Thursday, February 5, 2015

Screaming Death Heads in the Sky!

Those darn Germans are at it again. This time, they turn to a Hindu mystic named Ghoula to find a way to capture the master spy G-8 and crush the Allied military at the same time.

Ghoula is offered the job by G-8's arch-enemy Doctor Kreuger. The Kaiser's top mad scientist isn't up
to the task himself--he's currently recovering from being riddled with machine gun bullets during his last encounter with G-8. But Ghoula takes the job--as long as he gets a regular pay check and the services of the top 1000 German pilots, then he can promise Germany will soon win the Great War.

This is the set up for "Wings of Invisible Doom," which was the featured novel in the September 1936 issue of G-8 and His Battle Aces. It's a typically entertaining entry in the series, with writer Robert J. Hogan giving us some exciting action scenes and a bizarre but internally logical plot. 

This one is a little different from other G-8 tales, though. To explain why, I'm going to have to include a bit more of a spoiler than I usually would, but that can't be helped.

Ghoula puts his scheme into action and soon giant, screaming death heads (attached to what is apparently an ectoplasmic cloud) are zipping through the sky at incredible speeds, attacking and destroying Allied planes.

It's not unusual in a G-8 story for a seemingly supernatural threat to have a "rational" explanation in the end. Werewolves, zombies, invisible planes, giant bats and other bizarre dangers are all eventually explained away as scientific creations by Doctor Kreuger or another of Germany's seemingly endless supply of mad scientists.

It's the same thing this time. The flying death heads are advanced planes with smoke jets to hide their shape, rigged to make a weird moaning sound as they flew and armored to make them largely immune to machine gun bullets. 

But where did Ghoula come up with a plane design decades in advance of anything else that exists? He looked into the future, of course. So there is an element of mysticism to this story. The Germans are using a science fiction devise, but they learn how to build it through what is apparently magic.

Also, Ghoula has caused several weeks of drenching rain to pour down on the Allied lines and muddy up the roads. There's no explanation given for that--so he apparently has access to some weather magic as well. 

This isn't a criticism of the story. The world of G-8 does need to grounded in pseudo-science rather than pure fantasy, but its such a strange world that a hint of magic fits in without a problem. Besides, maybe Ghoula's mysticism is like the Shadow's power of invisibility--a "science" that Westerners just haven't figured out yet. 

Anyway, G-8 and his partner Nippy get shot down by one of the death head planes and are forced to parachute out while behind enemy lines (using just one parachute for the two of them). But they eventually manage to steal a Fokker and get back to their own lines, despite being shot down again by Allied anti-aircraft fire. Some days it just doesn't pay to be a master spy.

G-8's other partner Bull has been captured, so the spy sneaks back to the German lines to find Bull and destroy the airfield that harbors the death heads planes. Hogan stretches contrivance a little too far when G-8 (disguised as a German officer) casually joins a tour of the airfield and has the entire plot explained to him, spotting both Bull's cell and a convenient stockpile of bombs along the way. Pulp writers as skilled as Hogan can usually pull off their unashamed use of coincidence and make it a part of the rhythm of the story. But here, Hogan stumbles just a little. 

But the final action set-piece, involving freeing Bull, knocking out some guards, knife-fighting with Ghoula and rigging the bombs to blow, is fun indeed. So we'll forgive Hogan for using one coincidence too many to bring the story to an exciting end.

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