Max Welson is president of a downtown bank, the one right on King's Highway across the street from the newsstand. Welson is not only a banker, but also a collector. One of the art treasures he has acquired is a big pair of bronze doors carved with allegorical images of the deadly sins and of sinners being tormented in Hell and bearing the inscription "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." Welson had these doors imbedded in the concrete exterior wall of the bank, right on the sidewalk, where all the foot traffic, people driving by, and the guy at the newsstand can see them. They are not functional--they don't open...or do they?
The first installment of "Doorway to Hell" is a detective story with a strong supernatural element. Our hero is Arnett Huston, a newspaper reporter who hangs around the downtown neighborhood where this bank is, the area being his beat. He sees local gangsters mow down some joker with a tommy gun--the victim is standing by the bronze doors, and Huston could swear he glimpsed the doors open and somebody or something pull the bullet-ridden corpse inside...but where? Not into the bank, surely, as a thick layer of concrete lies between the doors and the bank lobby.
Huston investigates, talking to comic relief Irish-American cops, gangsters in the hospital, and the guy who runs the newsstand, and reading through files at the police station and at the newspaper. He uncovers many clues involving some financial frauds and schemes, and learns the guy at the newsstand is in fact Peter Hardwicke, a financial wheeler-dealer in hiding from the fuzz because he was framed by crooked financier John Arkway. Arkway, who was in league with the mob, died some time ago. Hardwicke has seen numerous people go through those doors, and then Huston sees another somebody pulled through them, a hot girl who was lured to the dread portal by a letter from a friend who had disappeared! In the brief time they are open, Huston sees beyond the doors fire and hideous monsters! It turns out that the hot girl was Elaine Hardwicke, Peter Hardwicke's daughter, and the friend who had vanished was dating that fraudster Arkway!
Huston and Hardwicke figure out a way to lure the head of the local mob to the doors, and as a stunned Huston watches, a bold Hardwicke takes the initiative, shooting down the mob boss after said gangster, somehow, opens the doors. Hardwicke and the corpse pass through the doors, and Huston, who has fallen in love with Elaine Hardwicke, wants to follow, but the doors shut before he can reach them. As the first episode of the serial ends, Huston has figured out the secret to opening the doors, and he and one of those Irish cops descend the stairs beyond the bronze portal, into a world of fire and monsters!
Palmer does in "Doorway to Hell"'s second installment what Philip José Farmer would do in the 1960s and the succeeding decades with his various "Riverworld" writings: come up with a whole science fiction explanation and depiction of the afterlife. When we die, we go to this other world, where live some aliens but which is run by human beings who have very advanced technology, disintegrator pistols and teleporters and so forth. Many of those who make up the bureaucracy and technical staff of this other universe are people from Earth who died and passed some kind of vetting or something. Arkway, the crooked financial guy who was allied with the mob and framed Hardwicke, has continued his clever schemes in the afterlife! He has gotten himself a good position in this afterlife world, and he has been learning about the technology there and amassing high tech equipment; he has even learned how to return to Earth after having died! After some chapters in which Huston learns about the afterlife and tangles with the mob boss and reunites with Hardwicke and so forth, Arkway returns to Earth with an arsenal of super weapons and the hope of becoming dictator of Terra. The resolution of the story comes about as the people who rule the afterlife world give Huston a ray pistol and send him and Hardwicke and the Irish cop back to Earth to destroy Arkway. The afterlife overlords destroy the doors after Huston and company have passed through them so that these sorts of shenanigans never happen again.
I generally am skeptical of these detective stories in which there are lots of clues, a convoluted plot full of doublecrosses and secret identities, and a legion of indistinguishable and disposable characters who serve as suspects and victims. But Palmer moves things along at a brisk pace in the first installment, and I was curious about the truth behind the door and the monsters, so that first episode was not onerous. The second installment is a little weaker, being somewhat slower paced and including some scenes set in various locales in the afterlife world that felt superfluous, to just be there to run up the page count. But as a whole, "Doorway to Hell" is acceptable; it is not exactly good, but it is a curious production that is too strange and original to be considered mere filler, and put together more or less competently, with some decent violence and monsters. I'm glad to now understand what the quite good cover of the February '44 issue of Fantastic Adventures is all about, and to have gained some familiarity with the output of Raymond A. Palmer, one of the many unusual characters who populate SF history.