The Sandman: 1939: Idle Hands, Chapter 1: The Tarantula Strikes

by HarveyKent, adapted from Adventure Comics #40 by Gardner Fox and Bert Christman

Return to chapter list

June 8, 1939:

“While Gotham City police officials deny rumors of the existence of a mysterious ‘Bat-Man’ in their city,” the newsreader’s mellifluous voice flowed from the radio speaker, “Police Commissioner James W. Gordon had no comment. This concludes the six o’clock news broadcast. Stay tuned for The Sandman over most of these GBS stations.”

I stood hunched over the worktable in my combination laboratory and workshop and muttered curses under my breath. I was working on my latest project, an idea that had first occurred to me in college and more recently came back to me while mountain-climbing in Colorado this last spring. I envisioned it as a handheld pistol that would fire a kind of miniature harpoon with a wire attached, with a thumb-trigger that would wind the wire on a miniature winch — an emergency device to be used by mountain climbers, window washers, and others whose careers demanded they brave the heights, in case of falls. But I could not get the winch mechanism just right. Disgusted, I pushed the metal parts away from me and ran a hand through my dark hair.

“Green Coal presents… The Sandman!” an announcer’s excited voice burst from the radio. “Green Coal, the finest Pennsylvania anthracite, is colored a harmless green at the mine for easy identification to assure top quality! Ask for Green Coal by name!

“And now, The Sandman! That mysterious figure who appears from nowhere, dealing swift justice to the lawless, leaving behind his silent calling card, a handful of sand sprinkled on the bodies of his victims! Tonight, the Sandman faces the menace of… ‘The Dragon Tong’!”

I chuckled at the inanity of the radio drama. I kept the radio in my workshop to relax my mind as I worked, but I thought perhaps I should remove it; it was more of a distraction than anything else. I looked down at the scattered pieces I was trying to fit into my harpoon gun and sighed with desperation. Perhaps it would never work. Maybe I should call my old friend Lee Travis and ask for his assistance.

Ever since my boyhood in Hilltown, in those long summer days when we rode our bicycles to the lake to go fishing, I’ve considered Lee a close friend. He wasn’t born into wealth like I was, having inherited it and the Globe-Leader newspaper from his godfather just last year, but we understood each other in ways that no one else ever has; we both wanted to change the world for the better. At Columbia University, between the football games where we were usually rivals, the two of us were always working on one fanciful project or another. Even though he was a journalism major, he’s always had an aptitude for science that came in handy, but it was his positively infectious youthful idealism that really drove us forward in those days of big dreams. Nothing ever came of those projects, but we always managed to produce working models of their ideas by putting our heads together.

I glanced up at the shelf where a few such joint efforts rested, gathering dust: the pistol that fired a cloud of anesthetic gas, intended for use by the police as a more humane method of disabling criminals than the common bullet; the gas mask, modeled after the protective gear from the Great War, but much more streamlined, for use by the same police to protect them from the effects of their own gas-guns. I considered our youthful naïveté. The police, interested in humane treatment of criminals. What a joke.

I touched the concealed spring that opened the door of my workshop and emerged into the den of my opulent home, which had been built from the Dodds-Bessing fortune of which I was the sole heir. My father had been a wealthy man, amassing millions of dollars as a steel magnate, as well as mining and manufacturing. After my parents’ deaths last year, I had discovered this hidden room behind the mantel in the den, apparently used by my father to keep certain… hobbies secret from my mother. I had cleared it out and used it as my laboratory and workshop, not out of any desire to keep anything I did hidden from Humphries — Leslie Humphries the butler, affectionately nicknamed “Feathers” by my parents for his constant feather-dusting, was another inheritance from them — but simply because of the convenience of the large space and good lighting. I spent many hours puttering away in that room, trying to do something useful.

Most of my life seemed to be a search for something useful to do. My father had made so much money after the war, I had no need to ever make any myself. Without a need to establish a career, I had obtained what is generally called a liberal arts education. I studied a variety of subjects in a search for something that would interest me passionately. Nothing did. Many things caught my passing interest — literature, chemistry, Eastern religions — and indeed I had a head for science that enabled me to perceive solutions for success where others only saw failure. But nothing gave me that fire, that drive, that my father had. Athletics came close; I excelled in many sports in school, and even briefly thought of competing professionally.

Instead, during a brief period of freedom from what my life was to become, I took a sabbatical from school after my first year of university to join the U.S. Naval Air Force as a pilot. As a child I’d been brought up on stories of air aces like our own Eddie Rickenbacker and Steve Savage, and Germany’s Hans von Hammer and the Red Baron, and before my father had discovered my actions, I was in pilot training myself. Of course, in the early 1930s during peacetime, there were no wars to fight. Still, it was there that I made some lifelong friends in my fellow pilots Clyde Dunlap and Happy O’Shea. We spent so much time together both in the air and on the ground that the other pilots quickly began calling us the Three Musketeers. (*) For a time, I thought the Navy was where I’d make my mark.

[(*) Editor’s note: See The Sandman, Adventure Comics #42 (September, 1939).]

But during a routine physical in the summer of 1933, nearly a year after I’d joined the service, the Navy doctors detected a slight heart murmur that hadn’t been caught when I first enlisted. It might never amount to anything, but if I overexerted myself, it could bring on a heart attack at a young age. In any event, I was given an honorable discharge from the Navy, and I was forced to say goodbye to all my friends in the service. It seemed that only the life of a layabout playboy was in my future.

I continued my education and participated in physical sports just to keep fit. But because of my heart murmur, I was told that no professional sports team would have me. Thus, upon my graduation in 1936, I began traveling abroad, hoping to free myself from the ennui of existence that my life had become. But that did not fill the empty hours and days of my life, and the years, oh so many stretching out before me. Having spent a couple of years in London, I was forced to return to New York City last year upon my father’s death, knowing I had to find something to occupy me, some passion I could devote my life to. And I knew that simply taking care of the family business could not fulfill me.

“Mr. Schaffer to see you, sir,” Humphries said. I hadn’t even noticed him come into the den, I had been so deep in thought.

“Thank you, Humphries,” I said. “Please show him in.”

I liked seeing old Tom, but these days it had a bittersweet edge to it. Judge Thomas Watkins Schaffer was my godfather, a very old friend of the family. In his prime he had been renowned as one of the most brilliant, honest, and charitable judges in the state, who retired several years ago only because he had begun to recognize that his once-vaunted mental faculties were failing him. He was the one link I had to my parents, now deceased. But even that link was slowly slipping away.

“How does he do it?” Tom asked, without greeting, storming into the den and throwing the evening paper down in front of me. I glanced at the large photo on the front page, immediately recognizing Vivian Dale, the actress.

“How does who do what, Tom?” I asked as Tom shed his overcoat and sat down, while Humphries dutifully took his overcoat and hat away on one arm.

“The Tarantula!” Tom roared, picking up the newspaper and pointing at the headline forcefully.

I took a closer look at the evening edition of the New York World Telegraph and read the headline and the bold print beneath it:


Fulfilling his promise, the Tarantula struck at ten tonight, spiriting wealthy Vivian Dale from her luxurious home despite heavy guard — police baffled!

“Tell me, Wesley Dodds — how?!” continued old Tom. “How does the Tarantula do it?! The police had a twenty-four-hour warning, and guards were swarming over our friend Vivian’s estate!”

I let out a deep sigh. This was what I meant about Tom slipping away. Vivian Dale was no friend of ours; I had never even met her, and to the best of my knowledge, neither had Tom. His aged mind was starting to confuse him; he was having difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality. He had seen so many Vivian Dale movies, he had come to believe that he knew her personally. He had the same problem with Charles Laughton. His doctors said there was nothing they could do; old age, they called it. Rubbish. Not every white-haired old gentleman lived in a fantasy world; there was something more to it than that. But it was beyond the medical science of 1939 to determine what, much less treat it.

“The Tarantula has ability…” I said, choosing not to dwell on Tom’s comment.

Ability?” said Tom incredulously. “He’s got magic! How else could anyone smuggle Vivian out, I ask you?!”

“Maybe he didn’t smuggle her out, Tom,” I mused, thinking of the hidden room built by my father. “Vivian’s big house is old — very old…”

“Stop talking riddles, Wesley!” Tom snapped. “I want to do something! I want to help!

“Would have been smarter for her to get out of her home for a while,” I mused.

“Don’t make jokes, Wesley!” Tom interrupted. “We’ve got to do something!”

“We?” I repeated. “Tom, what can we do that the police can’t?”

“I don’t know, blast it,” Tom sputtered. “But Vivian is our friend! We’ve got to do something! We can’t sit idle!”

“You’re right, Tom,” I said, humoring his delusion. “We should do something.”

“I just don’t see how that Tarantula fellow could have gotten poor Vivian out of her house, with everyone watching,” Tom said, pounding his knee with his fist.

“Some stage magician’s trick, probably,” I offered. “Nothing Thurston or Blackstone couldn’t do.”

“Bah!” Tom spat. “If only we had a master sleuth — a Philo Vance… a–” His voice trailed off as he struggled to think of other names.

It was so painful to hear my old friend and godfather, a former court judge, speak of fictional characters as though they were real people. My parents’ deaths had been sudden, shocking, but not as painful as watching Tom slowly fade away like this.

“The Sandman!” Tom cried enthusiastically, pointing his finger as his eyes lit up with the idea. “There’s a brilliant mind! Solved scores of cases for the police. But he’s a mystery! Nobody knows who he is or where he is, or anything! If he knew, maybe he could save Vivian.”

“Maybe he does know,” I said indulgently.

Bosh!” Tom said bitterly. “This affair’s upset us so, we’re dreamin’! Better get some sleep… think clearly tomorrow. Night, Wesley.”

“Good night, Tom,” I said, trying to keep the pity from my voice as Humphries returned with the old man’s overcoat and hat, and Tom left.

Poor Tom. I couldn’t stand to think of his mind slowly deteriorating like that. I forced myself to think of something else — anything else. I picked up the paper and concentrated on the Vivian Dale story. Some nut case calling himself the Tarantula had indeed sent a warning to the police that Miss Dale would be kidnapped from her very home. The police had suggested that she move into a hotel temporarily, but the haughty actress wouldn’t hear of it, instead inviting over several guests to visit, including her agent, Roger Crossart. So instead the police had put a guard around her house. And still she had disappeared right under everyone’s noses.

The paper carried a photo of Miss Dale’s house. Very old-looking, maybe a hundred years or more. I began to wonder… could my offhand supposition be possible?

I reached for the phone to call the police to tell them my theory. My hand stopped halfway to the receiver. I had been searching for a purpose in life, something to drive me. Perhaps this was it. Maybe I was crazy, diving headfirst to what could be, for all I knew, a nest of killers. But maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t crazy at all. Maybe this was the purpose my life had been leading up to, and it took circumstances and senile old Tom Schaffer to show it to me.

Smoking my pipe and pondering the situation further in my study, I finally arose and dismissed the old retainer for the night. “Good night, Humphries.”

“Good night, sir,” the butler said, and headed off to his quarters. I heard his door close a few moments later.

Upstairs in my bedroom, I walked over to my drawers and picked up an object that I’d placed there upon my return from London. It was a small cloth doll, no more than eight inches high, wearing an orange business suit with a hat, and buttons that acted as its eyes.

It was in London when the strange dreams began, the dreams and nightmares that have never ceased since then. When they first began, I had recurring dreams of a strange figure in all black apparel wearing something like a gas mask. While these dreams terrified me at first, it was when I happened to find the doll for sale in a shop in Piccadilly Circus that those dreams became more manageable, somehow. Perhaps it was because the doll was a representation of the figure in my dreams, but reduced to the form of a cloth doll, that strange figure was made harmless. Since it was my good luck charm when I slept, I named the doll Morpheus, after the Greek god of dreams.

The dreams continued, of course, but not every night. I took to keeping a journal, describing my dreams immediately after I awoke. They often seemed to be prophetic, but usually only in hindsight. I suppose old Dr. Freud would have a field day trying to interpret them.

Placing the doll in my bed to act as my stand-in during my absence, I waved at it and said in a playful voice, “Good night, Mr. Wesley Dodds. Sleep tight.”

Extinguishing the lights, I pressed a concealed button along one wall, releasing a spring that silently opened a wall panel that acted as the door to my workshop. Walking down a flight of steps, I entered my secret underground laboratory and turned on the lights. A few minutes later, clad in a protective lab coat, with gloves and the streamlined gas mask that Lee and I had created, I prepared a few chemicals to use in the working model of our gas-gun.

Fifteen minutes later I emerged from my lab, wearing the yellow gas mask atop a protective blue cowl and carrying the gas-gun. I was also wearing a green hat and one of my father’s old suits, an orange suit I would never be recognized in, and a purple opera cloak from last year’s masquerade ball. I had deliberately patterned myself after the figure I had seen in my dreams that had made such an impression on me, though I eschewed the all-black attire; still, I gambled that I would make a similar impression on anyone I might encounter face to face. Clad in this gaudy attire, which would probably make anyone think I was color-blind, I felt I was ready. Yet something seemed to be missing. I glanced around the room, wondering what it could be.

My eyes alit on the flowering cactus plant I had brought back from New Mexico in its huge clay pot in the corner of the den. Ah, of course. Reaching down, I scooped a handful of sand from the pot and placed it in the pocket of my father’s coat. Now I was ready.

Old Judge Schaffer had thought the Sandman should take an interest in the Vivian Dale case, did he? Well, tonight he would.

Return to chapter list