphtheria and infected the rest of his merchant vessel’s crew. The one passenger, a deep-sea diver, tries to survive by diving into the water with his suit on, when something incredible happens … and then we get a somewhat disjointed series of events including weird attacks in New York involving red humanoid things, and a criminal doctor getting dragged off his ship by another red thing.
The plot really gets going when Doc and his team arrive in the subsea realm of the red things (actually humans in a kind of protective suit), who in a nice touch are related to the underwater civilization in Mystery Under the Sea—even using the same water-breathing drug though Doc and Monk seem to forget about that. We get a lot of marveling at the lost race’s world (which is protected from the sea by a heavier-than-air gas bubble) but it’s not as tedious as in Murder Melody. And the race’s issues are pretty down-to-Earth: the survivors from the first ship have infected them with diphtheria, they have no immunity, so they kidnapped the doctor who’s now trying to steal their treasure. It ain’t classic, but it is an enjoyable read.
And then comes FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, a landmark for multiple reasons. While the series has referenced Doc’s eponymous Arctic research center starting with the first story back in 1933, Man of Bronze, we’ve never seen it and it’s never played a role in a story—other than keeping Doc offstage—until now (in case you’re wondering, Bobb Cotter’s book says future Superman editor Mort Weisinger knew Dent and knew the Doc Savage series, so presumably that’s the source of Superman’s arctic fortress as well).
Second, it introduces Doc’s archenemy, John Sunlight—though of course he’s only “arch” because he came back once (The Devil Genghis—I’ll get to that in my March rereading) and nobody else did. Which doesn’t make him any less of an impressive adversary. A dark-haired, poetic looking man, John Sunlight is shipped to a Russian labor camp in the first chapter (“Russia was the first government to become afraid of him … John Sunlight had been put on Earth so that men could be afraid of him.”), escapes with the other prisoners, whom he breaks to his will. That is his driving passion here: controlling others. He’ll starve himself so that his followers can eat, not because of any principle of leadership but because he can’t control dead people.
And as luck would have it Sunlight and his followers steal a supply ship, wander through the Arctic ocean and discover a strange blue dome on the ice (visualized by James Bama on the cover below, all rights to current holder). Sunlight is one of the few men smart enough to not only find a way inside, but to use some of the technology gathered there. It turns out Doc has stored a lot of the super-weapons they’ve collected over the years, presumably in hopes of mastering the underlying science or adapting them for decent uses. Sunlight, of course, has no interest in decent uses.
The story of Sunlight striking and Doc desperately trying to put things right works despite a relative lack of action, spectacular death-traps or any particularly remarkable weapons (what we see is effective but not out of the ordinary for this series). Part of that (and another reason it’s a landmark) is that Doc is genuinely shaken up here. When he realizes Sunlight has found the Fortress and is using Doc’s tech for evil ends, Doc has serious trouble keeping himself under control. He’s seriously shaken, in a way he hasn’t been before. Millenium Comics cited 1938 as the year Doc started getting more human (which justified their own characterization of him) and this is a perfect example.