Lucifer's Friend: The Weird Crimes of Doctor Satan
The Arbo Files
“He is a man who performs crime for the sheer, icy love of it—a devil if ever there was one.”
Ascott Keane in “The Devil’s Double”
Weird Tales, which came to life in late 1922, remains the premiere pulp magazine of renown among PVLP KVLTISTS. The reasons for this are simple. In fact, there are three specific reasons why Weird Tales ranks among the top (the S-tier, if you will) of all pulp magazines—1. Lovecraft, 2. Howard, and 3. Smith. The three heavyweights of weird fiction published their best work in Weird Tales. As a result, whenever someone wants to educate themselves on the golden age of pulp, they usually start with “The Unique Magazine.”
Not everything published in Weird Tales broke with convention, however. Only Lovecraft and his pen pals composed cosmic horror for the magazine. For the rest, Weird Tales was the primary avenue for horror and early science fiction. Yes, some of these stories were off-beat. However, many (if not most) fit easily within genre conventions. Remember: most months saw Weird Tales readers rank Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin occult detective yarns as the best, even in issues that featured the mighty Lovecraft.
The readers could be fickle, though. For as much as they loved the prosaic occult detective de Grandin, they had nothing but scorn for Doctor Satan. Arguably one of modern literature’s first true supervillains, Doctor Satan first appeared in the August 1935 issue of Weird Tales. The character would reappear several more times in the magazine until the final story, “Mask of Death,” was published in the September 1936 issue. All told, 13 months of Doctor Satan ended with a net result of eight novelette-length stories of about 10,000 words each.
The reception was frosty. Writing in the introduction to The Complete Tales of Doctor Satan, editor John Pelan notes that “Dr. Satan was hardly welcomed with open arms by the readers, who were vociferous in their denouncing of the new series.” For the aristocrats of Weird Tales, the weird mystery stories of Doctor Satan seemed a better fit for Dime Mystery Magazine or Strange Detective Mysteries. Author Paul Ernst did pen stories for those particular publications, plus he was a Weird Tales veteran by 1935, having published several stand-alone stories in the magazine. What Weird Tales readers did not know was that editor Farnsworth Wright, who famously rejected some of Lovecraft’s most enduring tales, specifically tapped Ernst to create a dastardly villain for the magazine. Thus, a costumed arch-criminal came to life long before the first comic book was sold.
Born in West Peoria, Illinois in November 1899, Paul Frederick Ernst began writing seriously at age twenty-seven after a stint in the Navy during World War I. A prolific writer, Ernst published stories in Weird Tales, Strange Tales, Amazing Stories, and many others. His most famous creation, The Avenger, debuted in his own character pulp in 1939. Suffice it to say that Ernst was one of the best pulp writers. In “Writing Weird Tales,” a small article from 1936, Ernst advised aspiring writers to:
“Be original, start with a shiver, and end with a climax that will send the reader to bed with the lights on.”
Ernst practiced this preaching in his Doctor Satan stories. Each story follows a similar formula—wealthy men are targeted for bizarre crimes in order to blackmail them for princely sums. Realizing that the crimes are the work of the nefarious Doctor Satan, Ascott Keane, a wealthy criminologist and occultist, uses his many skills and powers to thwart Doctor Satan. The pair have a face-to-face confrontation in Doctor Satan’s secret lair. In the end, Doctor Satan is defeated, but manages to escape into the night. All of the stories, from “Doctor Satan” to “Mask of Death,” follow this plot. However, there is uniqueness in each individual story. Sometimes the differences are major, and sometimes they are minor.
But first…who is Doctor Satan?
Doctor Satan’s real name is never given. He is described as coming from old money. His life of leisure bored him so much that he became an adept student of the occult. Armed with the ability to cast spells, and capable of buying cutting-edge technology, Doctor Satan preys upon the powerful simply because he enjoys transgressing society’s norms. There is a lot about him that reeks of bastardized Nietzsche, or more appropriately, Nathan Leopold steroids. Dressed in his all-red outfit, which includes a cape, gloves, and a skullcap with two horns on it, Doctor Satan and his two henchmen, the legless giant Bostiff and the simian-faced Girse, brutalize and torture in ways the obfuscate the line between natural and supernatural.
Keane is Doctor Satan’s mirror opposite. He too is a wealthy playboy devoid of responsibility. Instead of giving into his base desires, Keane chose to pursue justice as a private criminologist. He is also an occultist, and in many tales, Keane and Doctor Satan swap magic attacks against one another.
In “Doctor Satan,” the evil genius uses Ancient Egyptian sorcery to cause plants to grow from the skulls of his victims. “The Man Who Chained Lightning” sees the supervillain reanimating corpses via an infernal machine that utilizes the power of lightning. A ray that dissolves the particles of human skin is used to horrific effect in “Hollywood Horror,” while voodoo-style dolls cause real world men to burn in “The Consuming Flame.” Arguably the strangest Doctor Satan story sees him and Keane both going to the land of the dead. In “Beyond Death’s Gateway,” Keane must stop Doctor Satan from learning the secrets of a new disintegrating ray by speaking with the shade of Marxman, its inventor. Doctor Satan’s goal is to take charge of the still-active plot to install Texas Govenor Kelly Strong (an obvious stand-in for Louisiana Govenor Huey Long) as the dictator of the United States.
Hypnotism, extortion, weird science, and black magic. These are the elements that make up every Doctor Satan story. Are these stories memorable? Yes and no. A reader will likely struggle to recall most of the details of each yarn, and yet the big and odious moments cannot be forgotten. As the Fantômas of Weird Tales, Doctor Satan creates outlandish spectacles of ghoulish delight in each edition. The stories succeed in doing that and not much else. Ernst’s best work appeared in The Avenger; Doctor Satan is a good, but irregular entry in his oeuvre. Still, Weird Tales readers in 1935-1936 were too hard on old Doctor Satan. These stories are pure pulp, and fun to read. The battles between Keane and Doctor Satan are reminiscent of Holmes versus Moriarity, albeit far more outré. Such stories are what pulp dreams are made of—over-the-top, action-oriented tales with Manichean morality and a few whiffs of sex.
I don’t know about you, but I would like to live life like Ascott Keane. Anyone want to be Doctor Satan?