Historian of Horror : Forbidden Sinister Dark Mansion-House of Secret Haunted Love

Forbidden Sinister Dark Mansion-House of Secret Haunted Love

I never read any of them that I remember, but my mother had a handful of paperback novels by folks like Phyllis A. Whitney and Victoria Holt, gothic romances with paintings of willowy maidens fleeing spooky houses on the covers. Not really my cup of hemlock as a child, although I did read several of the very similar Dark Shadows novels of the same period written by Dan Ross under his pseudonym of Marilyn Ross. Still have them, somewhere in this hodge-podge of occult literature and arcane artifacts that is my office. Dark Shadows was the only soap opera I was ever interested in, so of course I was drawn to whatever subsidiary relics it spawned. I even had a plastic model of Barnabas Collins. I think some of the pieces occupy a box within a few feet of where I am sitting at the moment, although Cthulhu alone knows which of the myriad containers that might be.

C’est la vie. C’est la mort. C’est l’horreur.

My long-time online friend, Melanie Jackson, currently writes several series of cozy mysteries, but when we first encountered each other whilst hanging out in some now-deceased horror message board twenty years ago, she was doing pretty well scribing paranormal romances for the late and unlamented Leisure Books. Or would have been doing pretty well, had Leisure paid their bills. Which is why there is no longer such a thing as Leisure Books, or so I’ve been told by more than one of their former stable of authors. Anyhow, Melanie assured me that Dan Ross was not alone in hiding his Y chromosome behind a female name in order to sell romance novels. Many romance novels are still being written by men under female noms-de-plume, or were when she told me that.

That didn’t stop DC Comics from declining to hide their male contributors behind petticoats in 1971, when they jumped into that genre with a pair of titles that only lasted four issues each. One might wonder if Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love and Sinister House of Secret Love could have survived longer had a fiction of feminine creatorship been maintained. 

Probably not, to be honest. The genre of love comics was on its last legs, anyhow. Of all the comic book publishers that had flooded the drugstore spinner racks of America with four-color romances since 1947, only DC, its main rival, Marvel, and perpetual also-ran Charlton were still in the game. In fact, other than those three, only Harvey Publications, Archie, and Fawcett were even still in the comic book business.

Harvey had gone completely over to kiddie books like Casper the Friendly Ghost and Wendy the Little Witch and Little Dot the, uh, girl obsessed with polka dots, while Archie was only occasionally trying something not associated with its namesake character, usually under its Red Circle sub-brand. After being sued out of business by DC for their flagstaff super-hero, Captain Marvel, being considered too much a copy of Superman, Fawcett was left with its paperback book line and a license to publish a myriad of Dennis the Menace comics. DC eventually hoovered up the moribund Captain Marvel, but only after Marvel had reclaimed the name for the first in a string of their own characters, which is why the original is now called Shazam. Clear as mud?

The first publisher of romance comics, Prize Publications, switched over to joke and cartoon magazines in the 1960s until it quietly petered out in 1978. ACG (American Comics Group) was reduced to putting out industry advertising comics after 1967. St. John closed its doors altogether in 1958. Quality sold off its remaining titles to DC in 1956 and shut down production. And so on, and on, and on. Even the love comics Marvel and DC still published in 1971 were sputtering along on fumes. Not exactly an auspicious time to start up a new variation on a dying genre.

And yet, there they were. Two rather attractive bimonthly titles with covers painted by veterans of the paperback industry George Ziel and Victor Kalin. They were edited by long-time DC employee Dorothy Woolfolk, who was one of the folks credited with coming up with kryptonite in the various Superman comics. Dark Mansion led with a first issue dated September-October, 1971, with Sinister House #1 being dated October-November of the same year. 

Both titles were fifty-two page comic books selling for twenty-five cents. The standard for most comics had been thirty-six pages for twelve cents since the very early 1960s, when the price went up from ten cents. Twenty-five cents would, in those halcyon days of my mis-spent youth, buy an eighty-page giant special issue, usually a reprint collection or annual, or the occasional regular series like the bulk of Tower Comics’s run in the mid-sixties. Later in the decade, that quarter of a dollar got you sixty-eight pages, then down to fifty-two by 1970. For a brief period, Marvel had jumped up its page count and cost for a single month on all its titles, often using reprints to flesh out the issues. DC followed suit for a year or so, not realizing that their chief rival had tricked them into following an expensive trend that was financially untenable. The readers benefitted, however, by being exposed to the treasures of the past that filled the back pages of those issues, helping to create the demand for Golden Age comics that led to major changes in distribution as well as collecting. Comics went from a drugstore item to being almost exclusively procured in specialty comic book stores, with a concurrent escalation of the value of older issues that led to the first appearance of Superman recently bringing in three-and-a-quarter million dollars.

Yeah, I wish I’d kept everything I ever owned, too. Oh, well.

Anyhow, Dark Mansion #1. The cover says, “The Secret of the Missing Bride”. The splash page says, “The Mystery of the Missing Bride”. Under either title, it was the first comic book written by Mary Skrenes, who went on to have a moderately successful career in both comics and television. She was also supposedly the inspiration for Howard the Duck’s human companion (and maybe girlfriend? Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. I will refrain from giving in to the temptation of stooping so law as to make the obvious naughty suggestion about the role played in their relationship by that portion of a duck’s plumage that is sometimes used to stuff pillows with), Beverly Switzler. The story, which filled the entire issue, was drawn by Tony DeZuniga, one of a cadre of artists DC recruited from the Philippines about that time. DeZuniga was also the initial artist on the long-running outre western character Jonah Hex when he first appeared the next year. 

Sinister House #1 has two stories, neither reprints. Nor were they credited, either for the first story, which was clearly drawn by comics stalwart Don Heck, nor for the second, which was obviously at least inked by Vince Colletta. The art styles of each are quite distinctive. “The Curse of the MacIntyres” which according to the Grand Comics Database was also written by Mary Skrenes, occupies the bulk of the issue, while “A Night to Remember… A Day to Forget” was penciled by John Calnan, with the writer not known. It seems to me rather reminiscent of many stories from ACG titles like Adventures into the Unknown, in which romance and the supernatural overlapped from time to time. 

And so it went for another three issues for each title. Almost entirely the one long story with only one other backup tale, mostly drawn by DeZuniga or Heck. One story had Colletta inks over pencils by Ernie Chua, another Filipino import. Sinister House #3 was penciled by comics legend, Alex Toth, who co-created Space Ghost for Saturday morning television in the 1960s, and inked by Frank Giacoia and Doug Wildey, who created Jonny Quest. Mary Skrenes wrote one more story. Editor Dorothy Woolfolk is credited with another, as is Tony DeZuniga’s wife, Mary.

Some of the one or two page text pieces that the post office requires be included in each issue for comic books to be considered enough of a literary medium to justify third-rate shipping rates, by the way, were written by none other than later legendary horror movie director, Wes Craven. Betcha didn’t see THAT coming!

Both were retitled with the fifth issues and switched over to standard horror format. Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love became Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion, while Sinister House of Secret Love morphed into Secrets of Sinister House. Very nearly the same, but without all the love. No more gothic romance, just the usual ‘ghoulies and ghosties and lang-legged beasties and things that gae bump in tha nacht’. And aside from one 1982 issue of DC Blue Ribbon Digest that reprinted a few of the yarns from these titles, that was it.

Well, almost. Remember that also-ran publisher I mentioned above? Charlton? The one that only kept going at all into the 1980s because they happened to own the printing presses they used to pump out their second-tier comic books? They managed to have the last laugh when their own gothic romance title, Haunted Love, premiered in 1973. It lasted eleven issues over the next two years, with Tom Sutton handling a significant portion of the artistic labors. The first story in the first story, however, was drawn by Joe Staton, who has been drawing the Dick Tracy newspaper comic strip for just over a decade now. I met Joe back in the late 80s, when he visited the comic book store I managed briefly but much too long. Nice guy.

I have to confess that, until I sat down to write this entry, I had never read any of these comic books. Gothic romance simply isn’t my thing, but it does fill a significant niche in the history of our genre. If it is your thing, scans of all these issues can maybe possibly be found online to be read or even downloaded, given a diligent search in the right places. Not that I’d ever encourage anything even remotely resembling copyright infringement, though. Let your own conscience be your guide. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

And so, until next time, fellow fiends…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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