Warning! NSFW images ahead! Click on the links below at your own discretion!
Thanksgiving of 1969 was memorable, not for turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce, but for a two-day drive out, a wedding, and a two-day drive back home to Nashville.
On Thursday, November 27, we piled into my mother’s 1967 Ford LTD, a great lumbering land-barge of a car more than adequate to convey two adults and four children ranging in age from one (my sister, Amy) to eleven (myself) across half of Tennessee, all of Arkansas, a sliver of Oklahoma just to say we’d been there, and most of Texas to Plainview, where my dad’s youngest brother Allen was due to marry one Jeannie Mallow of that region. Being of sound mind, they declined to procreate and were happily married until Allen passed away last May at the age of eighty-one. I still talk to Jeannie as often as I can, for she is a delight to converse with regarding the various topics of the day, upon which we enjoy much common ground.
Somewhere along the route, a stop was made during which I was allowed to purchase for the grand sum of thirty-five cents some reading material; to wit, the first issue of a magazine entitled Web of Horror, which attempted unsuccessfully to challenge the primacy of Warren’s Creepy and Eerie. It was published by Major Magazines, home of the second-rate Mad imitation, Cracked. Despite containing some lovely work by soon-to-be-legendary illustrators, it only lasted three issues. Which is a shame.
It was the cover painting that grabbed my attention – a barbarian shielding a barely clad young lady from spectral tentacles. I had recently discovered a Conan the Barbarian paperback in the library, so my appetite for Sword & Sorcery was already whetted. The artist was new to me, but within a few years works by Jeffrey Jones would be hard to avoid.
It was only after Jones passed away in 2011 that I learned she had transitioned to female in 1998, and taken on the middle name of Catherine. I’d wandered away from some of my various fandoms and hadn’t kept au courant. I’m still trying to catch up.
Jones never was a major contributor to four-color comic books, but did considerable work for the black-&-white magazines of Warren Publications and Skywald. The bulk of her efforts over the next decade consisted of over 150 paperback book and genre magazine cover paintings. She performed said duty for Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser collections, for instance, and was a frequent cover and interior illustrator for Fantastic Stories, during those years when Ted White was editing the best fantasy magazine available on the newsstands.
Jones had a one-page strip in the Funny Pages section of National Lampoon for several years. “Idyl” appeared alongside Gahan Wilson’s “Nuts” and Vaughn Bode’s “Cheech Wizard”, among other features. She did a gruesome little two-part story in the fourth and fifth issues of The Monster Times called “A Gnawing Obsession” in 1972, and had a solo showcase in the single issue of the underground comic, Spasm, published by Last Gasp the next year.
Later in the 1970s, she did covers for Zebra Books’ series of Robert E. Howard fantasy and adventure tales, including one for The Lost Valley of Iskander, which had interior illustrations by Michael W. Kaluta. My copy was autographed by both artists before I acquired it. Thanks to whichever previous owner arranged that.
Kaluta was one of the other artists Jones shared a workspace with, along with Bernie Wrightson and Barry Windsor-Smith. They called themselves The Studio, and over the next decade the collective produced some remarkably imaginative illustrations for any medium willing to meet their price. A piece on The Studio in the May, 1980 issue of Heavy Metal featured art by Jones and her compadres. She was thereafter a semi-regular for the next seven years, contributing a frequently appearing one-page strip similar to “Idyll” called “I’m Age”.
Jones gradually turned to fine art, and was called “the greatest living painter” by Frank Frazetta – high praise indeed. She passed away at the age of 67 from emphysema and heart disease.
In 2012, a documentary on her life and works was produced. Better Things: The Life and Choices of Jeffery Catherine Jones is very much worth tracking down and watching. There are also several videos on YouTube about her, as well as The Studio. I endorse them all.
In our next edition, we’ll be taking a look at the eight issue run of The Arkham Sampler, the preview magazine disseminated by legendary genre publisher Arkham House in 1948 and 1949. Join me in this space then, won’t you? Until that time comes to pass, ye wraiths of the weird, be afraid…
Fiction House was one of many comic book publishers that started out printing pulp magazines. Founded in 1921, it had a string of niche publications that paid bottom-of-the-barrel wages for bottom-of-the-barrel stories. Specializing in adventure genres like war and western yarns, Fiction House was notorious for peddling low-quality writing on low-quality paper. Only one of their pulp titles has turned out to enjoy any significant reprinting, unlike almost all other pulp houses.
They fared much better in four colors. Jumbo Comics #1 came along in 1938, introducing the wildly successful female Tarzan, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Most of her adventures were fairly standard jungle fare, but she did go up against the occasional vampire or mummy along the way. Alone among Fiction House’s many featured characters, Sheena enjoyed translation into other media. Statuesque blonde Irish McCalla played her in a 26-episode syndicated television series beginning in 1955, and Tanya Roberts starred in a 1984 feature film. There have since been other adaptations, along with periodic comic book revivals and various pop culture references.
A Jungle Stories pulp inspired by Sheena appeared in 1939. The fairly well-received (and fairly often-reprinted) Planet Stories soon followed, and related comic books ensued. By the time the United States entered World War II, most of the pulps had matching anthology comics, each series featuring numerous characters in their own separate and unconnected tales.
As other publishers did during the Golden Age of Comics, there were supernatural and/or horror features in most of the titles. During its first year, Jumbo ran a rather bizarrely truncated adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, succeeded by a long series known variously as Weird Stories of the Supernatural and Stuart Taylor. Issue #42 began a run of Ghost Gallery stories, starring occult detective Drew Murdoch, that lasted for the remaining 125 issues of the title’s lifespan. Aviation title Wings Comics had The Ghost Squadron, whose members were, yes, spectral revenants who continued to prosecute the war effort despite the inconvenience of being deceased. Jungle Comics featured Fantomah, a blonde jungle goddess whose face turned into a skull whenever she was obliged to remonstrate with white hunters who misbehaved in her territory, as well as the adventures of Tabu, Wizard of the Jungle.
General adventure title Rangers Comics had a couple of features of interest. The Werewolf Hunter was one Professor Broussard, who with his assistant Danny O’Shea encountered more lycanthropes than ought to seem reasonable over thirty-four issues, beginning with #8. They were succeeded in the line-up by ghost detective Dr. Drew (no relation to the above-mentioned Drew Murdoch), Stalker of the Unknown. Will Eisner assistant Jerry Grandinetti illustrated The Secret Files of Dr. Drew for fourteen issues.
Eisner’s best known creation, syndicated hero The Spirit, had a five issue run of newspaper reprints in his own series from 1952 to 1954. He’ll get a more involved treatment in this space at some point. Stay tuned!
The stories themselves were generally six to eight pages, usually by anonymous creators, invariably self-contained. Fiction House was never big on continuity.
The publisher had two horror-specific titles aside from their main run of anthology comics. The first four issues of Ghost Comics reprinted their various spooky features beginning in 1951, with new tales virtually taking over in the fifth. The final, eleventh issue reverted to mostly reprints. All new content dominated the two issues of Monster, with only one Dr. Drew reprint in the first.
As with so many of the smaller comic book publishers, Fiction House fell victim to the juvenile delinquency fallacy promulgated by Dr. Fredric Wertham and others, and closed down by 1955. Apart from the periodic recurrence of interest in Sheena, and occasional reprints from Planet Stories in science-fiction anthologies, Fiction House left little residual impact on the general culture. Which is a shame, but there it is.
Our lagniappe for this edition is a brief memorial to Lisa Loring, the original Wednesday Addams from the 1960s Addams Family sitcom, who passed away on January 28 from the effects of a stroke. She was less than a month away from her sixty-fifth birthday, and a little over six months older than I. May she rest in peace.
My childhood is slowly being eroded by the sands of time, along with any latent delusions in regards to my own immortality. And so, as Kurt Vonnegut was fond of saying, it goes.
When next we gather together, we shall examine the career of legendary genre illustrator Jeffrey Catherine Jones. Our argosy begins with a trip to West Texas over the Thanksgiving weekend of 1969. Join me here in two weeks, won’t you, for that journey?
Until then, as always, oh ye valiants of vile villainies, be afraid…
During Hollywood’s Golden Age from the 1920s to the early 1950s, the film studios were ranked according to power, profitability, and prestige. The most important of The Big Eight was Metro-Goldwyn-Myer, born of a 1924 merger of the three smaller companies that comprise its name. Home to “More Stars Than There Are in the Heavens”, M-G-M has been a money-making media giant for almost a century, and its first star was none other than the Man of a Thousand Faces, Lon Chaney.
Chaney was coming off a long relationship with Universal Studios, where he had starred as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Erik in The Phantom of the Opera (1925). One might think he would jump right into another horror picture at the most influential studio in town. One would be wrong. The very first M-G-M movie ever made had him playing a clown in He Who Gets Slapped(1924), although the picture wasn’t the first released by the new studio. Fear not, fretful fiends, for Chaney was soon showing off his horror chops at his new stomping grounds.
Chaney made five genre or genre-peripheral films at M-G-M in the 1920s. The Monster (1925) is a rather silly thing with Chaney as a mad scientist in an insane asylum. His next picture, The Unholy Three (1925) is a genuine classic, with Chaney in drag as the leader of a gang of crooks. He also starred in the 1930 remake, the only talkie he appeared in prior to his untimely death that year at the age of forty-seven.
London After Midnight(1927) is the elusive Holy Grail of all lost horror films, the last known surviving copy having been destroyed in a fire in 1967. Chaney played a dual role, a detective and a supposed vampire. It was remade in 1935 as Mark of the Vampire, starring Bela Lugosi.
In the same year, Chaney co-starred with a very young Joan Crawford in The Unknown, as a loony circus performer who goes to extraordinary lengths to get the girl. Utterly disarming.
And finally, he played an embittered cripple who takes extreme revenge in West of Zanzibar (1928). It was remade to rather good effect in 1932 as Kongo, starring Walter Huston, grandfather of Angelica Huston.
The Mystic (1925) starred Aileen Pringle as a larcenous psychic. German super-star Paul Wegener (1913’s Der Student von Prague and 1914’s Der Golem, along with a couple of sequels of the latter film) was recruited by director Rex Ingram for The Magician in 1926. Wegener was engaged in the anti-social behavior of siphoning the blood of maidens for experiments in creating life. Not generally considered the polite thing to do to young ladies.
Lillian Gish found herself trapped all alone in a tiny cabin in the middle of nowhere in The Wind (1928), losing the last handful of her remaining marbles after killing a man who had demonstrated less-than-noble intentions. It had a happy ending, so one might be forgiven for not thinking of it as a horror picture, but there are some pretty horrific scenes in what is a widely-acknowledged masterpiece of cinematic art, directed by the first great Swedish filmmaker, Victor Sjöström.
The comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy contributed a short subject the same year, Habeas Corpus, in which the boys agreed to rob a grave for a mad scientist’s experiments. Laurel and Hardy were famous for a cheerful incompetence at whatever task they undertook, including one that involved the macabre craftsmanship of an undertaker.
Lionel Barrymore played Captain Nemo in 1929’s The Mysterious Island, based on the Jules Verne novel. Barrymore also directed The Unholy Night, in which Ernest Torrence and Roland Young (Topper, 1937) solve a series of murders in a spooky old house. Boris Karloff has a bit part.
The final MGM horror film of the 1920s was a remake of a lost 1919 film of the same name. The Thirteenth Chair was itself remade in 1937. Bela Lugosi played a detective ferreting out a killer during a seance. The lovely Leila Hyams (Freaks and Island of Lost Souls, both from 1932) co-starred. Directed by Todd Browning (Dracula, 1931, and Freaks) on the cusp of the transition to sound, it was released in both silent and sound versions.
We have une lagnappe this time, a video equating Leoncavallo’s opera verismo from 1892, Pagliacci, with Hitchcock’s Psycho and the Giallo films of Mario Bava and Dario Argento. Watch to the end if you’re not familiar with the opera. You’ll likely recognize its most famous aria, “Vesti la Giubba”.
Next time movies come up in the rotation, we’ll be looking at the silent horror films of Paramount Pictures. Until then, oh ye fanatics of filmic frissons, be afraid.
A week or so before my birthday several years ago, my wife called me up and asked if I preferred The Wild Wild West or Gunsmoke. A strange request, I thought at the time, since we had not recently discussed any western television programs from the 1960s, but I answered honestly that The Wild Wild West was one of my favorite shows when I was a kid, I still liked it, and my family rarely watched Gunsmoke back in the day because there was probably something on another channel that my dad liked better. Ergo, I never developed any particular fondness for the latter program. I certainly did for the former.
Imagine my very pleasant surprise upon opening my gift on the 25th of that month to find within the festive wrapping paper a DVD set of all four seasons of The Wild Wild West. I binged it right away, and still return to it on occasion. To this day, I find it the most re-watchable of the shows I loved as a child.
And the populace rises up in unison to issue a resounding, “So what? It’s a western. We’re here to celebrate all things horror. Wrong genre, doofus!”
Ah, but it’s not so far away on the genre spectrum as one might think. To begin with, The Wild Wild West was the progenitor of all things steampunk. Coming as it did in the midst of the secret agent craze, sparked by James Bond and fueled by myriad secondary spies of all shapes and sizes and colors, outfitting a pair of 1870s Secret Service agents with gadgets secreted within cowboy boots and gun belts and hat bands was a natural. While the various gewgaws and thingamajigs dashing hero James West (Robert Conrad) and his not-quite-as-dashing but dazzlingly brilliant sidekick Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) used in their never-ending war on the foes of the United States during the Grant administration were theoretically possible for the period, there were also frequent excursions into the realm of science-fictional fantasies. And at least one episode that could be considered to be horror.
So it was that, a few days ago, I popped the pertinent disc into the player and reviewed with great pleasure the 12th episode of the second season, “The Night of the Man-Eating House”.
All 104 episodes had titles that started with “The Night…”, by the way. In case you were wondering.
The mission James and Artie were tasked with in that broadcast of December 2, 1966, required them to return an escaped prisoner, played by Hurd Hatfield (star of The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1945), to jail. They were accompanied by a sheriff played by William Talman, best known as District Attorney Hamilton Burger on the Perry Mason TV show. The prisoner, Liston Lawrence Day, had spent thirty years in solitary confinement for treason. He broke away from his captors and found his way to his former home, a plantation house so thoroughly infused with the spirit of his late mother that injury to the structure caused her to cry out in pain. She held the good guys hostage and tried to kill them so as to enable her son to escape. Meanwhile, Day was somehow restored to his youthful appearance and vigor. Thus rejuvenated, he conspired with the ghostly mansion to bedevil our heroes.
A most unusual episode, in several ways. As far as I can recall, it’s the only one with a supernatural element. It’s one of the few, if not the only one without a lovely young miss in a feathered bonnet and a hoop skirt for James West to suck face with in between fistfights. And it is the least violent episode I think I ever saw, as there was no one for our fearless hero to punch but one old/young man. The violence that permeated the program’s entire history inevitably attracted the attention of a variety of parents’ groups resolved to force the networks to tone down the bloodletting and fisticuffs, which eventually resulted in the show’s demise.
It all came to an end on April 11, 1969, without any additional expeditions into the outré. There were two subsequent television movies before Martin suffered a fatal heart attack while playing tennis in 1981, and a 1999 feature film that was not well-received, for very good reason. Conrad passed away in 2020, and that was it for The Wild Wild West.
But for just one night, one singular evening when I was eight years old, the best adventure-espionage-western-science-fiction program of its time was also a horror show. And that is still pretty darn groovy, even sixty-six years later.
So as always, true believers in televised terrors, I bid you to be afraid.
When you have a medium reliant entirely on sound, which sonic effects are used has an impact that sometimes transcends all the other elements. Three radio shows spanning fifty years of that medium’s history were notable for sharing the same sound.
Radio impresario Himan Brown told the tale, years after the fact, of an ominously creaking door in the basement of a radio studio he once worked in, which inspired him to use that noise during the opening and closing of a program he created in 1941, and another one three decades later.
The Inner Sanctum Mysteries was loosely associated with a similarly-named series of mystery novels published by Simon & Schuster. It premiered on the NBC Blue Network on January 7, 1941, switched to CBS in September 1943, moved to the Blue Network’s successor, ABC, in 1950 for one year, then popped up briefly in 1952, again on CBS. That sort of network perambulation wasn’t uncommon back then.
By the way, NBC’s Red Network is the one that continues on today. Blue was sold off after World War II to become ABC because the Federal Communications Commission didn’t approve of two parallel networks from one company. My, how times have changed.
Anyhow, Inner Sanctum introduced the notion of the humorous host, Raymond, whose descendants include the Tales from the Crypt’s Crypt Keeper and his ilk. Radio show hosts had previously played it mostly straight and generally did subsequently. Neither The Mysterious Traveler nor The Whistler joked around quite like Raymond, whose full name was Raymond Edward Johnson. He drawled a snarky introduction, made some bad puns, insulted the sponsors, then let the murder and mayhem fly over the airwaves. Regular guest stars in those early years included movie boogymen Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre.
Raymond left in 1945, replaced by Paul McGrath. The stories became campier, and the big-name guest stars more infrequently heard, but the program limped on for another six years, plus three months. There was one year of a television version on NBC during the 1953-1954 season, running thirty-nine episodes. In addition, there was a six-film series starring Lon Chaney made by Universal Studios in the mid-1940s, and a 1948 feature film, neither of which were associated with the radio show. Their inspiration came from the novel series.
The age of Old Time Radio in the United States ended in 1962, but in 1973, Himan Brown decided the medium deserved another chance. The CBS Radio Mystery Theater ran in syndication from January 6, 1974, to December 31, 1982, five and sometimes six nights a week for 1399 original episodes. It was hosted by E.G. Marshall, whom some may remember as the entomophobic businessman in the final segment of the first Creepshow, in 1982. The program featured original stories, as well as adaptations of classic tales, including “The Horla” by Guy de Maupassant, Edgar Allen Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher”, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Marie Belloc Lowndes’ novel that was loosely based on Jack the Ripper, The Lodger. The show starred popular television actors, but none who were big names at the time. Sarah Jessica Parker did have an early credit in “The Child Cat’s Paw”, aired on May 17, 1977, and John Lithgow starred in “The Deserter” on February 6, 1980, but few others of the featured guests would be familiar to most folks these days. Alas. Their loss.
Except for a brief revival of reruns in 1998, the creaking door finally closed for the last time. However, there was one more manifestation of its rusty hinges on the air during the years between Himan Brown’s bookend programs, in a far off land where radio didn’t die out quite so soon as it did in America.
Television wasn’t permitted in the Republic of South Africa until the mid-1970s, so audiences there had no other recourse but to be entertained by radio. So it was that, in 1964, the squeaky old portal was revived by Springbok Radio for at least forty-two episodes aired over the next year or so. Information on the exact number and their broadcast dates has thus far eluded scholars of the medium, but those forty-two episodes of The Creaking Door have been making the rounds among collectors for years, and are not at all bad. Definitely worth a listen.
Many thanks to John Dunning’s hefty tome, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, as well as Jim Harmon’s classic book, The Great Radio Heroes, for the information presented here. I hope to provide many more fascinating facts regarding our favorite genre in the coming year and wish for each of the populace a happy, prosperous, and delightfully frightening 2023. As always, my Merry Miscreants…
Too often we confuse ‘best’ with ‘favorite’. And vice versa. I contend frequently with folks on social media who insist that their favorite movie (or song or book) is the best ever, despite the probability that they’ve never experienced any of the recognized classics that routinely top the lists compiled by prestigious bodies such as the American Film Institute, and therefore have no reasonable basis for comparison. I mean, really. The Shawshank Redemption is a very good film, true, but is it actually better than Citizen Kane? Lawrence of Arabia? Tokyo Story? Le Grande Illusion?
Pardon me while I laugh myself into a terminal case of hiccups.
Likewise, everyone seems to have their own personal favorite film version of Charles Dickens’ classic novella, A Christmas Carol. Okay, so Muppets are all very nice, and musicals, as well, and certainly Mr. Magoo’s interpretation of Ebenezer Scrooge cannot be discounted. Legitimate favorites, all, but let’s be serious about this. None are THE best.
A Christmas Carol is first and foremost a ghost story; a horror tale that, properly presented, chills the blood as much as it warms the cockles of the heart. It is also a commentary on the depraved heartlessness of unrestrained capitalism, and it is the combination of all these aspects that makes the version starring Alastair Sim far and away the best interpretation ever captured on celluloid.
I will fight you on this.
I have to admit that the 1962 telefilm, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, is my personal favorite and has been since I was a small child, but no, it is not the best. The acme, the absolute pinnacle of cinematic scroogismus, is the 1951 British film, Scrooge.
Firstly, it’s in glorious black & white. I know we have entire generations suffering under the delusion that movies must be in color, but color is the enemy of filmcraft in so many ways. There is no special effect so overused as color.
You simply cannot create the required deep shadows and existential angst needed to tell this story perfectly without high contrast blacks and whites. With them, Scrooge drips with nigh unto film noir levels of expressionism. I’ve never seen a color version that truly brought out the painful darkness of Scrooge’s soul, and this interpretation does it better than any other black & white version. It benefits greatly from being made in the midst of the Age of Noir, drawing heavily upon the stylistic and thematic tropes of that genre. Until the moment of Scrooge’s redemption, just as is the case of George Bailey in that other great holiday film noir, It’s a Wonderful Life, the object of the narrative is a lost and desperate man, sunken into a despair that is palpable. The tragedy here is that it is of his own making and that he knows it.
Sim shows this better than any other actor. His wonderfully expressive eyes and staccato yet graceful physical reactions show that the Scrooge he was at the beginning of that Christmas Eve wasn’t gratuitously mean or cruel. He was a deeply wounded man, disappointed in the turns he felt compelled to take along his pathway to wealth. Sim’s Scrooge isn’t a villain. He’s a victim of his own designs. Sim plays that so much better than any other movie Scrooge. And I’ve seen damn near all of them.
The kicker for me is the scene at the end of the Spirit of Christmas Present’s time when he opens his robes and shows the twin children of hopelessness, both society’s and Scrooge’s:
“This boy is Ignorance, this girl is Want,” he tells the nearly repentant miser. “Beware them both, but most of all, beware this boy!”
“But have they no refuge, no resource?” Scrooge asks.
The Spirit throws Scrooge’s words from early in the story back at him: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”
Bam! With that, he accuses Scrooge, and us, of depraved indifference to the suffering of our fellow beings. Following that indictment, the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come seals the deal, and Ebenezer Scrooge awakens on Christmas Day fully “Woke”.
There. I said, and I meant it.
The supporting cast is also excellent, with Michael Hordern smarmily excellent as Marley. Mervyn Johns as Cratchett, Hermoine Baddeley as his good wife, and Ernest Thesiger as the undertaker are all outstanding, as is the rest of the stellar cast.
Scrooge is available on YouTube year-round, and will no doubt be shown on Turner Classics and other movie channels, or streaming all over the bandwidth, during the Christmas season. I urge the populace to indulge in its pleasures, and its agonies, wherever possible. You’ll thank me the longest day of your life.
Until we meet again, my Yuletide Yetis, as always, be afraid.
I have mentioned before that my wife and I enjoy traveling, both here at home and abroad. Our favorite American destination is the lovely, and very haunted, Savannah, Georgia. The time has come to share yet another of the many delights of that fabled city by the sea.
On our last excursion thence, we took a tour of Bonaventure Cemetery. Among the notables buried there is American song-writer par excellence Johnny Mercer and poet Conrad Aiken, whose childhood home is one of the most haunted in Savannah due to his father having murdered his mother and then killing himself when poor Conrad was just a lad. His daughter Joan wrote a number of ghost stories and supernatural novels, but as she spent her life in the United Kingdom, her estate preferred that she be buried on the other side of the Big Pond when she passed at the age of seventy-nine in 2004.
Oh, well. I guess another trip to Old Blighty is called for.
Well-heeled Savannahns have enjoyed eternal rest in Bonaventure since 1846, including
When Mills died in 1876, he had a grave alarm installed in case he needed to alert passers-by that he’d been buried alive. It is still in working condition, but Mills has yet to avail himself of its continued functionality.
We have spent time in the places of interment of other folks than the denizens of Savannah. During our 30th Anniversary tour of Eastern Europe in 2011, we arrived on an unprepossessing street in the lovely and very musical capital of Austria, Vienna. On our left was the house in which Ludwig van Beethoven gave his first public performance. On our right, the Cistercian monastery that was home to the final resting place of the Hapsburgs, the ruling family of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the early 17th Century until the collapse of the empire following the end of the First World War, die Kaisergruft.
For my wife’s sixtieth birthday celebration in 2017, we took a cruise around the Baltic Sea, from Copenhagen to St. Petersburg, with stops along the way in Helsinki, Finland; Tallinn, Estonia; Stockholm, Sweden; and a variety of historical and culturally significant places in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in northern Germany. On her actual birthday, we found ourselves being escorted around the region of Rostok, Germany by a gentleman who goes by the moniker of Taxi Harry, and if you are ever in those environs, I hope you are fortunate enough to find yourselves in his vehicle. He was even kind enough to compliment me on my very limited German.
One place he showed us was the Doberaner Münster (Doberan Abbey) in Bad Doberan. It was a Cistercian monastery for hundreds of years, and came fully equipped with a charnel house behind it into which the monks were placed upon their demise. No home should be without a bone silo in the backyard. I’m seriously considering installing one sometime in the next few years. Whatever will the neighbors think!
Just this past September, we traveled through Scotland and Ireland, including stops at the Culloden Battlefield, Loch Ness, the Robert Burns birthplace, The Giant’s Causeway, the Cliffs of Moher, the Guinness Brewery, and many other sites of interest. Our most recent visit to the eternal homes of the dead was on the Emerald Island at the burial place of the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Yeats is interred in the churchyard of St. Columba’s Church in Drumcliffe, County Sligo, in the shadow of Ben Bulben, where he wanted to be lain.
Is my Irish showing a bit too much there? So be it, for ‘tis Irish I am, and Irish I evermore shall be. Erin go bragh, O’Donnell Abu and cead mile failte!
I must note as our lagniappe for this edition the passing of comic book artist Vic Carrabotta, 93 years old, on November 22. He illustrated numerous horror stories for Marvel Comics’ predecessor, Atlas Comics, in the 1950s, including a story in the first issue of Journey into Mystery. R.I.P.
Until next time, my dear effendi of ectoplasm, I bid you all to be afraid.
I feel fairly certain that everyone reading this has at least heard of Charles Dickens (1812-1870). The demographics of those present incline me to suspect that his 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, is known amongst the populace if nothing else he wrote is. As if that wasn’t enough, he was also a magazine editor.
In 1836, Richard Bentley asked Dickens to edit his new magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany. Dickens left the post after three years due to a disagreement with his publisher. Along the way, he serialized his second novel, Oliver Twist, and published several ghost stories by Thomas Ingoldsby, a nom de plume for the English clergyman Richard Harris Barham. The Ingoldsby Legends as they became known were quite popular, later being collected in several volumes. The periodical continued on without Dickens, lasting until 1868. All six volumes from his stint are available in the Internet Archives. Wikipedia reports that the magazine published several stories by Edgar Allan Poe, but I can find no trace of them in those first six volumes. Perhaps Dickens’ successor as editor acquired them.
Shortly thereafter, Dickens lasted a mere ten weeks as editor of the progressive newspaper, London’s Daily News, before a disagreement with one of the co-owners put an end to that gig. In 1850, he began his own magazine, Household Words, which ran for nine years until Dickens had a dispute with his publishers.
Are we starting to detect a pattern here?
CharlotteBrontë biographer and occasional ghost story writer Elizabeth Gaskell was a frequent contributor to Household Words. Her short gothic ghost story, “The Poor Clare”, for example, was serialized over three issues in 1856. Wilkie Collins also appeared often, although his early gothic work tended towards happier endings than our preferred genre requires.
Both authors were even more regularly seen in Dickens’ subsequent magazine, All the Year Round, which debuted even before the last issue of Household Words went to press. They each contributed a chapter to the round-robin story, The Haunted House, in the Christmas, 1859 issue. Collins’s gothic novel The Woman in White and seminal mystery book The Moonstone also ran in All the Year Round, as did the five stories that were combined into Gaskell’s collection, Lois the Witch (1861), along with half-a-dozen tales by Carmilla author J. Sheridan le Fanu. Dickens himself contributed A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.
Dickens’ tenure on All the Year Round ended with his death in 1870, but his son, Charles Dickens, Jr., continued editing the magazine until at least 1888. His involvement with the issues published from 1889 to 1895 is unclear, but the title definitely ended in that latter year.
Like the bulk of Dickens’ work, the various periodicals he edited were tilted towards the social issues that concerned him, with a sprinkling of ghost yarns and gothic tales mixed in. A more careful examination of each volume would be necessary to root out all the spooky tales, as so many were published anonymously. I have provided links to the relevant sites within the Internet Archives, but if a better source is desired, I have recently obtained high quality PDF scans of both Household Words and All the Year Round that were made from well-preserved bound copies found in a medical school library in London in the not-too-distant past. I plan to spend as much time as is available to me in combing through the indices for each magazine to find whatever scary tales might be lurking. By available time, I mean the precious few moments afforded me by my constantly demanding children who seem to assume that my current condition of being retired allows them to make myriad demands on me and my time, given that I am not obliged to spend those precious hours at anything as mundane as a job.
In other words, don’t hold your breath. Not if I’m doing it on my own, anyhow.
Our lagniappe this time out is one of those great old tunes I learned by careful repeated listening to the Dr. Demento Show back in the mid-1970s on WKDF-FM in Nashville, leaning in towards the muted radio on a Sunday night so my parents wouldn’t hear what degenerate Satanic music I dared to pollute their God-fearing home with on the Lord’s Day. If there is any song that should be the national anthem of Horror Addicts, or indeed any horror fan organization, my vote is for this one – Rose and the Arrangement’s 1974 classic, “The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati”. Some of my younger readers may need to look up a couple of references, but overall I feel the piece speaks for itself. No disrespect intended towards the Queen City.
As always, my fellow gourmands of the Grand-Guignol…
I have previously admitted in this space to there being at least one area of popular culture in which I enjoy no expertise, that being heavy metal music. Following an enlightening conversation with our very own Ro Merrill (all praise and laudation be unto her name), I have been granted the gift of a brief introduction, albeit not necessarily an indoctrination, into the mysteries of the several genres that comprise such endeavors. I’ve been listening to a fair amount, not only of the form as currently practiced but to its forebears and influences. Along the way, it occurred to me that there was at least one performer whose active period began prior to anything recognizable as heavy metal who has not of late received his due attention.
And so, I went digging into my nearly half-a-terabyte of genre related music and found the subject of our Essai du jour, the English musician and failed parliamentarian, founder of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, Screaming Lord Sutch.
Before Arthur Brown, before Iggy Pop, before Ozzie Osborne, before Alice Cooper, decades before any of the growling, snarling death metal performers of recent years, there was Sutch. Born David Edward Sutch in 1940, he took on the stage name as above, with the title amended thereunto of 3rd Earl of Harrow. You will find no sutch (sic) listing in Burke’s Peerage. The first part of his nom de scène was inspired by the 1950s novelty performer, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The second was made up out of whole cloth.
His 1963 novelty song “Jack the Ripper” is the prototype for a great many of the tropes common to heavy metal, and made a sufficient splash in his home country that a short documentary was made about him and his band, The Savages, which concluded with a full version of the song including the simulated disembowelment of a mannikin.
Sutch’s tune, by the way, bears no relation to the surf guitar standard composed by Link Wray that same year. In case anyone was wondering. “Jack the Ripper” a la Sutch bears a more than passing similarity, structurally and musically, to the Hollywood Argyles’ 1960 hit, Alley Oop, based on the American comic strip. Thematically, however…
Yeah. Not a thing like it.
The putative 3rd Earl of Harrow ran for Parliament nearly forty times, with what can be charitably characterized as limited success. He did garner more votes on occasion than actual, legitimate political parties, including in 1990 when the Social Democratic Party responded to losing to him by disbanding. There’s at least one modern political entity that might want to take note and follow this example.
Later in the decade, Sutch performed on stage and on vinyl with a variety of major rock ‘n’ roll musicians, including the Who’s drummer Keith Moon, Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, and several members of Led Zeppelin. The album he recorded with the Zeppelinists, Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends, was declared in a 1998 poll conducted by the BBC as being the worst album of all time. Not a high watermark in the legendary band’s repertoire.
Despite his exuberant stage presence, Sutch battled depression in later years. He committed suicide by hanging in his late mother’s house on June 16, 1999. He was fifty-eight years old.
A word about His Lordship’s inspiration, the aforementioned Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, seems relevant at this point in the proceedings. Hawkins was born in 1929. Inspired by both operatic and blues singers, he began performing his piano act in the early 1950s, during which period took to wearing leopard skins and red leather, and other outrageous costumes. His most influential recording was his 1956 hit, “I Put a Spell on You”, a performance of which is in the link above. The piece has since been covered numerous times, including by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nina Simone, Carlos Santana, and Marilyn Manson, and by Bette Midler et alii in the 1993 film, Hocus Pocus. He passed away in 2000 at the age of seventy.
Arthur Brown, Screaming Lord Scutch’s first significant follower down that dark, flamboyant musical path was born in 1942 in Whitby, England, the very town in which the Demeter ran aground in the novel and several film versions of Dracula, precipitating the Vampire Lord onto British soil. Brown still performs his wild and crazy act at the age of eighty, although perhaps a bit less frenetically in these latter days.
Our lagniappe this time is from one of my favorite groups of the 1970s, English folk-rockers Steeleye Span. A few days late for Halloween, but you are welcome to put “The Twelve Witches” aside for next year. Just don’t forget where you stashed it.
I’ve written before in this space about the Comics Code Authority, and how it forbade depictions of vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghouls and myriad other creatures of darkness in the comic books approved for consumption by the tender, innocent minds of American youth, beginning in the mid-1950s. This puritanical restriction lasted until the early 1970s, which by a happy coincidence happens to be the time when my most active period of collecting began.
What is most significant about that time as it relates to our favorite genre is that Marvel Comics in particular went absolutely batty over the new freedom, more so than any of their four-color competitors. And it all began at the end of 1971, with the second issue of a title called Marvel Spotlight.
Marvel Spotlight was one of those titles intended to showcase new characters not yet deemed ready for their own series. The first issue featured a Native American Western character called Red Wolf. Not bad, but he went nowhere fast. The second issue, on the other hand…
The cover was by comics legend Neal Adams, inked by another great, Tom Palmer. The interior was drawn by an artist new to me at the time, but one I now acknowledge as a true genius of the art form – Mike Ploog – and written by the equally iconic Roy Thomas. It was called Werewolf By Night.
Oh, frabjous day, calloo, callay! Our long sequential art nightmare was over! There was an actual, bloody-fanged freaking werewolf in a Marvel comic book! And it was available for purchase for only a quarter of a dollar!
Marvel comics dated that February of 1971 were all fifty-two pages for twenty-five cents. It was a brief experiment in a longer format for all the Marvel titles. To flesh out the issue, a story of the Greek goddess Venus from a 1948 issue of her eponymous title, published back when Marvel was still called Timely Comics, was included. It was drawn by Bill Everett, who had in 1939 created the Sub-Mariner, Marvel’s first superhero.
Werewolf By Night told the tale of Jack Russell, who inherited the curse of the full moon from his father’s side of the family. His adventures continued for another two issues of Marvel Spotlight, both written by Gerry Conway, before a new character, Ghost Rider, took over and Jack’s story transferred to his own title. Werewolf By Night ran for forty-three issues, drawn first by Ploog and later by Don Perlin, an artist I never really warmed to.
Two months after that issue of Marvel Spotlight came out, a new title appeared, featuring a different monster formerly forbidden by the Comics Code. Tomb of Dracula ran for seventy issues, each one drawn by comic giant Gene Colan, and inked by the aforementioned Tom Palmer. A black and white magazine by the same title ensued, as well as one called Dracula Lives! Neither lasted very long. Nor did the fifty-two pagers Giant-Size Dracula or Giant-Size Werewolf. But they were fun, and I bought them all.
And there were titles with zombies and mummies and Frankenstein’s Monster and Son of Satan and all manner of spooky critters that had been for so long verboten in the medium. It was a wonderful time to be thirteen and have access to a working lawnmower to make a few bucks to finance a hobby that was not yet priced out of your reach.
I mowed a lot of lawns in those days. And collected coke bottles, and babysat, and did whatever odd jobs were available. Comic collecting wasn’t nearly as expensive as it became in the late 1980s, but it did take some effort to keep up with.
And here we are, decades later, living in an age of comic-based movies. One of which I watched just yesterday on Disney+, a live-action television movie based on Werewolf By Night. It also co-stars another Marvel monster of the period, one also intimately associated with artist Mike Plogg at one point in its history. No spoilers here, but I definitely hope the populace will make an effort to seek out and enjoy Werewolf By Night.
I loved it. I recommend it very highly.
I have mentioned before the passing of Neal Adams. Sadly, Tom Palmer, possibly the greatest inker the medium ever employed, also passed away recently. He died August 18 of this year, at the age of 81.
For our lagniappe this time out, I tried to find a decent copy of the animated version of Mussourgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” from my favorite Disney movie, Fantasia. Alas, YouTube doesn’t have one worth sharing. Instead, enjoy this 1938 animated version from France. Very unusual, very dark and dreary, and delightfully dour.
I know, I know, in my last missive I tantalized the populace with the prospect of an examination of the stellar, if flawed career of legendary British anthologist Peter Haining for this edition, but some new information has become available but not yet acquired. That posting must needs go onto the back burner for the nonce. Fear not, my faithful fiends, it will be forthcoming. For now, as Halloween is rapidly approaching, something more in keeping with the season seemed appropriate to take its place.
Holiday episodes of popular TV programs are a common occurrence, and indeed were even in the days when the dominant home medium was radio. After some research I have identified what appears to be the very first Halloween-related broadcast on what was in 1952 the new medium of American television: the fifth episode of the first season of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
Ozzie Nelson was a big band leader in the 1930s who married his lead singer, Harriet Hilliard before they moved from the ballroom stage to the airwaves as regulars on Red Skelton’s radio show, The Raleigh Cigarette Program. Along the way, the couple found time to spawn a pair of sons, David (1936-2011) and Eric Hilliard, born in 1940 and known to family, friends and fans alike as Ricky. In 1944, Ozzie had enough clout to start his own radio show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, starring himself and his better half as themselves with actors portraying their offspring. It was a typical sitcom of the time and medium, and was quite successful. Halfway through its ten-year run, the Nelson boys were deemed old enough to play themselves, and so mote it was.
By 1952, television had been around long enough to warrant its own versions of many popular shows from the old medium, including the Nelson family’s. That program lasted fourteen seasons, for reasons that, honestly, I do not understand. Even more so after watching the TV broadcast of October 31, 1952, “The Halloween Party”.
I have no recollection of ever watching The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet during its run from 1952 to 1966, the reason probably being that my father, who exercised a sort of benevolent dictatorship over the family viewing on the one set we owned at the time, found it so monumentally boring that he refused to allow it to be seen in our house. As he was fond of saying, it offended by its blandness.
For so it is. Feel free to watch that episode with its aimless depiction of Ozzie’s utter ineptness at planning and executing a Halloween party for the neighborhood adults. I don’t recommend it, except as a rather curious historical artifact.
Instead, may I direct your attention to the radio broadcast of exactly four years earlier, October 31, 1948, “Haunted House”. Rather than engaging in banal pursuits into contrived incompetence, Ozzie spends his half-hour air time playing around with the idea of investigating a supposedly haunted house in the neighborhood, with some fairly amusing results. It had an energy to it that the television show lacked for its entire run, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain from the few times I’ve been able to bring myself to watch the odd episode or two. As with so many programs that made the transition, it was better heard but not seen.
Despite that, it lasted long enough for younger son Ricky to join the trend of juvenile television stars making the move into music. Following the collapse of the first generation of rock ‘n’ rollers by 1959, including the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson in a plane crash that February, Ricky and his peers filled the airwaves with a more adult-acceptable version of the genre, one that had its rough edges carefully excised. Ricky was more successful than most, but his fame petered out by the time Motown and the British Invasion reshaped popular music for the better a few years later.
He did make a comeback fueled by nostalgia in the 1970s, but himself died in a plane crash in 1985. Ozzie passed in 1975, and Harriet in 1994. The couple’s one genre-related TV performance was in the seventh episode of the third season of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery in a tale called “You Can Come Up Now, Mrs. Millikan”, which aired on November 12, 1972. Ricky appeared in the fifth episode of Tales of the Unexpected on March 9, 1977, in a story entitled “A Hand for Sonny Blue”.
A minimal contribution to the genre, admittedly, but an historic one. Being first does count for something.
In 2017, a movie came out that introduced us to the entity known as the Bye Bye Man. It was an introduction to a boogeyman who hunted you just for thinking his name. Rather than offer a review of the movie, this week’s Nightmare Fuel looks at the legend of the Bye Bye Man.
The Bye Bye Man’s first appearance was in a short story by Robert Damon Schneck titled “The Bridge to Body Island”. The legend begins in an orphanage in the 1920s with a blind albino boy constantly teased by the other children. He attempts to run away several times, only for his plans to fail each time. Eventually, he escapes by stabbing one of his caretakers with a pair of scissors. After that, the young man lives a life on the railroad hopping on trains and killing at each stop. In need of companionship, he creates a dog with pieces of his victims, mostly eyes and tongues, who he names Gloomsinger. When the Bye Bye man feels someone talking or even thinking about him, he uses Gloomsinger to track them down. Once this creepy canine finds its quarry, he lets out a shrill whistle to alert his master, who then kills them.
The Bye Bye Man’s description is of a pale white skinned man with long hair wearing black glasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and a pea coat. There is a tattoo on his right wrist and carries a sack around with him. Inside this Sack of Gore are more pieces of his victims, which he uses to replenish a constantly decaying Gloomsinger. His preferred killing locations are along the railways, but he has wandered to people’s homes and used tricks to get them to open the door. This includes voice mimicry of someone you know. Make no mistake, once you open that door, you are his next victim.
Could this just be an elaborate story to scare people? Certainly. Can it be true? Possibly. The only way to know for sure is to think of or talk about the Bye Bye Man and listen for the whistle.
Eventually, one comes to the realization that not everything from childhood is worth clinging to. I have, for example, lost my taste for sugary breakfast cereals. It’s been decades since I’ve stood on a skateboard. And, as much as it pains me to admit, the original Lost in Space absolutely sucked.
I’m not all that crazy about the most recent incarnation, either. What sort of idiot takes his family into a space storm without securing all the large, heavy boxes in the room?!?!?!?
Anyhow. The show started out well, back in 1965, but by the third season, it had long since jumped the shark. Being as how the theme this time out is haunted lighthouses, I had planned to write this on the seventh episode from that year, called, coincidentally, “The Haunted Lighthouse”, which aired on October 18, 1967. It concerned the Robinson clan encountering a spaceship that acted as a sort of lighthouse and is kind of sort of haunted, but honestly, I couldn’t tell you much more about it than that, as I found it completely unwatchable.
So, instead, let’s take a look at a house of another kind, one I’ve mentioned before.
I hope the populace has had a chance to watch the utterly delightful Netflix adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman”. If so, you will have met Cain and Abel, the caretakers of the Houses respectively of Mystery and Secrets. I wrote about Abel’s domicile recently. This column concerns Cain’s.
Unlike House of Secrets, there was no hiatus for House of Mystery after the old days of cheesy superheroics ended and Cain took the abode into a much darker direction, beginning with issue 174, dated May-June, 1968. I had previously read the title occasionally, but my first experience with the new style came not quite a year later, with issue 179, dated March-April, 1969.
The issue is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. It contains the earliest known professional work of iconic artist Bernie Wrightson. And it has a story drawn by Neal Adams, whom I believe I have also mentioned before.
In addition, I have noted my love of Victorian architecture, especially those designated Second Empire. One of the features commonly seen on that type of house is a widow’s walk, a sort of fenced-in area atop the upper levels of the Mansard roof that is the defining characteristic of Second Empire. From such a vantage point, the wives of seamen would watch for their husband’s ships to return from lengthy voyages, as long as they have had the foresight to construct said edifice within viewing range of the nearest body of water capacious enough to contain docking facilities for such vessels. Thus it is with the final story of the comic book, other than a single-page reprint.
“Widow’s Walk” has sailor Angus Beame marrying the daughter of a shipping magnate in hopes of inheriting the family fortune. However, after engineering his father-in-law’s untimely demise, he is furious that he is cut out of the will, other than the ship he has been captaining for the firm. He sails off in a huff, which is not a kind of sailing vessel. His abandoned bride lays down a curse upon him to the effect that Angus will not be able to return to his home port, nor any other, until she dies. She stands on the widow’s walk every subsequent day of her very long life, reiterating the malediction. There, she eventually collapses and dies of extreme old age, upon which her husband’s ship floats up from Davy Jones’ Locker, where it has been berthed since the curse was put upon him. He stands at the wheel, more than a little the worse for wear.
The story was written by Howie Post, best known for humorous comic book stories but who did spend some time on the horror comics published by Atlas, the precursor to Marvel Comics. It was inked by Joe Orlando, whose own horror pedigree is rather more impressive. He spent time on the EC horror comics of the 1950s, including Tales from the Crypt, Haunt of Fear and Vault of Horror, as well as numerous Atlas titles. By 1968, he was an editor at DC Comics, including on House of Mystery.
So, not a lighthouse, but the topic is maritime-related. Close enough for government work, as we used to say back when I worked for the government.
Our next venture into the outre from this space will concern legendary horror anthologist Peter Haining, a man possessed of great vision that was not always 20-20, but whose is? Join me then, won’t you? A good time will be had by all, I assure you.
And, as always, my dear raconteurs of the repugnant…
Sequin Lighthouse (2006), courtesy of MaineAnEncyclopedia.com
When you are out at sea during a storm, one of the most welcome sights is the light coming from shore. A bright shining beam cutting through the darkest night, the roughest of storms, and the densest bank of fog, letting you know that shore is nearby. It also lets you know that there are rocks nearby so you don’t run aground. But what is it like for those who maintained the light? This week’s Nightmare Fuel looks at the haunting of the Seguin Island Lighthouse.
Being a lighthouse keeper is a solitary life and an enormous commitment. Even if your family is with you, the isolation can get to you and do strange things to your mind unless you have some sort of release. A keeper’s wife at the Seguin Island Lighthouse in Georgetown, ME, used a piano to battle the loneliness, but according to legend, she only learned one song on it. Between the isolation and the repetition of the song, the keeper was driven insane. Much like in Stanley Kubrick’s version of “The Shining”, he destroyed the piano with an ax before turning it on her and then finishing with himself. This happened in the mid-19th century but hasn’t stopped them from letting their presence known.
People who visit the lighthouse report hearing the ghostly piano melody, even though there is no piano on the premises. Also, there are reports from members of the U.S. Coast Guard stationed there of furniture moving, things vanishing, a young girl laughing and waving, and other ghostly sounds. A Coast Guard warrant officer also claimed to have spotted a spirit wearing oilskin clothing, shaking him out of sleep and shouting, “Don’t take the furniture. Please, leave my home alone!” The next day, a boat carrying the furniture and the warrant officer sank. Was it the ghost trying to keep his possessions there, or was it just a freak coincidence?
Isolation can play a lot of tricks on people’s minds, especially when you have a high value and high anxiety position, such as a lighthouse keeper. That, coupled with moving water and the right combination of stone, can make for a recording of past events to be played out again and again. Can it also trap spirits there? Who can really say?
If you translate that title into English, you get the first line of a classic piece of American popular music, recorded by the Chordettes in 1954. In German, however, it refers to a story written in 1817 by an author you probably don’t realize you’re familiar with.
I daresay it would be difficult for anyone with much contact with Western popular culture to have avoided some exposure to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Christmas ballet, The Nutcracker, or its music. Pieces from the suite composed for the ballet have been liberally sprinkled in movies and television shows as long as those media have been able to project sound, and several were animated in the 1940 Disney film, Fantasia. Cities all over the world host performances of the ballet during the Christmas season, and every little girl I know, including my three daughters and my oldest granddaughter, has been taken to their local performance hall to witness the holiday spectacle, live.
No reason boys can’t go, but I can only speak of the children my wife has taken. The mileage in your family may vary.
The story the ballet is based on is The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, a novella by the German author, E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822). Hoffmann was a prolific writer of fantasy and Gothic horror short stories during his brief life. His stories inspired French composer Jacques Offenbach to set three of them in an opéra fantastique that premiered in 1881, four months after he died.
One of the stories that comprised Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) was “Der Sandmann”, which had first appeared in Hoffmann’s 1817 collection Die Nachtstücke (Night Pieces). “The Sandman” concerns a young man named Nathaniel with a morbid fear of the title entity, a creature who sneaks into children’s rooms to steal their eyes. He returns home from school to find that a lovely young woman named Olimpia is living across the way from him so that his window faces hers. He courts her, but Olimpia’s only reply to his entreaties is “Ah, ah… ah, ah”.
When Nathaniel goes to propose to Olimpia, he finds his professor, Spallanzani, standing over the eyeless body of Olimpia, arguing with the lens maker Coppolla over which of them built the automaton’s clockwork and which made her enamel eyes. Coppolla is revealed to be the villainous Coppelius, who represents the mythical Sandman in Nathaniel’s fantasies and has sought to ruin his life at every opportunity. Nathaniel loses what few marbles he has left by this point, and things go sideways in every awful way imaginable.
Prior to Offenbach’s effort, his fellow Frenchman Adolphe Adam had adapted the story alone as an opéra comique in 1852 under the title La poupée de Nuremberg. It played with significant success at Paris’ Théâtre Lyrique. Fifteen years after Offenbach’s opera premiered, yet another French composer turned the tale into yet another opera. Edmond Audran’s own version, La poupée, opened at the Théâtre de la Gaîté, also in Paris, in 1896.
“Der Sandmann” also provided the inspiration for Leo Delibes’s ballet, Coppélia, which is sometimes subtitled La Fille aux Yeux d’Émail (The Girl with the Enamel Eyes).
There have been several film versions of the story or one of the works it inspired, including Michael Powell’s stunningly beautiful 1951 film of The Tales of Hoffmann, starring Irish ballerina Moira Shearer as Olimpia in the first section. A 1991 stop-motion animated version created by Paul Berry was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.
In 2012, Mark Gatiss discussed the story on the BBC radio program, The Uncanny.
Not all literary clockwork creations were lovely young ballerinas, however. Some played chess. The automaton in Ambrose Bierce’s 1899 short story “Moxon’s Master” was based on several phony automata that toured the European entertainment circuits in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Poe himself wrote an article exposing one that was called The Turk as a fake, although for the wrong reason, in that a truly automated chess player would never lose. Moxon’s creation turns out to be a sore loser and murders its creator in retaliation of its defeat. The Turk was simply a fallible man hiding inside the machinery.
The Turk was constructed by a German “inventor”, Wolfgang von Kempelen, and later sold to inventor, engineer and showman Johann Nepomuk Mälzel. Mälzel had created a number of working automata, and his reputation ensured that the purely clockwork nature of the Turk would never be questioned. The truth was not revealed until after the Turk was destroyed by fire in 1854.
Our lagniappe for this edition is a swinging little number, Jack & Jim’s 1959 recording, Midnight Monsters Hop. Enjoy!
And so, as always, my dear devotees of the devilishly diabolical…
One of the all-time classic creatures of the night is the vampire. Whether it is the debonair aristocrat like Dracula, the punk look of The Lost Boys, or the almost feral pack in 30 Days of Night, we have seen a wide variety of the blood sucking demons. There is, however, another type that doesn’t just stop at blood, and takes a particular revelry in devouring its prey. This week’s Nightmare Fuel looks at the brahmaparusha.
The legend of the brahmaparusha originates from northern India. Hindu legends describe it as a supernatural being who resembles a human, but is a separate species from them. When you come across one, you will find it wearing their last victim’s intestines like a crown around their head, draped around their neck, and wrapped around their waist. In one hand will be a previous victim’s skull, which they will use as a cup to catch your blood in before drinking from it. Once they have finished with your blood, they will then move on to your brains, consuming them as you helplessly watch. After that, they will disembowel you to add your intestines to their collection of adornments before ritualistically dancing around your corpse and then seeking their next victim.
It’s unknown how to create or stop a brahmaparusha. The legends speak of their almost insatiable hunger, thirst, and bloodlust. Sometimes it takes many feedings before they feel satisfied enough to stop for a time. They also take great pride in the kill, doing all that they can to prolong your life and enjoy every delicious morsel of it as you watch, powerless to stop them. Your best bet to keep from becoming one of its victims is to run, hide, and pray that the creature doesn’t find you.
Keep playing hide and go seek, and beware the person wearing entrails like fancy jewelry. If they catch you, you may be next on their menu.
In 1935, Herbert J. Yates ran a small film processing laboratory in Hollywood. He’d been processing movies for the major studios for several years, but when they all decided to take care of that chore in-house, Yates needed to diversify in order to keep afloat in the midst of the Great Depression. He managed to acquire six small Poverty Row studios, and combined them into one mini-major studio he called Republic Pictures.
One of the six, Mascot Pictures, provided Yates with three things that make this little foray into the history of celluloid mechanical horrors possible: experience in producing movie serials going back into the silent era; the former Mack Sennett studio; and the recent discovery of singing cowboy Gene Autry.
Serials, or cliffhangers for those of you who remember Annie Wilkes talking about them in Misery (“He didn’t get out of the cock-a-doodie car!”), were cheaply made adventure films broken up into ten to fifteen chapters intended to be shown on successive Saturday afternoons for the kiddie crowd, mostly. Mom would drop her brood off at the local cinema with a dime for admission and another for snacks, and they’d be entertained by a couple of B-movies, cartoons, assorted short subjects, and a serial chapter long enough for the materfamilias to run her errands. Good clean fun, with plenty of violence but no sex.
Yates’s first venture into serial making made use of his new film star, as well as the well-appointed studio he’d inherited from Sennett. Before Autry went on to become the biggest western star in the world (yes, bigger than John Wayne for his most active years), and long before he owned the Los Angeles Angels baseball team, he starred in one chapterplay for the new studio, The Phantom Empire (1935). Starting off from his day job as a radio performer, Autry discovered an underground kingdom under his ranch. Murania was a technologically advanced civilization that made extensive use of robots. Hence, the title of this installment. Gene managed to escape Murania and save Radio Ranch from the bad guys who were after his radium mine, all in twelve chapters.
Autry soon switched over to making B-Westerns and was known as the “King of the Cowboys” until going off to fight in World War II. After the war, Autry finished out his contract with Republic, then transferred to Columbia for the remainder of his movie and television career. He passed away in 1998, at the age of 91.
A year after Autry triumphed over the Muranians, former stuntman and future Terror from Beyond Space Ray “Crash” Corrigan found similar adventures in Atlantis in another twelve-chapter serial, Undersea Kingdom. Future Wolf Man Lon Chaney, Jr. played one of the main villain’s henchmen. Once again, the villains had robots to assist them in their nefarious schemes.
Republic let a few years go by before throwing another mechanized marvel at the Saturday afternoon audience. One of the best serials ever, Mysterious Doctor Satan, is rumored to have been intended as the first Superman chapterplay, but if so negotiations with DC Comics fell through. Instead, a generic hero called Copperhead took on the title villain and his mechanical monster. When the fifteen chapters were spliced together a few years later into feature length, the resulting version was called Dr. Satan’s Robot. That’s how I first saw it on our local television station’s afternoon movie, The Big Show, in the Summer of 1973.
Republic got out of the mechanical monster business after that, although their robots were later recycled for serials at Columbia and Universal. Almost immediately, they made the first two serials based on comic book characters, Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) and Spy Smasher (1942), before ceding that source to Columbia, who managed to make two Superman cliffhangers near the end of the decade. Television killed off the serials by 1956, and Republic shut down production in 1958.
Speaking of Columbia, they featured their own version of a robot terror in 1945’s The Monster and the Ape, with the aforementioned Ray Corrigan in a gorilla suit helping to steal the mechanical marvel from its inventor. From hero to monkey in the short span of nine years – quelle horreur!
Universal made one significant contribution to the pantheon of serialized mechanical monsters in 1939. Bela Lugosi starred in The Phantom Creeps, in which he created what had to be the creepiest robot ever filmed. It was so memorable that DC Comics even adapted it in Movie Comics #6. The Phantom Creeps was one of several serials Lugosi starred in, but the only one featuring a robot. Pity, he demonstrated quite a knack for constructing them.
And so, all who are intrigued by the inhuman, until we meet again…
Train Wreck of Bostian Bridge, Iredell County, NC. Wreck occurred August 27, 1891, near Statesville. Photos by Stimson Studio, Statesville, NC, courtesy of the State Archives of NC.
We consider trains the lifeblood of the United States. They were one of the earliest forms of fast interstate travel, predating the automobile and airplanes. Many a western movie featured the train as a mainstay setting, second perhaps to the horse. They were also prone to horrendous accidents from jumping the tracks. These accidents have spawned legends about people seeing a train wreck replayed or a train on otherwise unused tracks. In this week’s Nightmare Fuel, we look at one such tale of a ghost train.
Early on the morning or August 27, 1941, a Statesville, NC, woman was waiting along the side of the road near Bostian’s Bridge, a sixty-foot-high arch bridge made of stone spanning over Third Creek. The tire on the car she rode in had gone flat and her husband left to find help, leaving her alone. As she waited for his return, she noticed a train approaching and watched as it reached the halfway point on the bridge and left the tracks. She saw the wooden cars pulled down to the creek and heard the screams of pain after it hit the water. Concerned, the woman followed the sounds until she came across the twisted wreck. The train lay in the creek, taking on water while passengers tried to climb free. She heard a car pull up on the road and ran to get help, knowing time was of the essence.
The car was her husband returning with help. When the men heard the wife’s tale, all three went back to the creek to see what they could do to help. What they found was an empty creek. There were no signs of any accidents having occurred, much less the catastrophic one the wife had seen. The couple later found out that there had been a train wreck in that same creek, only it happened fifty years prior. On August 27, 1891, a passenger train running from Salisbury to Asheville plunged into Third Creek from Bostian’s Bridge. The cause remained a mystery, but twenty-two people died in that accident.
People still report sightings of the Bostian’s Bridge ghost train, which eventually led to an unfortunate tragedy. On August 27, 2010, a group of amateur ghost hunters were investigating on the bridge when an actual train came along. They reportedly thought it was the ghost train, so didn’t get off the tracks until it was on top of them, resulting in two injuries and one death.
There are far more legends of ghost trains spanning the world. Wherever there are train tracks, you’ll find a haunting legend attached. Just be cautious when investigating them. You never know if the light at the end of the bridge or tunnel is an actual train or a phantom one.
I have a confession to make before the populace – other than the earliest bands that were instrumental in transforming the psychedelic music of the late 1960s into what became known as heavy metal, I am not a fan of the genre. At all. I love Mountain, Steppenwolf, Uriah Heep, even some early Black Sabbath, but what came afterward sounds to me, not unlike stray cats and scrap iron rolling down a steep hill in a steel drum. Not that I object to others indulging their preference for such sonic pleasures, although it would be all right with me if they’d roll up their car windows while doing so.
Ergo, it was with some trepidation that I reviewed the topics for this season and discovered Heavy Metal on the list, for I am incapable of speaking with any authority on that musical subject, and even a polymath should recognize his limitations.
That said, the term does not apply only to musical endeavors. As regards its other uses, I do have some insight.
Being involved in science-fiction fandom in the 1970s, I occasionally received information via post on upcoming events of interest in regards to that genre. I wish I still had the mailer I received in late 1976 or early 1977, alerting me to the imminent publication of an American version of the French magazine, Métal hurlant. Heavy Metalwas to be a glossy, full-color magazine featuring the best speculative fiction comics from Europe and America. And so it was. I began accumulating issues almost immediately, and devoutly wish I still had them, for it was a beautiful publication.
I will no doubt wax rhapsodic over it one of these fine days in this space, but in the current edition, I am scheduled to talk about movies rather than magazines. And while I am obliged to admit that it is true that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, I really wanted to talk about the 1981 animated film that was based on some of the characters and stories and artwork from the magazine, and not the magazine, itself.
Specifically, I wanted to discuss the one segment of the film that truly is horror, for horror is what we are all gathered together in this place to consider, n’est pas? The other parts of the film are science-fiction and fantasy, for the most part. While there is some crossover between all the component genres of what we generally refer to as speculative fiction, there is only one part of Heavy Metal that is decidedly neither science-fictional nor fantastical. It is horror, pure horror, and I do love it best of all.
The film has a framing sequence that introduces a floating, green, glowing sphere called the Loc-Nar that interacts with the characters and initiates the action of each separate story. In the segment entitled, “B-17”, a World War II bomber encounters the Loc-Nar, resulting in the dead crew being animated and attacking the surviving co-pilot. The pilot parachutes away after the co-pilot is killed, but lands on an island filled with wrecked airplanes of all ages, from which more zombies emerge and surround him.
And that’s it – my entire entry for today reduced to less than seven minutes of animation. Seven minutes of horror. I hope that’s enough, because if all you’re looking for is horror, and horror alone, that’s all I got this time out.
But, if you don’t mind sitting through some killer animation, and hearing some terrific music, by all means, take in that seven-minute piece within its entire contextual ninety-minute framework. No, the movie doesn’t make much sense. Yes, it is juvenile and sexist, and there are multiple scenes that probably ought to have been reconsidered. It is, however, an artifact of its time, place, and origins. Historians, even of Horror, have a responsibility to paint the past wie es eigently gewesen war – as it actually was, as dictated by the great German historian Leopold von Ranke, and that’s not always pretty. But sometimes, just sometimes, it’s also beautiful.
Watch it, or avoid it; embrace it, or reject it, as you wish. I will make no judgments, either way. Just as the musical genre is not my cuppa tea, the movie might not be yours. And that’s okay. But please do at least consider those seven minutes of terror. I suspect you might enjoy them.
Next time, we will be looking at a lost medium, a form of entertainment that died during the Eisenhower administration, and a variety of mechanical horrors that infested it. I look forward to hosting you again for the next chapter in the History of Horror. Until then, my dear hungerers after the horrific…
Imagine being out with your honey and you spy an enormous shadow with wings and glowing red eyes staring at you. You both decide it best to drive away and hope to leave it in your dust and taillights. To your horror, you look back to find that not only is what you saw flying after you, but it is keeping up with you as the speedometer hits one hundred miles an hour. That happened November 15th in Point Pleasant, WV. It was just the start of the Mothman sightings, which ended with the collapse of the Silver Bridge. Or did they? For this week’s Nightmare Fuel, we look at some other sightings of the legendary Mothman.
For those who know little about the Mothman, he is a tall, humanoid entity with giant wings, no neck, and glowing red eyes. Some say it is a harbinger of a disaster, others claim it offers warnings to protect people, while some hold that it is the reason for the disaster to come. Most think that Mothman is just a Point Pleasant legend, but its flight path has grown in the years since.
Witnesses spotted Mothman in the Chicago area between 2011 and 2017. Reports of an entity bearing a resemblance to Mothman were reported in Houston, TX in the 1950s, although locals referred to it as the Batman of Houston. People reported spotting the cryptid flying near the Twin Towers just prior to the 9/11 attacks. There are similar sightings near Minneapolis, MN in the month leading up to the I-35W bridge collapse in 2007. Some people in Chihuahua, Mexico, reported a being bearing a strong resemblance to Mothman just before the 2009 swine flu outbreak.
Can these sightings be cases of mistaken identities? Yes. There is always the possibility that they are something mundane as giant owls or sand-hill cranes. Other sightings, such as one prior to the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, might be nothing more than fiction folded into the Mothman legend thanks to the “Mothman Prophecies”, a book by Richard Keel that was later made into a movie of the same name. There are some who theorize that it is an extra-dimensional being, or possibly someone from the future trying to warn us of something wicked on the horizon.
Regardless of what it started out as the Mothman today is a huge draw for the Point Pleasant area. They established a museum and statue of the legendary cryptid and host an annual festival in its name. He has also reportedly re-visited the area as recently as 2016.
Whether Mothman is real or not is difficult to find out. One bit of advice I may offer if you see the cryptid, is perhaps consider taking a vacation far from the area. You never know what disaster may be on the way.
Relax! Despite what you might think, we will not be discussing the music of the 1980s here today. This edition’s theme is sea creatures, and it’s my week to talk about the magazines of horror. What better concatenation of topics might there be than Frank Frazetta’s cover of the second issue painting for Warren Publication’s classic horror mag, Eerie? I can’t think of one. Can you?
Okay, so the number on the cover is a ‘3’. That’s confusing. Truth is, Warren put out what in the publishing business is called an ashcan issue to establish their trademark on the title without actually distributing it to the nation’s newsstands. This happens occasionally and is why the first appearance of the original Captain Marvel (now known as Shazam!) was in Whiz Comics #2. The first issue of Eerie that was seen by the public was Numero Two-o, as Joe Bob Briggs used to say. The second, Numero Three-o, had the SCUBA diver in the link above confronting the gargantuan aquatic plug-ugly. Clear as mud?
Frank Frazetta (1928-2010) is generally considered by those who know about such things to be the preeminent fantasy and horror illustrator of the second half of the 20th Century. He started out in comic books and worked on newspaper comic strips for some years, including an uncredited run on Al Capp’s Li’l Abner. No, that’s not the title character in the link. That’s Stupefyin’ Jones. Apt name, n’est pas? Julie Newmar, later famous as the first Catwoman in the Batman TV show, played that rather voluptuous young lady both on Broadway and in the 1959 film version of the musical play.
Frazetta left Li’l Abner in 1961 and started painting paperback and magazine covers. He did Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian illustrations that are iconic, as well as a parody of a shampoo ad for Mad Magazine featuring Ringo Starr. It showed the Beatles’ drummer instead of the usual pretty blonde, which led to Frazetta painting more than a dozen movie posters and almost a dozen album covers, including three recycled from earlier works for American southern rock band, Molly Hatchet.
Eerie was published beginning in 1966 as a companion to Warren’s two-years-older Creepy Magazine. Frazetta regularly contributed covers for both titles during their early days, although his production petered out as his book illustration work took over in the last few years of the 1960s. The specific painting under consideration today is entitled, believe it or not, Sea Monster.
So, let’s say you acquire a copy of this issue, either in print or as one of the myriad digital versions floating about the internet, and flip it open to the story referenced in the cover painting. Well, there actually isn’t one. Not exactly, anyhow. There is a story about divers and sea creatures, but the monsters don’t look all that much like the one on the front.
“Full Fathom Fright” is the seventh and last story in the issue, following tales illustrated by industry greats Angelo Torres, Al Williamson, Steve Ditko, and Alex Toth. This final yarn was drawn by the legendary Gene Colan (1926-2011), who had begun working in comics in 1944 and was at the time doing the Iron Man and Sub-Mariner features for Marvel, as well as war and romance comics for DC. He later had a long run on Marvel’s Daredevil title and a shorter one on Doctor Strange. He was also the only interior artist for the entire run of Tomb of Dracula, while other artists, usually Gil Kane, contributed covers for the first thirty-seven issues, and occasional later ones.
“Full Fathom Fright” was written by Archie Goodwin (1937-1998), as was the bulk of the Warren output in those days. Goodwin later worked as a writer and editor for both Marvel and DC and was highly regarded by his peers.
Spoiler Alert! Proceed Carefully!
The story itself is a sort-of-Wendigo-of-the-deep type saga, wherein the slayer of the monster becomes the monster themselves. Goodwin was maybe a bit too fond of this kind of yarn, having done a tale very like it in the first issue of Creepy. That one was illustrated by none other than — Frank Frazetta!
Thus we come full circle – a very small, tightly-wound full circle, admittedly. Next time, the circle will widen to include the cinematic manifestation of a genre of music that… well, you’ll just have to wait and see. Join us then, won’t you?
Our lagniappe this time out is a bit of musical fun by my favorite British folk-rock band from the 1970s, Steeleye Span – it’s “Twelve Witches”, from an album that spent a lot of time on my turntable back in the day, Rocket Cottage. Enjoy! And as always, my dear voluptuaries of the vicious…
Before the movies found their voice in 1927, sheet music was sent out to theaters with the cans full of film, so whatever accompanist was available could play along on the house piano or organ and thus provide what we now think of as the film score. A few of the bigger theaters had full orchestras. One assumes that they received more than one copy. One might be incorrect, but oh, well.
Even after the movies began to talk, most cinemas still had pianists and organists on staff, so the sheet music still went out because few films had scores added to the soundtracks. Musicals had the songs and incidental music, of course, usually adapted from whatever Broadway production they were based on, but many films have peculiar stretches of silence where modern viewers are used to hearing music written specifically for the picture.
In fact, the lack of a score can be so jarring to the modern ear that Hitchcock deliberately made The Birds without one, to heighten the tension.
Works, doesn’t it?
It was 1933 before it occurred to anyone to create a film score that would flow with and even punctuate the action on screen. The picture was King Kong, and the genius who essentially invented a whole new genre of music was the Austrian-born composer, Max Steiner.
After a successful theatrical music career in Europe, Steiner came to the United States at the beginning of the First World War. After a rough start – being as how he was flat broke when he arrived – he found work on Broadway as orchestrator, composer, and musical director for a fair number of big hits on the Great White Way. He was hired on by RKO Pictures in 1929 and went west, to Hollywood. There, he composed fairly generic scores for the few films being made with original music, but nothing on the scale of his first great creation, the magnificent score for King Kong.
Remember the strident violins in Psycho during the shower scene? The whole of Kong is like that, where every action gets its punctuating chord accompanying it. For example, when the native king (the great Noble Johnson, whose career deserves a major examination in a future column) notices the crew of the good ship Venture intruding on his ceremony, Sharp! Staccato! Chords! mark the occasion. In most films, the score is barely noticed except when it’s absent. In King Kong, it’s practically a character unto itself, a sort of Greek chorus, and nobody before Max Steiner had ever done that. And thanks to the wonders of the internet, the entire soundtrack can be found here. Enjoy!
Under the old Hollywood system of the Golden Age, there were eight major studios ranked according to funding, distribution, influence, sales, star power, etc. RKO was at or near the bottom of the pile for its entire history. KingKong represented a huge outlay for them. Fortunately, everything about the film was revolutionary, and that paid off. It was the biggest money making film of all time until Gone With the Wind six years later. The special effects might seem quaint now, but they were state of the art, not only at the time but for more than thirty years beyond. It flows quickly through its 100-minute running time (104, including Steiner’s wonderful overture), with a pace that many later films, including the 2005 remake, would do well to emulate. A pace that, by the way, is helped along by the score, one of the greatest in film history.
After King Kong, RKO stayed afloat for the rest of the decade on the earnings from a string of dance musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They hired theater and radio wunderkind, Orson Welles, to make Citizen Kane in 1940, which did not turn out as well for them as it should have. Producer Val Lewton made a batch of wonderfully inventive, low-budget horror pictures in the early 1940s that will get some well-deserved attention here someday. Despite the occasional major success and a distribution deal with Walt Disney Productions, RKO was out of business by 1959.
But King Kong lives on. If you ever have the chance, see the movie on a big screen. Tell me you don’t shed a little tear when the giant ape falls from the pinnacle of the Empire State Building to the accompaniment of the music Max Steiner created.
I know I do.
Our lagniappe is another stray artifact of the Hound of the Baskervilles. German Schlager duo Cindy und Bert set the tale of the Sherlockian pooch to the tune of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. Because why not? Crank it up to eleven!
Until next time, you gorgeous gluttons of le grand guignol…
As I’ve mentioned earlier this season, music has a certain magic about it. It can touch us on a deeply emotional level in ways few others can. What if the power of a song could span beyond that? Can a song be powerful enough to harm someone, possibly being a curse to any who perform it? The Hungarian Suicide song is one, but for this week’s Nightmare Fuel, we look at another — “The Crossroad Blues” by Robert Johnson.
I’m sure we are all familiar with Robert Johnson. For those who may not be, he is a blues legend. Born in Mississippi on May 8, 1911, he was a mainstay at many a street corner, juke joints, and Saturday night dances. In life, he had little success, but recordings he made in 1936 and 1937 made him a legend following his death in August 1938. His music influenced the likes of Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, and The Rolling Stones, to name just a few. Many consider him to be a master of the blues and the grandfather of rock and roll.
While Robert Johnson’s musical style and songwriting are enough to make him a legend, you can’t talk about him without discussing the supernatural stories surrounding him. Some refer to Robert as the musician who sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads. He is also a member of the infamous Twenty-Seven Club, a group of entertainers who have all died at twenty-seven. This club includes Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Jonathan Brandis, and Anton Yelchin, among others.
The supernatural may not just surround Robert Johnson, but may also include his music. Some consider one of his songs, “The Crossroad Blues”, to be cursed. Tragedies have touched Lynyrd Skynrd, The Allman Brothers Band, Robert Plant, and Eric Clapton after performing the song. Kurt Cobain, also a member of the Twenty-Seven Club, considered recording a cover of the song prior to his suicide.
The catch with curses is the possibility of everything being coincidental. Humans look for patterns to make sense of things. It’s in our nature. However, one cannot completely rule out the possibility that curses may be more than just superstition. Many a strange thing happens in this world, some with no more an explanation than curse or coincidence.
DC Comics seemed to have an affinity for naming comic books after spooky houses. Other publishers had Vaults (…of Horror, … of Evil) or Chambers (… of Chills, … of Darkness), but the House that Superman Built would settle for nothing less than entire structures for their ghosts to live in.
To be fair, St. John did have a House of Terror. But that was a 1953 one-shot that reprinted older horror tales in 3-D format, and one house a neighborhood doth not make.
DC, on the other hand, had an entire subdivision of eerie edifices. Apart from the domiciles, I referenced in an earlier column, there was a House of Mystery, a House of Secrets, and a Ghost Castle, not to mention Secrets of Haunted House. They also had a Doorway to Nightmare, for readers not yet ready to commit to full home ownership.
House of Mystery was first, debuting as a typical horror comic of its day at the end of 1951. That was a few years before the institution of the Comics Code, so the occasional werewolf or vampire was allowed in its first thirty-five issues. Not that there were many, given that DC was less inclined to such sensationalism than other publishers. Even before the Code, the DC horror titles were rather tame. House of Mystery ran for 321 issues until October 1983, although it spent a few years showcasing superhero features (“Martian Manhunter” and “Dial H for Hero”) rather than spooks and specters. It did feature a vampire series in its later years after the Comics Code was revised to allow such beings.
House of Secrets was more faithful to its horror roots for its run from 1956 to 1978, with a three-year gap from 1966 to 1969. It was not consistently an anthology title, playing host to a few continuing characters, but not superheroic ones like its sister magazine. Eclipso wasn’t really a hero, super or otherwise, and did have a supernatural origin that was revealed years later. His adventures occupied twenty issues of the title, mostly drawn by Alex Toth or Jack Sparling. Mark Merlin, usually illustrated by Mort Meskin, was an occult detective who appeared regularly for six years before being shuffled into an alternate dimension and replaced by Prince Ra-Man, AKA Mind Master. Both features ended with the hiatus.
When the title returned with issue #81, it was all horror, all the time, and the house was virtually a character in the comic book. A similar transformation had occurred over at House of Mystery about the same time. That house was provided with a caretaker by the name of Cain, who introduced the stories, none of which had continuing characters or superheroes.
The new House of Secrets was watched over by Cain’s nebbish brother, Abel, who had an imaginary friend named Goldie. The house frequently tried to rid itself of him by having the resident suits of armor drop their weapons on him, or floors collapse, or other such inconveniences. Covers were frequently by Neal Adams, one of the most talented and influential artists in the industry, during the early years of this incarnation. One exception was issue #92, painted by Bernie Wrightson. It introduced the muck monster, Swamp Thing. I’ve mentioned that one before, so we need not dwell on it here.
Other frequent artists included Bill Draut, Alex Toth, George Tuska, and Jack Sparling, all of whom possessed distinctive styles. As the years passed, the art became rather derivative and bland, as did the stories. I pretty much lost track of the title by mid-decade. Too many more interesting things were happening in comics in the 1970s, some of which I will address in this space in the future.
Cain and Abel did appear together in other venues. They co-hosted the humor title, Plop! and occasionally dropped in on the trio of witches who hosted The Witching Hour comic book. Eventually, House of Secrets and The Witching Hour were absorbed into another magazine, The Unexpected, and the era of DC horror comics began petering out.
But not permanently. In 1996, House of Secrets was revived for a two-year run under DC’s Vertigo imprint. The house was a mobile venue for judgment upon mortal sinners, who were tried for their evil ways by a jury of ghosts. No Cain, no Abel. That incarnation lasted twenty-five issues and a couple of specials, and that was it for the House of Secrets.
Oh, well. All things must pass.
Let’s meet again in fourteen days to have a listen to the first great movie score, composed for one of the first great horror films of the sound era. It’s sure to be a fun time of truly gargantuan dimensions. Until then, devourers of the demonic…
Seeing that title, you might be under the impression that this edition’s subject is John Carpenter’s 1981 movie. You would be laboring under a misapprehension. We are discussing the peculiar atmospheric, in more ways than one phenomenon that is at the core of that film, but it just so happens that we are doing literature this time out – English author James Herbert’s 1975 novel, The Fog, to be specific – instead.
No ghostly, leprous sailors lurking in the mists coming in from the sea in this one. Herbert’s fog wells up from a crack in the ground running down the High Street of an English village and drives anyone it comes into contact with it homicidally insane. After committing as many anti-social acts as possible, the victims typically die.
Fortunately, the hero of the tale is the only person in the nation to recover and gain immunity from the murderous vapor, which roams about the countryside, turning its victims very naughty indeed, frequently in grotesquely inventive ways. The novel is suspenseful in the manner of English story-telling of its kind, reminiscent of one of Dr. Quatermass’s adventures for the BBC, but Nigel Kneale’s televised creation never dared show the horrific fates visited on one of the faculty of a boys’ school, for example.
Entire villages are wiped out before the protagonist is able to convince the authorities to put down their tea and crumpets and do something constructive. His girlfriend gets a dose and nearly finishes him off several times, which complicates his efforts to impel the various ministries to get it in gear and solve the dilemma the government is ultimately responsible for. He does manage to get her into cold storage while various scientists work on a cure. Meanwhile, the fog slithers ever closer to London…
The Fog was Herbert’s second book. Like his first, The Rats, it’s a disaster tale with a scientific explanation. I enjoyed it for what it was, an early effort, somewhat derivative but fun and briskly paced. I have to admit I sort of skimmed over a few lines here and there. There are certain things that can be done to a school headmaster by wanton boys with no self-control that few adult males are apt to be comfortable reading about.
His third book, The Survivor, was a supernatural horror story, as were a fair number of his total of twenty-three novels. Herbert died in March of 2013 at the age of sixty-nine.
The Fog has not been adapted to film, but The Rats has been under the title Deadly Eyes (1982). A few of Herbert’s other books have also been filmed.
Speaking of movies, you might have heard of a little film franchise from Japan called Godzilla – the biggest, baddest radioactive lizard in the sea. But not the first. Ray Bradbury’s story, “The Fog Horn”, was published in 1951 in the pages of The Saturday Evening Post, one of those slick magazines all pulpsters aspired to graduate to the pages of in those days. It’s the charming tale of a deep sea creature that is lured to the surface by the dulcet tones of a lighthouse’s fog horn, thinking he’s finally found a mate. Every year, he comes up hoping to find true love, until on his third visit, the keepers turn the fog horn off. In a fit of pique, the thwarted lover demolishes the lighthouse and slips back under the waves.
Two years later, Warner Brothers released a film loosely based on the story with special effects by stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen. The title character of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a dinosaur awakened from suspended animation by nuclear testing in his neighborhood. Sound familiar? He demonstrates his annoyance by rampaging through New York, passing out a contagious prehistoric disease as he progresses through the city. He is finally cornered on Coney Island, where he discovers he’s too tall to ride the roller coaster.
The film stars B-Movie stalwart Kenneth Tobey, who two years earlier had defeated The Thing from Another World in the Arctic, and two years later would save San Francisco from the five-armed giant octopus in It Came from Beneath the Sea, another Harryhausen creation. Busy guy. Towards the end of his life, he popped up in cameos in The Howling, Strange Invaders and both Gremlins movies, among others. He passed away in 2002 at the age of 85.
Speaking of passing away, Italian cartoonist and co-creator of Zora la VampiraBirago Balzano died on March 25, 2022. Zora was a very-much-NSFW fumetto about a 19th Century blonde possessed by the spirit of Dracula. She traveled the world bedding and biting anyone willing to be bedded and bitten. Balzano was eighty-six.
In 1966, the powers-that-be at NBC-TV decided that what America needed was a fake version of The Beatles. And so, The Monkees came into being as a prime-time television series. Former English pop singer and jockey Davy Jones played the McCartneyesque teen-heartthrob, folk musician Peter Tork was the goofy Ringo Starr stand-in, one-time TV child star Mickey Dolenz was the Lennon-like free spirit, and Texas-born musician and composer Michael Nesmith was the Harrisonian deep thinker. The show only lasted two seasons, but the band has played on in various configurations until only Dolenz survives. I saw them, without Nesmith, in 1986 at Starwood Amphitheater in Nashville. Good show. Wish you could have been there.
As was de rigueur for American TV programs in those days, the Monkees were obliged to meet the monsters at least once. It was, after all, the decade of horror in all aspects of the popular culture, for reasons already detailed in this space. Oddly, it was not a Halloween episode, which would have been the norm. Instead, “Monstrous Monkee Mash” aired on January 22, 1968, and was the eighteenth show of the second season. Davy is entranced by a magical necklace in the possession of one Lorelei, played by ubiquitous 60s TV guest star, the lovely Arlene Martel (AKA Arlene Sax), making her second appearance on the show. She also appeared in very nearly every genre-related-or-peripheral series of the decade, including two episodes of The Twilight Zone, one of The Outer Limits, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, My Favorite Martian, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible, The Wild Wild West and even The Flying Nun. Yes, there actually was such a series. Arlene is best-known for playing T’Pring, Mr. Spock’s intended bride in the “Amok Time” episode of the original Star Trek series. Her last genre role was in the 1977 cheese-fest, Dracula’s Dog. She passed away in 2014 at the age of 78.
Lorelei’s father is a Transylvanian count named Sylvanius T. Batula, who has a werewolf, a mummy and a Frankenstein monster in residence at his castle. He was played by Ron Masack, who was in reality three months younger than his ‘daughter’. Masack’s career covered a lot of the same television shows as Arlene’s and continues to this day. He has a role in the recently completed but not yet released horror film, The Curse of the Gorgon, co-starring with no one you’ve ever heard of. Lo, how the mighty have fallen!
Anyhow. Back to the show.
The count wants to turn Davy into a vampire. The other Monkees come to Davy’s rescue and standard chaos ensues. Mickey nearly becomes a werewolf, Peter almost has his brain transferred to the Frankenstein monster’s cranium, and Mike gets wrapped up in the Mummy’s business. Davy is, as always, saved, and a song (“Going Down”) is performed during the final action sequence.
The Frankenstein monster, by the way, was played by Mike Lane (1933-2015), who had a fair-to-middlin’ genre film career. He previously played The Monster in Frankenstein 1970, with Boris Karloff as the mad scientist who brings him to life using atomic power. He returned as Frank N. Stein in the 1976 television series, Monster Squad, and as the similarly named villain Frank N. Stien in 1988’s Grotesque. His last role was as Asmodeus in Demon Keeper (1994).
The Monkees produced one film after the show was canceled, Head, in 1968. Nesmith composed some of the best songs of the era, including “Different Drum” which was a huge hit for Linda Ronstadt when she was with The Stone Poneys. He had a key part in creating the modern music video and what became MTV. He died of heart failure on December 10, 2021. He was 78.
Jones’s subsequent non-musical career consisted largely of playing himself in cameo roles and guest spots, including one episode each of The New Scooby-Doo Movies (1972) and Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1997). He passed from a heart attack in 2012, aged 66.
Apart from music, Tork taught algebra at a private school and worked as a waiter. The most accomplished musician in the group, he played twelve instruments. He died of cancer in 2019 at the age of 77.
Dolenz went back to acting as well as music, doing voice work for TV cartoon shows The Funky Phantom and The Scooby Doo/Dynomutt Hour, and as Arthur in The Tick (1994-1995). He also appeared in the truly execrable film The Night of the Strangler (1972) and in Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween. He’s planning a tribute tour to celebrate his late band-mates and their music.
And so, until next time, my fellow lovers of lunacy,
Our theme at the moment is ‘Bridges’. Spooky things, bridges. Think of the covered bridge Ichabod Crane had to reach to escape the Headless Horseman in “The Legend of Sleepy Horror”. Or the one in Beetlejuice where the main characters had an unfortunate encounter with a stray dog.
I’ve got a certain bridge in mind to discuss in this edition. Although according to the schedule I’ve made up for myself as to which medium to write about it’s Old Time Radio’s turn in the spotlight, we’ll begin with a few words about its successor, television.
I’ve written before in this space about Rod Serling and his most influential creation, The Twilight Zone, for which the word “groundbreaking” might well have been invented. On February 28, 1964, Serling did something that, to my knowledge, had never been done before – instead of his normal programming, he presented, without commercial interruption, a short French film from 1961 entitled “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, based on a short story by Ambrose Bierce.
The film, which had no dialogue, had won both the Oscar and the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1962 for Best Short Subject. Serling saw it in France and picked it up for a song. Showing it instead of filming a new episode for what was to be The Twilight Zone’s final season brought the show in on budget, a rarity that pleased the suits at ABC-TV. They offered Serling another season, but he was over the whole ‘monster of the week’ format the network wanted, and he declined. And so, the show was canceled.
The story had previously been adapted in 1959 for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV program, and several times for radio, in addition to a number of times into various media since. It concerns one Peyton Farquhar, a Confederate spy during the American Civil War who is about to be hanged from the Owl Creek Bridge. When the rope breaks, he struggles to elude his Yankee pursuers and return to his home, until…
No spoilers here.
I have written before about the symbiotic relationship between the Old Time Radio shows Escape! and Suspense!, the way the two programs often shared scripts. So it was with the Bierce tale. It was aired on Escape! on December 10, 1947, starring OTR stalwart Harry Bartell. Suspense! had three performances – December 9, 1956, with Victor Jory; December 15, 1957, with Joseph Cotten; and July 19, 1959, with Vincent Price.
Since the era of Old Time Radio ended on the evening of September 30, 1962, there have been periodic attempts to revive the medium, with varying degrees of success. The most durable effort, The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, began in 1974 and ran until 1982, with a brief revival in 1998. For most of its run, it was hosted by E.G. Marshall, who played the old man terrified of bugs in the final segment of Creepshow in 1982. The show adapted the tale on June 4, 1974, the program’s 101st broadcast.
We have another pair of obituaries for this edition. American painter and illustrator James Bama, who contributed many covers to the long run of Doc Savage paperbacks in the 1960s and 1970s as well as the box art for the Aurora monster models kits, died on April 22, 2022, a few days before his 96th birthday.
And the revolutionary, not to mention legendary, American comic book artist Neal Adams passed away on April 28th. He was eighty. His uncanny ability to render the human form and face elevated the art form to a level it had never seen before, or possibly since. Adams’ genre work included stories for Warren Publications’ Creepy and Eerie magazines, as well as stories and covers for DC Comics’ House of Mystery in the late 1960s, and the El Diablo stories in Weird West Tales in the early 1970s.
Over much of his stellar career, Adams championed creators’ rights to their own intellectual property in an industry long reliant on ‘work for hire’ as its business model. He was able to get comics giant Jack “King” Kirby’s original artwork for Marvel returned to him, and garnered Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster long-overdue credit and remuneration for their seminal creation, one upon which the entire medium was built.
His run on the Deadman feature in DC’s Strange Adventures in the late 1960s will be covered in a future podcast segment. Stay tuned.
When next we gather together in this place, Rock Bands will be the theme and television the medium. That can only mean one thing to a child of the 1960s – a certain quartet of musicians with a distinctly simian appellation. Until then, oh ye appreciators of the abhorrent…
To say that my Southern Baptist parents did not entirely approve of my childhood interest in the macabre and the monstrous would be putting it mildly. They barely tolerated it, in fact, but drew the line firmly when it came to anything that smacked of the heathen practices of divination. So, of course, I was just contrary enough so as to be fascinated by the small collection of predictive playthings that began being advertised in the back pages of my favorite comic books in the late 1960s and into the early 1970s. Not that I was ever foolish enough to bring one of those games or toys into the house, but I didn’t shy away when I encountered them in the homes of my friends.
Interactive playthings based on the supernatural had been around for all of that spooky period. We’ve discussed the reasons behind the general proliferation of horrific goodies in popular culture before. It was standard practice to cobble together board games based on the television shows that haunted the airwaves – The Twilight Zone, Dark Shadows, The Addams Family, etc. They were mostly variations on Parcheesi or Chutes ‘n’ Ladders or Life, but they were fun on those rainy days when riding our bikes at top speed down the hill in front of our house to crash-land at the end of the cul-de-sac our street dead-ended into was not an option. There were also Ideal’s 1962 Haunted House Game; the first glow-in-the-dark game, Green Ghost, released by Transogram in 1965; and Milton-Bradley’s Which Witch? from 1970, among others. And of course, lots of Ouija Boards, which Parker Brothers had been marketing since the early 20th Century.
The one I really wanted to get my hands on was an intriguing little item called Ka-Bala, a 1967 Transogram production. The comic book ads promised all manner of predictive delights, none of which I was able to take advantage of because I never knew anyone who had one. But just look at it, a big eye floating above the board, indicating which phony Tarot card will decide your future for you. How cool is that?
Not cool enough for all the Southern Baptists around me in those years to tolerate, apparently. I never even saw one, either in a store or at a friend’s house. That still sucks. Sure, I could shell out the nearly two hundred bucks the thing goes for on ebay, but I’d kind of like to stay married a little longer. And alive. My wife knows where too many sharp implements are to be located in our house.
I did have friends who had Ouija boards. The Catholics, of whom I knew none, seem in retrospect to have been a lot more concerned about the negative spiritual effects of using one of those to communicate with the deceased than did the Southern Baptists, or even the Methodists. But we all figured out pretty quickly that it was one of us moving the planchette around. We got bored with it almost immediately.
I like to think our amusement with Ka-Bala might have lasted a little longer. I mean, that big ol’ eye thing! The Ouija board just lay there, flat on the table. Ka-Bala had an eye, an actual eye, looking right into your soul, ready to tell you all sorts of things! I’m not even sure we’d have cared about the predictions. We weren’t all that interested in having jobs yet, or who we would get married to, or stuff like that. And I doubt it would reveal who would be the villain in the next issue of Spider-Man, or if the president would interrupt our evening programming for some boring speech regarding stuff we knew nothing about, but which would be on all three channels so – Arrrrrggghhhh! Every kid in the country seriously hated when that happened because we’d have to do homework instead of watching our favorite shows, and nothing sucked more than that.
Anyhow. No, it wasn’t going to tell us anything we really wanted to know, but that wasn’t the point. It was the principle of the thing. Knowing the future would grant us the only real power we could possibly feel in our very powerless young lives – being in on the secrets of the universe as only that solitary eye in the middle of the game board had the power to reveal. Or so we thought, which really was the fun of it all.
Ah, to be a child again. But only if my parents would be considerate enough to be atheists, this time around.
When next we meet, we’ll traipse across a bridge that leads to… well, nowhere, as it turns out. Until then, my fellow zealots of zombification…
When one thinks of divination, many methods of communicating with spirits or seeking knowledge of the future come to mind. Popular amongst Japanese students is a game called kokkuri. The object of the game is to contact a spirit, known as kokkuri-san, which is believed to be a mixture of a fox, raccoon, and dog, and ask it questions. That, along with the history of the game, makes it a good choice for this week’s Nightmare Fuel.
The name kokkuri, which means “to nod up and down,” refers to the original version of the game. You play it by tying three bamboo rods together at one end and standing them like a tripod and balancing a wooden lid or metal pot on top. Two people or more place their hands on the disc and ask questions of the kokkuri-san. This version was more popular in the late 1800s.
The more modern version of the game is like an ouija board. You start by taking a blank sheet of 8.5 x 11-inch paper and drawing a picture of a torii, or the entrance to a Shinto shrine, on top in red ink. Then write Yes and No on either side of the drawing, along with letters and numbers beneath it in black ink. You’ll want to prop a window or door open for kokkuri-san to enter and leave and use a coin as a planchette for the spirit to converse with. When you are done, you must close the session, burn the paper, scatter the ashes, and spend the coin.
As with using an ouija board, you want to play this game with caution and never play alone. It is said that playing the game too often can make it easier for the spirit to stay and potentially possess you. These were some reasons that sparked mass hysteria in Japan, causing the schools to forbid the game from ever being played on their grounds.
Whether you believe these games can communicate with spirits or not, I recommend treating whoever you are speaking to with respect. You never know if it’s a cunning spirit of mischief.
Once upon a time, not far from Vanderbilt University, nestled snugly between the Elliston Place Soda Shop and the second best comic book store in Nashville, there existed an emporium known as Elder’s Bookstore. I remember it as being a dusty, dirty, disorganized display of decaying detritus, piled aimlessly and according to no discernable pattern, in which nothing was in its place, or even priced. If one did manage to find something desirable, and not too shabby, one had to confront Old Man Elder, himself. That ancient curmudgeon, as I recollect him, usually quoted a value far in excess of worth. In several decades of occasionally venturing into that dungeon of decomposing compositions, I only recall purchasing two objects – a dust-jacket free first edition of Don Marquis’s archy and mehitabel, for which I paid the very reasonable sum of ten dollars, and a rather ill-used copy of the June 1945 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries, which cost what was at the time the mildly exorbitant sum of seven dollars. However, as pulp magazines were not a particularly common commodity in my hometown in the 1970s, I set aside my Scottish frugality and grabbed it up.
Famous Fantastic Mysteries was launched in 1939 by the Munsey Company as a venue for reprinting speculative fiction short stories that had originally premiered in its magazines, Argosy, All-Story, etc. A companion magazine, Fantastic Novels, appeared a year later, and featured longer works but only lasted five issues. In 1942, Famous Fantastic Mysteries was sold to Popular Publications, which switched it from multiple reprints to a single classic novel-length speculative fiction tale, accompanied by one or two new, or at least newer, shorter works. Popular revived Fantastic Novels in 1948, for a twenty-issue run over the next three years. Famous Fantastic Mysteries lasted until 1953, which was more or less the end of the pulp era.
The authors reprinted in the magazines represent a who’s-who of horror, science fiction, fantasy, and adventure scriveners of previous decades – A. Merritt, H. Rider Haggard, Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells, J.U. Geisy, Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, George Allan England, Ralph Milne Farley, etc., etc., etc. Merritt seems to have been especially well represented, with virtually all of his novels appearing in one title or the other, usually represented by cover art courtesy of THE greatest of all the pulp illustrators, Virgil Finlay. More on him and his impact on fantasy art in a future column.
That first issue I acquired featured one of William Hope Hodgson’s nautical terror tales, his 1907 novel The Boats of the Glen Carrig. You might have run across another of his ship-borne yarns, “The Voice in the Dark”, which is one of the most reprinted short stories in all of horror literature. The second story is a 1936 short novel by one J.S. Bradford, Even a Worm. If Bradford ever published anything else, I cannot find evidence of such. Several pages of readers’ letters complete the issue.
The cover painting and interior artwork are all by the major pulp artist Lawrence Stevens, who signed his work simply ‘Lawrence’. I have since acquired a few other issues, all of which have covers by him. The inner pages, however, contain many fine examples of Finlay’s work, which pleases me no end. Apropos of nothing, in particular, they all feature novels by H. Rider Haggard, a favorite of mine since childhood. I’m not sure if that was intentional, or simply happenstance.
A significant number of issues of both magazines have been posted to the InternetArchives. Alas, my first issue hasn’t been. Maybe it will be, someday.
Our lagniappe for this edition is another sad one, an obituary of a contributor to the popular culture of horror. Mitchell Ryan passed away on March 4th at the age of 88. He starred as Burke Devlin in the first season of Dark Shadows, from June 1966 to June 1967. He also appeared in the 1995 film, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. I had the pleasure of seeing him on stage when I was at the University of Tennessee in 1983, playing Jason in Medea opposite Zoe Caldwell, whose passing I noted some time back. Slowly but surely, the various bits and pieces of my childhood and young adulthood go drifting off into the void. C’est la vie.
When next we meet, we’ll drop around to check out a very grave situation – a chapel in the heart of Europe in which the bones of the long-dead have been put to uses not normally recommended for human remains. Join me, won’t you, for a viewing of what I dig up for your edification and enjoyment.
I have written before in this space about being in some faraway place for what is likely to be the only time in your life and later finding out that you missed seeing something you would really have liked to have seen. Given the insane number of cool things in the world, that’s almost a given. It’s just about impossible to squeeze everything in, no matter where you go. It happened to me at least once more on that same 2011 trip through Eastern Europe during which I did not see Bela Lugosi’s bust.
It was early June in the Czech Republic, as it was still called in those days. Our Mercedes-Benz bus had left Brno behind after lunch and we motorvated towards the absolutely gorgeous city of Prague. As we neared the capital, we passed south of the town of Kutná Hora. Located in a suburb of that city is the Sedlec Ossuary, in which the bones of between 40,000 and 70,000 human beings have been repurposed as decorations and furnishings for a chapel under Hřbitovní Kostel Všech Svatých, the Cemetery Church of All Saints, in the former Sedlec Abbey.
As much as I would have liked to make that detour, we were well into the second week of our journey and ready for our last major stop. From Prague, we had only to drive back to Frankfurt-am-Main, with a lunch stop at Rothenberg, before heading home. There were forty-some of us on that bus including the driver and guide, and we were all in agreement that it was getting close to being time to break up the band. It had been fun, especially with so many Australians aboard, but we all longed for home and hearth.
Besides, we had spent an afternoon just a few days before exploring the Kaisergruft in Vienna, the crypt beneath a Cistercian monastery in which the remains of almost four hundred years worth of Austro-Hungarian royalty had been interred. That had been just about enough death, I suspect, for most of my traveling companions. Another dose might have proven fatal to what was left of our congenial fellowship.
And thus it was that we skipped the Sedlec Ossuary for a cruise on the Vltava River, a tour of St. Vitus Cathedral, and a walk across the Charles Bridge instead, as well as good food, great beer, and a fountain in the form of two men urinating at one another. Google search that on your own time. Warning: NSFW!
So, we ate, and we drank, and we were merry, and then we scattered to the four corners of the Earth and basked in the warmth of our memories, which did not, alas, include the Ossuary. I would like to direct your attention to a short film on YouTube that describes what we missed better than I possibly could. It’s only about ten minutes long, and in Czech, but it does have English subtitles. I recommend it highly.
There is a statue about halfway across the Charles Bridge that, when touched, is supposed to bring its molester back to Prague within a year. It didn’t work for me, but I do hope to return to that wonderful city someday and take that short trip to Kutná Hora as long as I’m in the neighborhood. I hope you can, too. Maybe we’ll meet in the Old Town Square in view of the Church of St. Mary before Tyn afterward, and talk about bones over a bottle of Becherovka.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
I will expound more fully on the Kaisergruft in a future column, by the way, as well as some of the other places I have visited wherein the deceased have found their perpetual rest. Something to look forward to, n’est pas? Do stay tuned.
Our lagniappe is the opening salvo from a collection I cannot recommend to the populace too highly, The 99 Darkest Pieces of Classical Music. While I don’t necessarily agree with all the selections being particularly dark, and certainly find a few of their omissions surprising, it is a good place to start for the budding aficionado of spooky classical music. For your cultural edification, I, therefore, present Franz Liszt’s Totentanz (Dance of Death). Enjoy!
In our next episode, we’ll be taking a look at a variety of games available to kids of my antiquated generation, pastimes designed to circumvent that veil that separates we mere mortals from the spirit world, as well as from future events. For, as Criswell pointed out in Plan 9 from Outer Space, the future is where you and I will be spending the rest of our lives! Join us for some spooky playtime.
I think I might have mentioned before in this space that the 1960s was a wonderful time in which to grow up. Along with every other aspect, the music flowing over the airwaves was objectively far superior to its modern-day counterpart. University studies have actually proven this. I kid thee not. No, seriously. You could look it up.
One of the more popular American musical acts of the mid-decade was one Domingo Samudio, born February 28, 1937. With and without his backup group, the Pharaohs, he became famous as Sam the Sham and had two huge hits, Wooly Bully and the somewhat genre-peripheral, Little Red Riding Hood. Both songs peaked at Number 2 on the American charts, a not-inconsiderable achievement in the midst of the British Invasion.
In 1964, he covered the 1958 Johnny Fuller hit, Haunted House. The song tells the tale of a gentleman who buys a house only to find he has an unwanted roommate, a being with ‘one big eye and two big feet ‘. The ghost tries every trick it can think of to drive the new owner out, but as Lydia Deetz said of her father in Beetlejuice, he is not one to walk away from equity. There’s no real resolution of the conflict by the fade-out, but that might be said of many such antagonistic arrangements in life. I like to think they’re both living there still, cohabiting with a minimum of friction. Nah, I don’t believe it either.
Fuller’s version was more rockabilly than R&B, which was unusual for an African-American artist of his time. He toured in the late 1950s with white acts like Paul Anka and Frankie Avalon, which distanced him from his previous black audience. He died of cancer in 1985 at the age of fifty-six.
Sam’s cover was a bluesy affair, as was the style by 1964. That same year, “Jumpin’” Gene Simmons issued a smoother, less edgy version. Of the three, I prefer Sam’s, probably because I associate it with the attendant joys of childhood. I do like the others, though.
A decade later, a bassist named Chaim Witz liked the last version so much, or at least the singer, that he changed his name to Gene Simmons and joined some rock ‘n’ roll band you might have heard of. I think they were called Kiss, or something like that. The name sounds vaguely familiar, anyhow.
The original Simmons began his career in 1956 as an opening act for Elvis Presley, even appearing in a bit part in one of The King’s movies, 1963’s Fun in Acapulco. His version reached Number 11 in the Top 100 on August 29, 1964. Exactly forty-two years later, he passed away at the age of seventy-three.
Haunted House was later covered by rock ‘n’ roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis, former Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty, and country singer John Anderson, among others. Come around my house in the weeks leading up to Halloween, and you’re apt to hear one version or another of it.
Sam the Sham has mostly retired from music, but still makes the occasional concert appearance. I have no information on whether or not he still performs Haunted House on those rare occasions when he puts the turban back on. I’d like to think he does.
This edition’s first lagniappe is a rather sad one, I’m afraid. As you might have noticed, I am no longer producing my Russian-novel length “In Memoriam” columns, but there have been a few recent passings that I felt ought to be noted.
Any post I make on the history of comic books, comic strips, or pulp magazines is likely to have been informed, at least in part, by the work of author and popular culture historian Ron Goulart. He passed away on January 14, 2022, one day after his eighty-ninth birthday.
French actress Yvette Mimieux, 75, star of the 1960 George Pal classic, The Time Machine, expired January 18th.
Czech-Canadian film director Ivan Reitman, 75, who gave us GhostBusters in 1984, departed this life on February 12th.
Be here in two weeks for an exploration of the wonders found in one of the great pulp magazines of the 1940s and 1950s, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, along with a preview of a future post regarding its most influential illustrator. I hope the populace will find the offering pleasing to the palate.
As I have already pointed out in this space, the first continuing original horror anthology comic book was American Comics Group’s Adventures into the Unknown, which debuted in 1948 and ran for 174 issues. But, you might well ask, surely there were spooky comic books before then?
And so there were, starting all the way back in the days even before Superman debuted in 1938, buried in the middle pages of anthology titles, nestled between the superheroes, cowboys, and ace aviators. There were legions of ghost detectives, beginning with DC Comics’ Doctor Occult, along with a variety of second-string sorcerers, magicians, and prestidigitators all more or less based on the newspaper comic strip, Mandrake. Captain America and the other superheroes at Timely Comics regularly fought vampires, mummies and reanimated corpses on their way to becoming the stars of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Charlton’s Yellowjacket Comics began inserting brief adaptations of the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe beginning with the third issue, cover-dated November, 1944. I’ve already written about the four-color muck monsters inspired by Theodore Sturgeon’s short story, It. And so on. Monsters and other supernatural menaces were, until after the end of the Second World War, regularly used but not deemed worthy of being featured in their own titles.
With one exception – Classic Comics #13. This Gilberton publication, later known asClassics Illustrated, adapted the great works of literature into comics format well into the 1970s. The August 1943 issue featured Robert Louis Stevenson’s horror novella, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – the first comic book devoted entirely to horror. But not original horror, and not an anthology. Not yet. That took four more years.
Avon Comics began around 1945 as an off-shoot of Avon Publications, a paperback and digest-sized magazine house specializing in speculative fiction and suggestive love stories. Eerie Comics #1 was an early effort, cover-dated January 1947. Legendary comic book artist Joe Kubert and Airboy artist Fred Kida contributed, along with Bob Fujitani, who also created the cover. Despite the provocative image on the front of the book, sales were poor and no follow-up issues were published.
By the time the title was revived in 1951 for a seventeen issue run, it was only one of dozens, if not hundreds, of horror comics of its time, distinguished only by its inclusion of early work by artist Wally Wood. Avon never became a major player in the comic book industry, despite some very attractive publications, including a one-shot adaptation of the 1932 Boris Karloff film, The Mask of Fu Manchu, in 1951. Wood contributed both cover and interior art. There was also a backup story drawn by African-American penciller Alvin Hollingsworth, who not long afterwards left comics to become a noted fine artist. By the mid-1950s, Avon Comics was no more. Avon Publications survives to this day as a romance novel publisher.
Well, somebody had to get things started. A minor player does something that has a major impact – isn’t that the essence of what we like to think of as being the very story of America?
I do have a lagniappe to offer the populace this time out – a follow-up to my last post. It never ceases to amaze me how often things come to my attention almost immediately after I hit that old ‘send’ button, things that are vitally relevant to the post just submitted. Case in point, my tardy discovery of The Hound of the Baskervilles comic strip adaptation in January.
And so it was within a few days after shooting off my post on the French-language Angoisse publications. I only just now learned of a website from which English translations can be purchased of some of the volumes I wrote about previously. Black Coat Press has a massive catalog of French novels, anthologies, and collections for sale both as e-books and dead tree editions. I am seriously lusting after their Maurice Limat volume, Mephista. I encourage the populace to browse around their website if they are so inclined. There’s bound to be something to pique the interest of the discriminating reader.
Next time, we’ll venture into the realm of popular music, and drop in on a Haunted House inhabited by numerous recording artists, including Johnny Fuller, Jumpin’ Gene Simmons, and Sam the Sham himself. Ought to be fun.
And so, valedictorians of the vile, until we meet again…
I am obliged to admit to being at a bit of a disadvantage this time out. While I did take one year of French in the ninth grade, that was almost fifty years ago. The next year, I switched to German. I took three years of it in high school and another couple in college. Although my Deutsch is very rusty after not using it for so long, I can still usually parse out fairly simple passages. I’m way past being able to read philosophical treatises, but I could probably manage the back of a cereal box.
On the other hand, I find I have to rely on what shared vocabulary English has with the Romance languages to make much sense of them. There’s a bunch, thankfully, so I can sometimes get through extremely simple bits, especially if I have some understanding of the context. So, when I chose to write today about a French publisher of horror novels, I was forced to call on whatever residual skills and knowledge I possessed along those lines because there is darn near diddly on the history of that enterprise in English on the internet.
What in the world was I thinking?
Oh, well. Here’s what I’ve been able to piece together…
Our story begins in 1949 with Fleuve éditions, a publisher of popular novels. Their subsidiary imprint, Fleuve noir, specialized in a variety of genres arranged in separate collections – Spécial Police and Espionnage, which are pretty much self-explanatory; Anticipation, which was for science-fiction; and Angoisse, horror. Angoisse roughly correlates to the German word, Angst, which most English readers will no doubt recognize as being a component of that essential ingredient of horror, lefrisson, that I keep going on about, that anticipatory shiver we all crave when delving into our favorite genre.
Angoisse was active from 1954 to 1974, with 261 books published. Based on the fewer than half of the novels I’ve been able to track down any information on, their most popular authors included Maurice Limat (September 23, 1914 – January 23, 2002), who split his efforts between Angoisse and Anticipation; Marc Agapit (pseudonym of Adrien Sobra, October 12, 1897 – September 21, 1985); Dominique Arly (November 8, 1915 – November 8, 2009); André Caroff (February 8, 1924 – March 9, 2009); and Dominique Rocher (July 6, 1929 – September 13, 2016). There were also occasional translations of American stories, including Donald Wandrei’s 1948 novel, The Web of Easter Island, published as Cimetière de l’effroi.
Limat was a prolific writer in several genres. His detective character, Teddy Verona, debuted in 1937 and became an occult detective when Limat went to work for Angoisse, beginning with 1962’s Le Marchand de Cauchmars (The Merchant of Nightmares). Limat wrote twenty-four Teddy Verona books for Angoisse, thirteen of which pitted him against the very naughty Mephista, beginning in 1969. Limat continued to write his adventures until 1981.
Agapit’s first novel for Angoisse, Agence tout crimes, came out in 1958; his last, Le Dragon de lumière (The Dragon of Light), in 1974, a total of forty-four books. If he ever wrote a series with continuing characters, I can’t tell.
Dominique Arly wrote nineteen Angoisse books. Five featured one Rosamond Lew, all published in 1970 and 1971. Dominique Rocher contributed ten, none in any series that I can figure out.
Caroff had a series about the nefarious Madame Atomos that ran to seventeen volumes, plus one novel published under the Anticipation imprint, Les Sphères Attaquent (Attack of the Spheres), in which she was renamed Madame Cosmos. Along the way, she created a younger version of herself, Miss Atomos, who switched sides and fought against her ‘mother’. Comics publisher Aredit put out twenty-four issues of a Madame Atomos comic book beginning in 1968, most based on the series novels, the remainder adapted from other works by Caroff.
There were others, of course, including the house name Benoit Becker, under which several writers wrote pseudonymously; André Ruellan, who wrote under the name Kurt Steiner; and Agnès Laurent, which was the pseudonym of Hélène Simart. And so on for 261 volumes of scary French goodies.
One of these days, I really need to drop around at some community college nearby and take a few courses in that most lovely of languages so I can finally read some of the books I’ve alluded to above. Might as well brush up on my German while I’m there since there are similar houses on the far side of the Rhine River that not only reprinted the Angoisse books but published long series of their own horror titles. But that’s another column, for another day.
Next time, we’ll take a look at the very first horror comic book, Avon’s 1947 one-shot, Eerie Comics #1. Until then, aficionados of angst…
And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,
Even when their sorrow almost was forgot.
And on their skins as on the barks of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
“Let not thy sorrow die, though I am dead.”
The old question of who wrote the works of William Shakespeare has a simple answer: It was a guy named William Shakespeare. Although there are a few plays on which he might have had some help from a collaborator or a mentor, the vast majority of his oeuvre is his and his alone. The base canard that Francis Bacon or Ben Jonson or someone else wrote his stuff was made up out of whole cloth a century and a half after he died and was thoroughly discredited by the 1950s. His contemporaries, including the insanely jealous yet utterly adoring Jonson, certainly thought he himself wrote the thirty-nine plays.
That said, there is at least one for which a collaborator does seem likely. His sixth play, Titus Andronicus, is so unlike any of the other tragedies that it almost seems as if he did make use of a partner with a special interest in what centuries later would be regarded as Grand Guignol theatrics. Not that the others weren’t bloody affairs with graphic deaths aplenty, but there is a gruesome mean-spiritedness about Titus that sets it apart from the relatively restrained Hamlet or Macbeth.
As well, its ridiculously convoluted plot seems more in keeping with some of the comedies, in so far as time and space and even perception seem to have a malleable quality that forces events into a structure that is not altogether reasonable. War, conquest, human sacrifice, a contrived marriage, murder, mutilation, the framing of innocent victims, and a back-and-forth of revenge and counter-revenge culminating in the villainess dining upon the corpses of her sons baked into a pie comes across as less Richard III and more Theatre of Blood. And indeed, food critic Robert Morley suffered much the same fate as the Empress Tamora in that classic Vincent Price film. Thankfully, Diana Rigg escaped the fate poor Livinia had inflicted upon her in Titus Andronicus.
Scholars suspect that one George Peele, a dramatist known for excessively gory plot contrivances in his own plays, was Shapeapeare’s partner for this Roman bloodbath. Given the state of copyright protection in Elizabethan England, in that it did not exist, there is no way of knowing how much, if any, of the mayhem was contributed by Peele, or even if Titus is more Peele than Shakespeare. Meticulous records simply weren’t kept, as there was no financial incentive to do so.
In terms of a more modern comparison, think of what might have resulted had James Fennimore Cooper collaborated with Edgar Allen Poe. Or David Lean with David Lynch, or Spielberg with Cronenberg. Seemingly discordant combinations, granted, but given the talents involved, not without interest.
I suggest the populace decide for themselves. Director Julie Taymor’s 1999 film Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, is available on YouTube. In the manner of many Shakespearean adaptations of that decade, Titus is set in an ambiguous period filled with anachronistic artifacts and has a very stylized presentation, so be ready to have your notions of what is and is not Shakespearean challenged. Which is a good thing. Don’t bother listening for grand declarations a la Hamlet’s Soliloquy. The best lines go to the very bad person Aaron, Tamora’s Moorish consort, who relishes his myriad misdeeds maybe a little too much. Indeed, his cheerful villainy presages Othello’s Iago, although that unworthy at least required an actual motive to rain down chaos and death upon the unsuspecting head of the Moor of Venice. Aaron is a firm believer in evil for evil’s sake.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare managed to winnow the large cast down to only two named survivors, Horatio and Fortinbras. In this much earlier play, there were three – Titus’s brother, one surviving son, and young grandson Lucius. I suppose the Bard needed more experience to get rid of that additional victim.
I bid the populace to return to this space in a fortnight’s time for an overview of the history of French publisher, Editions Fleuve Noir, and their horrific output by authors such as Maurice Limat, Dominique Arly, and Benoit Becker back in the 1960s. I might have to brush up on mon Français, as the last time I studied that language was in 1971. I will, however, endeavor to persevere. I do hope the populace appreciates the lengths your Historian of Horror is willing to go to to bring you enlightenment, education, and entertainment.
Word came yesterday as I write this that film director and occasional actor Peter Bogdanovich had passed away at the age of eighty-two. You might ask what that has to do with the horror genre since he mostly made comedies, musicals, and dramas. A fair question, given that his origins in the industry might be obscure to the average film fan, but true cineastes will know that Bogdanovich got his start as a film critic for Esquire Magazine before a chance meeting with Roger Corman in a movie theater in 1966. Corman had been directing a series of classic Edgar Allen Poe adaptations for American-International Pictures, most of them starring Vincent Price. He hired Bogdanovich, first as an assistant, then to direct a couple of low-budget pictures for him, one of which has gone down in horror movie history as a true classic.
Targets, on the other hand, was the last great film performance by legendary cinematic boogeyman Boris Karloff. He virtually plays himself as an old horror movie star named Byron Orlock. Orlock is on the eve of retiring because the horrors of the real world have eclipsed the relatively harmless frissons generated by the kinds of movies he had made for decades. He reluctantly agrees to make a personal appearance at a drive-in theater showing his final film, which is never named but is, in reality, his 1963 picture, The Terror, co-starring a very young Jack Nicholson. Bogdanovich plays the director, who sympathizes with Orlock’s dilemma but can’t help but resent his decision.
Meanwhile, unstable Vietnam Veteran Bobby Thompson has just bought a brand-new rifle. The script by Bogdanovich and Samuel Fuller was inspired by the rampage by Charles Whitman, who murdered his wife and mother in 1966 before killing fourteen random strangers and wounding thirty-one others at the University of Texas in Austin. In the film, Bobby shoots his wife and mother, then climbs on top of an oil storage tank and fires at random motorists on the highway below.
By the time of the film premiere that evening, Bobby has relocated to the theater. After killing the projectionist, he starts shooting into the cars below him from behind the screen. Orlock confronts him while his own image is projected above. Bobby freaks out and tries to kill Orlock’s character on the screen. Orlock whacks him over the head with his cane, rendering the mass-murderer dazed long enough for the police to arrive and arrest him. As Bobby is dragged away, he brags that at least he never missed.
Karloff made a few more truly awful pictures in Mexico, and a couple of memorable television appearances, but Targets was his last hurrah as a film star. It was released on August 15, 1968. Karloff died less than six months later, on February 2, 1969.
Bogdanovich went on to make the Best Picture Oscar winner of 1971, The Last Picture Show, and Paper Moon, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. And roughly thirty other feature films, shorts, documentaries and television episodes. He also wrote books and articles on film history. He only returned to the horror genre twice more, playing the Old Man in a 2016 film version of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, and in 2018 making a cameo as himself in Reborn. Maybe he felt that the one contribution he made at the beginning of his career was so good that he didn’t have anything more to say about creating cinematic terrors. And maybe he was right.
My lagniappe for this time out is an addition to my post of a while back about The Hound of the Baskervilles. It was only after disseminating that essay that I discovered that the novel had been adapted to the Sherlock Holmes syndicated newspaper comic strip in 1955. Written by Edith Meisner and drawn by comics legend Frank Giacoia, the storyline ran from August 15 to October 27. I’m not aware that it’s been reprinted in any form that is currently available, but if it ever is, I shall alert the populace.
Next time out, we’ll be taking a look at that most horrific of the plays of William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus. Until then, my stalwarts of the supernatural…
I suspect we’re all at least somewhat familiar with the Universal monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. The Frankenstein monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, these are all iconic figures in the history of our favorite genre. In two separate cycles, from 1931 to 1936, and then from 1939 to 1948, the Universal gang were the first more or less unified cinematic universe, fighting each other as well as villagers carrying torches and pitchforks, monster hunters with stakes and silver bullets and tana leaves, and the occasional sane scientist going up against the mad ones.
Universal also produced a few lesser series, unconnected to the primary bunch of horror films, including the Creeper films of Rondo Hatton, the Captive Wild Woman trilogy, and the six little pictures that are the focus of our attention today. One of them, anyhow.
Since all popular culture in America is in one way or another connected, we have to go back, back, back into the dark and abyss of time that was 1930. Major publishing house Simon & Schuster began issuing mystery novels in that year under the imprint of Inner Sanctum Mysteries. Eleven years later, radio impresario Himan Brown initiated a program under that title that began on January 7, 1941, complete with a creaking door and a sardonic host, the first of his kind, named Raymond Edward Johnson.
In 1944, Universal decided to get in on the fun by casting their new big horror star, Lon Chaney, Jr., in a series of low-budget films under the Inner Sanctum banner. These were distinct tales with no connection to each other, nor to the larger continuity of the Universal Cinematic Universe. The second film, Weird Woman, was the only one with a truly supernatural theme, and the first film adaptation of Fritz Leiber, Jr.’s 1943 novel, Conjure Wife.
Conjure Wife first appeared in the pulp magazine, Unknown Worlds, in the April 1943 issue, and in expanded form has been reprinted many times by numerous publishers. It’s the tale of Norman Saylor, a sociology professor at a small American university. Being a rational man, he objects when he discovers that his wife, Tansy, has been helping his career by the ritual application of magical spells and talismans. He forces her to dispense with all her occult gear and practices, not realizing that the wives of the other faculty members are performing the same services on behalf of their own spouses. Things start to go terribly wrong for Norman’s career until he is forced to admit
Weird Woman downplays some of the supernatural elements in the story but is still quite outré. Frequent Chaney co-star Evelyn Ankers (The Wolf Man, The Ghost of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula) appears as one of those arrayed against our hero in a rare villainous performance. Anne Gwynn, who a year later would appear with Chaney in House of Frankenstein, played Norman’s wife, renamed Paula.
The film moves along pretty briskly for its sixty-three-minute length, although like all the Inner Sanctum pictures it slows a bit whenever Chaney indulges in the whispered internal monologue voiceovers that were a feature of the radio program. Those were effective and useful in a purely auditory medium but unnecessary on film. Alas, Chaney insisted on them, and being the BMOL (Big Man on Lot), he got his way.
I’ve not been able to track down the first television adaptation of the novel, a thirty-minute version for the second episode of a minor series called Moment of Fear (aired July 8, 1960). The best adaptation is by far the 1962 British film, Night of the Eagle. Also known as Burn, Witch, Burn, it stars Peter Wyngarde, who initially passed on the role but spotted a flash car he fancied. He reconsidered, asking the exact cost of the vehicle as his fee.
The film itself is quite beautifully mounted, and the script by Twilight Zone collaborator Charles Beaumont doesn’t shy away from the supernatural elements inherent in the story. Night of the Eagle is one of the best English horror movies of the early 1960s.
Alas, nothing as complimentary can be said of the most recent version, a made-for-TV movie from 1980 called Witches’ Brew. Frankly, its cheese factor tends towards the Limburger end of the stinky scale. I recommend sticking with the book itself, and the first two extant adaptations, because the third is not, as the title of this essay indicates, very good.
Once upon a time, Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit, and John L. Goldwater decided to get into the nascent comic book publishing business. Using their first initials, they started MLJ Magazines, Inc. Their first title, Blue Ribbon Comics, hit the stands in September 1939. A couple of months later, Pep Comics premiered, featuring the first patriotic American super-hero, the Shield. And so on.
MLJ put-putted along, never becoming a major player in the growing super-hero market, never challenging any of the Big Three of the time, DC, Fawcett and Quality, for supremacy. Their heroes were all second-banana types, not making much impact outside of their very narrow lane other than a brief, regional radio show based on the Black Hood. Until 1941, that is.
The twenty-second issue of Pep (December 1941) introduced a buck-toothed, red-headed teenager named Archie Andrews, along with his fellow adolescent attendees of Riverdale High School; Betty Cooper and Jughead Jones. Nothing exceptional, on the surface, but for some reason, Archie clicked with a public that had so far not paid much attention to MLJ’s product. By 1946, the company was renamed Archie Comics, and the super-hero line was abandoned in favor of the adventures of Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica Lodge, Reggie Mantle, and the rest.
This is not their story, however. Fast forward to those halcyon days of the early 1960s, when the supernatural was infiltrating the culture like never before. We’ve talked about this in past columns. Monsters and ghosts, and witches, were everywhere. Not even the stable, steady, reliable and, to be honest, tediously repetitive world of Archie Andrews was immune.
Okay, I’ll admit to not being much of a fan of Archie and his world in my early days of reading comic books. The stories seemed to be a lot of variations of the same themes – Betty and Veronica fought over Archie, Reggie tried to sabotage Archie’s efforts to date one or the other of the girls who, inexplicably, adored him, and Jughead avoided girls altogether in favor of hamburgers. I did dip into the publisher’s brief effort to revive their super-heroes from the 1940s under the secondary imprint of Radio Comics, but I had already discovered DC and Marvel by then. Superman and Spider-Man got my twelve cents, not Fly Man or the Shield.
Anyhow, Archie Andrews. Repetitive his adventures might have been, but his world had spawned dozens of titles by 1962. One, Archie’s Madhouse, contained more jokes and games than anything resembling a story. Still, Archie and crew dominated the title for the first dozen issues. Beginning with the thirteenth issue (July 1961), however, monstrous beings slowly edged the Riverdale gang out of the title. Archie and the rest made token appearances on the covers and in the interior features, but the seventeenth issue (February 1962) didn’t even accord them that courtesy.
And so it went until issue #22, cover-dated October 1962. Instead of the usual Frankenstein, Dracula, and Wolf Man variations, the first story introduced a beautiful blonde teenaged witch named Sabrina, her cat/familiar Salem, and head witch Della. No last names, yet. The story, such as it was, laid down the rules of witchcraft; basically, the inability of witches to sink in water or fall in love.
Subsequent stories were pretty much about Sabrina’s efforts to get around the not-falling-in-love rule, her habit of misdirecting love potions or being forced by her superior witches to sabotage her high school’s sporting events. Which was not, by the way, Riverdale. She attended Baxter High School in those years. In fact, she had no interactions with Archie and his gang at all until she joined the Saturday morning cartoon show, The Archie Comedy Hour, in 1969. She had acquired a boyfriend, Harvey, by then, and her two supervising witch aunts had been identified as Hilda and Zelda. Still no last name.
Pseudo-band The Archies were the stars of the cartoon show. They had a number one hit in the United States, a Monkees reject called Sugar, Sugar. The band was in reality a group of sessions musicians assembled for the purpose of recording bubblegum songs for the show, some of which were disseminated on the backs of cereal boxes. I had a few of those. Concurrently, Sabrina was finally integrated into the comic book world of Riverdale, starting with an appearance in Archie’s T.V. Laugh-Out #1. She got her own cartoon show in 1970, and a year later her own comic book title which ran for seventy-seven issues, until 1983. An elementary school version of her also ran in Little Archie from issue #59, cover-dated May 1970.
In 1972, Sabina was recruited to be the hostess of a horror anthology titled, Chilling Adventures in Sorcery, as Told by Sabrina. That only lasted two issues, then it carried on without her under a new title, a new imprint, Red Circle Comics Group, and a new artist, Gray Morrow. Red Circle lasted as long as the comic did, nine issues altogether. Everything was Archie after that, as Sabrina popped up in a variety of the company’s titles through the 1980s and into the 1990s, including annual Christmas Magic issues.
Sabrina and her aunts finally got a last name, Spellman, in 1996, in a television movie and subsequent series that ran for four seasons on ABC and an additional three on the WB. Another couple of animated series and a pair of sequels to the movie followed. More comic book titles also came and went over the years, including a manga-inspired series.
The whole world of Archie was rebooted in 2015 into a more adult version, called New Riverdale in the comics, and two years later on television as simply Riverdale. Sabrina appeared in the comics from the beginning, but only recently dropped in on the television show after three years in her own in the separate series, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
So, there you have it. Next time, we matriculate to university to take a look at the classic novel of witchcraft on campus, Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, and the three films based on it. Hope you’ll join me in two weeks for that. In the meantime, here’s a little lagniappe – a tasty treat from my favorite early 80s cheesy girl band, Toto Coelo. Enjoy.
Until next time, my loyal pundits of the peculiar…
It was the spring of 1969. I was in fifth grade, and the school I attended was having some sort of carnival. There were games with cheap trinkets for prizes, a cakewalk, and a rummage sale. That’s where I found it – the 1965 novelization of The Addams Familytelevision show, written by Jack Sharkey. I think they were asking a nickel for it. I grabbed it up, of course. I’d been a devoted fan of the show during its initial run from September 18, 1964, to April 8, 1966, because, well, of course, I was.
That’s more than can be said of the creator of the characters and their milieu. Charles Addams thought the creepy old Second Empire house in which the Addamses resided wasn’t creepy enough. It was too clean, too well-maintained. Lurch was simply too good a butler, apparently.
As well, Gomez and Morticia and family were, in Charlie’s considered opinion, much too nice. In the single panel cartoons he’d been creating for The New Yorker since the late thirties, his creatures were most definitely not at all nice in any recognizable sense of the word. They were mean-spirited, malicious, and gleefully vicious. Moreover, their house was supposed to resemble nothing so much as a crumbling wreck, and Lurch ought to be closer to Frankenstein’s Monster than to Mr. Belvedere. The family from the television show impressed him as being more Ozzie and Harriet than Sawney Bean. Quick, go ask your grandparents who Ozzie and Harriet were. We’ll wait. Sawney Bean you’ll probably have to Google. At least until I get around to scribing one of these essays on that particular family’s nefarious misdeeds.
All that didn’t stop Charlie from cashing the checks he got from ABC, but he didn’t exactly go out of his way to give the impression that he was sorry that the program only lasted for those sixty-four episodes. I, of course, was, but there is a resilience at that age that I envy in my declining years. Not even in concert with the nearly concurrent cancellation of The Munsters was I as devastated as I now, in retrospect, think I ought to have been. There were, to be sure, still a fair number of other psychotronic shows on American television in those days, and no reason to think that the regular broadcast of supernatural-spooky-adventure-packed programming would end.
But it did. By the time I acquired Sharkey’s book, the TV landscape was shifting towards serious detective and spy dramas, non-confrontational counter-culture humor variety shows, and news programming in prime time. Get Smart was out, Mission: Impossible was in. The much-too-edgy-for-the-CBS-censorsSmothers Brothers Comedy Hour was out, the funny but never really controversial Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was in. The Addams Family was out, and 60 Minutes was in.
As I mentioned in the last installment, John Astin selected Gomez as the name of the character he would play, the half-mad, lustful pater familias. He had most recently co-starred with Marty Ingles in a sitcom about a pair of incompetent carpenters, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster. I have a vague recollection of having seen it once or twice. I don’t recall having been impressed, but I was five years old. What did I know?
The object of Gomez’ hammed-up affections was played by Carolyn Jones, who had a more impressive horror pedigree than her TV husband. She appeared in two of the most significant horror films of the 1950s, the 3-D extravaganza House of Wax with Vincent Price in 1953, and the first adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in 1956.
Uncle Fester was Jackie Coogan, a silent-era child star who discovered upon reaching maturity that all the money he’d earned acting alongside Charlie Chaplin and other major film stars of that era had been squandered by his parents. A law to prevent that was passed and was in fact called The Jackie Coogan Law. Forty-three years after achieving fame in The Kid, he shaved off what little hair he had left and stuck a trick lightbulb in his mouth on weekly television.
Grandmama Frump was the delightfully named Blossom Rock, sister of the leading cinematic soprano from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Jeanette MacDonald. I don’t recall Grandmama belting out any operatic arias, but I bet she could have, between concocting her famous still-writhing dinners. Yummy! Blossom had a long career as a character actress in dozens of films, including I Married a Witch (1942), Gildersleeve’s Ghost (based on the radio show, 1944), Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954), and She Devil (1957).
The kids were Lisa Loring as Wednesday and Ken Weatherwax as Pugsley. Charlie might have had a point about them. They were cute and sweet, and wholly unlike their counterparts. Lisa grew up to be a lovely soap opera star. Ken quit acting to work behind the camera.
Lurch was the six-foot-nine-inch Ted Cassidy, who later lent his ultra-deep voice to a number of Saturday morning cartoons. Like Rondo Hatten, he suffered from acromegaly, although in his case the disease manifested itself in altitude rather than hideousness. Ted was also the main portrayer of Thing T. Thing, the disembodied hand that was always ready to, um, help out around the house. An assistant director pinch-hit when Lurch and Thing were in the same scene. Thing was created for the show, although there was a 1954 cartoon in The New Yorker with a pair of disembodied hands changing the record on a phonograph.
Cousin Itt was created for the second and final season of the show. Felix Silla, who at three-feet-eleven-inches was in great demand for roles suited to his stature for the next forty-five years, donned the long blond wig. In later incarnations, the second ‘t’ seems to have been used inconsistently. This disparity has caused numerous online arguments and more than a few bar fights, one is inclined to suspect.
The family showed up on television again in 1973 as a Saturday morning animated program, with only Cassidy and Coogan returning to provide the voices of Lurch and Fester. Academy Award-winning actress Jody Foster was the voice of Pugsley. Think about that next time you watch The Silence of the Lambs. The show only lasted sixteen episodes.
Most of the original cast returned in 1977 for a TV movie, Halloween with the New Addams Family. Blossom Rock had suffered a stroke not long after the original series ended and was unable to participate. She passed away the next year at the age of eighty-two.
Ted Cassidy underwent heart surgery for a condition related to his acromegaly in 1979 but did not survive the operation. He was only forty-six. Carolyn Jones died of colon cancer in 1983, at the age of fifty-three. Jackie Coogan was sixty-nine when he passed away from heart failure in 1984, and Ken Weatherwax died of a heart attack in 2014. He was fifty-nine. Felix Silla was eighty-four when he passed on in April of 2021. Only John Astin, at ninety, and Lisa Loring are left. She’s six months older than I am and looks a lot better than I do. Astin was the only one of the original cast to participate in a second animated series, in 1992.
The 1991 big-budget adaptation starring Raul Julia, Angelica Huston and Christopher Lloyd spawned a sequel, Addams Family Values, in 1993. Of all the reboots and re-imaginings, I think this brace of movies might have met or even exceeded Addams’ expectations. Alas, Raul Julia’s death from a stroke a year later ended the possibility of any further misadventures.
None of the original show or feature film casts were around for the 1998 revival series produced in Canada and shown on Fox in the United States. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever seen any of the sixty-five episodes. A direct-to-video movie, The Addams Family Reunion, starring Tim Curry and Daryl Hanna, was released the same year. Carel Struycken returned as Lurch, having played the role in the two feature films. A 2010 Broadway musical and a pair of animated features in 2019 and 2021 complete the family’s saga to the present time, other than for a much-too-short series of not-even-remotely-officially-sanctioned-by-the-Charles-Addams-Estate YouTube videos starring Melissa Hunter as the Adult Wednesday Addams. Very funny stuff.
I wonder what Charlie would think about all that? Whatever his thoughts on the other goodies briefly described above, I suspect he’d be okay with Adult Wednesday Addams. Don’t you?
I no longer have that slim paperback book I bought at the school rummage sale in 1969. Somewhere along the way, I sold it or traded it, or lost it. I did recently find another copy on eBay. It cost me a bit more than a nickel. Not the fifty-four bucks Abebooks wants for theirs, but enough to buy a large-sized Big Mac meal and have some change left over for the Ronald McDonald House. It was worth the expenditure. I plan to hang on to this one. My wife says I really need to lay off the Big Macs, anyhow.
Many thanks to Linda H. Davis for the information in this and the previous episode. Her 2006 book, Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life, has been an invaluable resource, along with the several collections of his cartoons I have in my collection. Highly recommended.
Coming up in our next installment, I’ll be examining the almost sixty-year adolescence of Riverdale High School’s perpetual student and resident teenage witch, Sabrina. It ought to be fun. Until then, oh ye questors after the quirky and the questionable…
You can already hear it, can’t you? You see the title above and your brain automatically connects to the theme song Vic Mizzy composed fifty-seven years ago, the one bouncing around in your head right now, complete with finger-snaps. The one that has been used, with a few variations, for nearly every iteration of the characters for whom it was created in 1964. Doodle-di-doot-snap-snap!
“Why?”, you ask.
“For what reason was the catchiest television theme song ever written by the hand of mortal man created?”, you wonder.
“Where did these altogether ooky people come from?”, your enquiring minds want to know.
Well, get a witch’s shawl on and find a roost that you can crawl on. I’m about to tell you everything there is to know about The Addams Family.
During the recently completed podcast season, I used one of my entries to elucidate upon the difference between pulp magazines and slick magazines. Pulps, you might recall, were cheaply produced efforts filled with lurid, sensationalist popular scrivenings by now virtually forgotten authors, at least outside of our particular area of interest. Great stuff, very often, but nobody ever got rich writing for the pulps. The slick magazines, on the other hand, were printed on fancy, coated paper with great stories for which the authors were paid well enough that some of them did live quite comfortably on the remuneration they received for those pieces of much more impressive literature.
The pulps tended to be genre-specific. The ones we might have been most drawn to had titles like Weird Tales, Unknown Worlds, Dime Mystery, Horror Stories. The slicks published all genres, as long as the quality of writing was high enough. Their roster included The Saturday Evening Post, Liberty, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Collier’s Weekly. The ultimate goal of pulp writers was to sell to the slicks. Ray Bradbury made that transition. Few others from our favorite genre did.
Along with fiction, and non-fiction, many of the slicks featured single-panel cartoons. The New Yorker, in particular, is still highly regarded for them. Some years ago, a coffee-table collection of the best cartoons from its long history sold very well. Prominent among the artists who created that treasure trove was one Charles Addams.
Born on January 7, 1912, in Westfield, New Jersey, Charles Samuel Addams was a bright, quirky, mischievous child who grew up to be a bright, quirky, mischievous adult. After attending the Grand Central School of Art in New York City, he got a job retouching crime scene photos for True Detective Magazine in 1933, excising the blood and gore that were frowned upon in the periodicals of the day. He had already placed some cartoons in The New Yorker beginning by then and was soon a regular contributor. The August 6, 1938 issue began featuring the characters we’ve all come to know and love, the degenerate, demonic darlings of the Addams Family.
None of them had names yet, and for a while, there was only a painfully thin woman with dark hair who looked vaguely like the Morticia-yet-to-come and a hulking, bearded butler. By the November 25, 1939 issue, the butler had shaved and looked very much like the Lurch we would come to know and love. The first cartoon showing a recognizable Morticia cuddling with a recognizable Gomez appeared in the issue dated November 14, 1942. The caption read, “Are you unhappy, Darling?” to which the future Morticia replied, “Oh, yes, yes! Completely!”
And so it went for over twenty years. Children were added, a boy and a girl who enjoyed playing with chemistry sets, building model guillotines, and collecting warning signs. A round-headed creeping relative dressed in a black ulster began skulking around the family’s crumbling Victorian manse and frequenting horror films at the local cinema. The cast was gradually assembled.
Addams was drafted in 1943 and wound up in the Signal Corps. Given that he was a large, physically impressive man and reportedly an excellent shot, one is tempted to wonder whether or not the Germans might have wisely contrived by surreptitious means to arrange for him to not be assigned to a combat unit. Not long after induction, he married his first wife, Barbara Jean Day, who has been said to have resembled Morticia. As did his other two wives. Charlie seems to have had a type.
What Charlie lacked was any desire for parenthood. He loved children, as long as they belonged to someone else. After eight years of trying to convince her husband to adopt, given that they had been unable to conceive, she left him.
A few years later, another Barbara came along who not only resembled Morticia more closely than her predecessor had in looks but also in personality. She was physically abusive and unfaithful. In 1955, without his knowledge or consent, she made a one-year deal with the McClure Syndicate to have Charlie’s cartoons appear in Sunday newspapers. The contract she signed on his behalf gave her 50% of the proceeds. Under the title Out of This World, they appear to be redrawn versions, or perhaps early drafts, of cartoons that had already appeared in The New Yorker. By the time that one-year deal was up, “the bad Barbara” had been jettisoned and Charlie was once again on the prowl for another Morticia surrogate.
He found one in my hometown, Nashville, Tennessee. Tee Davie was married and pregnant. As she slowly segued from her marriage to Buddy Davie to being Charlie’s frequent companion, Charlie’s aversion to children reappeared. She was stunning, and he liked stunning women, but the notion of being a parent put the kibosh on what had promised to be a permanent attachment. Tee and Buddy gave their marriage another try while Charlie made the rounds of more eligible females, including actresses Greta Garbo and Joan Fontaine, as well as presidential widow Jacqueline Onassis.
He and Tee did eventually reconnect. They were wed in a pet cemetery in 1980, and were still married when he passed away from a heart attack on September 29, 1988.
The one constant in his life throughout was the work. His cartoons became an institution, and sales of The New Yorker were bound to have been boosted by his presence in nearly every issue. Random House put out the first hardback collection of them, Drawn and Quartered, in 1942, complete with an introduction by Boris Karloff. Simon & Schuster took over production in 1947 with Addams and Evil, followed by Monster Rally (1950), Homebodies (1954), Nightcrawlers (1957), Black Maria (1960), The Groaning Board (1964), My Crowd (1970), Favorite Haunts (1976) and Creature Comforts (1981), as well as The Chas Addams Mother Goose (1967).
In 1963, during the time when plans were underway to adapt the cartoons to the small screen, toy-maker Aboriginals, Ltd. came out with a set of large cloth dolls based on the Addams characters. They named the girl Wednesday. Addams wanted to call the boy Pubert, but that name would have to wait a few decades. He settled on Pugsley, which he found on a map of the Bronx as the name of a stream. Charlie appeared in publicity photos for the company, including one taken in his New York apartment with his crossbows, raven statue, and suit of armor prominently displayed around him, cradling Wednesday in his arms and menaced by Pugsley lurking above and behind him on the back of his chair.
Charlie concocted the name of his feminine ideal during the development of the television show while looking up morticians in a phone book. Her doll stood four feet tall and cost $19.95. It’s a little more expensive now. Charlie wavered between calling the pater familias either Repelli or Gomez. He asked John Astin, the actor who would soon be playing the role, to choose. Astin went with Gomez. Lurch and Fester suggested themselves as names appropriate for the characters, as did Grandmama Frump. And so was born the first adaptation of Charlie’s cast of reprobates into another medium. But not the last, and every subsequent live-action or animated version is but a shadowy reflection in a warped mirror of that short-lived television series.
Which we will examine in more detail in the next installment, a mere fortnight in the future.
September 30, 1962 was the end of an era in American popular culture. On that date, the last two programs of what has since come to be known as Old-Time Radio came to an end. Fifteen years after the introduction of national television broadcasting, and less than a decade after the proliferation of rock-n-roll oriented stations on the radio, the art form that had dominated the airwaves and entertained millions of Americans since the 1920s finally gave up the ghost.
Not that dramatic radio was never heard again in the United States. Almost immediately, new series popped up, and mostly sank into obscurity as quickly. The one significant exception was the CBS Radio Mystery Theater that ran for eight years in the 1970s and 1980s, and resurfaced briefly in the late 1990s. I will address that estimable program in a future column.
In other parts of the English-speaking world, the medium limped along, often as a companion to popular television shows or specifically to adapt popular or classic works of literature to a less expensive medium than television. In South Africa, where television was banned until the 1970s, radio remained a vital art form. But in America, it was television that ruled.
Two long-running series ended that last night of September in 1962. The final episode of the mystery show, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, about the insurance investigator with the action-packed expense account, was immediately preceded by the finale of the twenty-year-old Suspense!. Since 1942, Suspense! had featured major Hollywood stars in hundreds of stories based on some of horror literature’s most notable works, including the first adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story into another medium. From 1947 to 1954, Suspense! had a sort of companion show called Escape!, with which it occasionally swapped scripts and stars.
Some of those film stars made a secondary career in radio, including the redoubtable Vincent Price. He was radio’s Simon Templar, AKA The Saint, from 1947 to 1951, and in the meantime made guest appearances on dozens if not hundreds of other broadcasts. One such was the most memorable adaptation on either Suspense! or Escape! of the short story, “Three Skeleton Key”, by French writer Georges-Gustave Toudouze. The yarn was originally published in the January, 1937 issue of Esquire Magazine, and initially adapted to Escape! on the 15th of November, 1949. The broadcast starred Elliott Reid, William Conrad and Harry Bartell. That one’s pretty good, but it was the next adaptation that really sticks in the lizard brain section of the old bean.
It was Vincent Price’s first time in the lead four months later that was the one version that really gets to me. Nothing against Reid, Conrad and Bartell, who all enjoyed long and illustrious careers on radio, and on television in the case of William Conrad, but Vincent Price brought something special to the broadcast of the 17th of March, 1950. Or maybe the sound effects were better, or some other technical detail. I’m not completely sure what it was, but that one has always been the version I put on when I want to enjoy that frisson I mentioned way back in my first column in this space.
I’m not especially frightened of spiders, nor of any snake, I can see. That doesn’t mean I’m not wary and cautious of the ones I know to be dangerous, but I don’t let that wariness translate into incapacitating fear. And the same is true of a rat. One rat. As in, rattus norwegicus in the singular.
But hundreds of rats? Thousands? Enough to completely encase a lighthouse on a lonely rock cut off from the mainland, just off the coast of French Guiana and in the middle of a tempest-tossed sea? Enough to drive the inhabitants of that isolated edifice mad, so that the danger within is as great as the peril without? Yeah. That’s not at all festive.
Maybe it is just me. I leave it to the populace to judge for themselves. Listen, if you dare.
Harry Bartell returned in this version, with the added participation of Jeff Corey, a character actor with a resume as lengthy and impressive as the prominent nose on his face.
One last adaptation on Escape! followed, three years later, starring Ben Wright, Paul Frees and Jay Novello. After Escape! was canceled, the story moved over to Suspense! for two more versions, both starring Price with the support of Wright. John Dehner also appeared in the November 11, 1956 broadcast, and Lawrence Dobkin on October 18, 1958, but neither of these carries the impact of that first one with Price from 1950.
The power of Old-Time Radio lies in the fact that the images of the horrors inherent in the story are generated within the mind of the listener, and therefore are so much more terrifying than could be created by any visual medium available in that period. The monster you don’t see is much worse than any you do. That goes for rats, or “The Dunwich Horror” from the November 1, 1945 episode of Suspense!, or “The Thing on the Fourble Board” from the August 9, 1948 episode of Quiet, Please, or the Martian invaders from Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater presentation of The War of the Worlds on Halloween Eve, 1938, or any of the other myriad horrors unleashed upon the millions of Americans whose ears were glued to the speakers of an old Crosley or Philco radio in those halcyon days prior to September 30, 1962.
Unfortunately, many if not most broadcasts from the era of Old-Time Radio are lost to time. Whole swaths of radio history were not preserved. What remains is a fraction of the total number of programs aired over the four decades plus that the medium was a dominant force in American life. What we have, though, is lots of scary stuff, and a huge amount is available online, in the Internet Archive, and elsewhere. I encourage the populace to seek it out and enjoy it.
Most of the information used in this essay, by the way, came from that most invaluable website, Jerry’s Vintage Radio Logs http://www.otrsite.com/radiolog/ or from John Dunning’s hefty tome, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio.
So, listen, you who have ears to hear. Spooky things await you in the realm of a lost medium. And, as always…
It is a generally accepted truism among film historians that half of all films made before 1950 are lost. No copies are known to exist. By that metric, vast swathes of the horror films of the first half of the 20th Century should be unavailable for viewing. And yet…
Let’s take a headcount. The big one is, of course, Lon Chaney’s 1927 film, London After Midnight. The last known copy was destroyed in a fire in the mid-50s, and it has been The Holy Grail for horror fans ever since. Turner Classic Movies has assembled a sort of replica out of stills and the shooting script, but that’s a poor substitute.
What else? The 1930 version of The Cat and the Canary, entitled The Cat Creeps, both English and Spanish versions. The first two Golem films Paul Wegener made in Germany during the First World War. The second version of Frankenstein, Life Without Soul, from 1915, and an Italian version, Il Mostro de Frankenstein from 1921. Um…
Yes, there are more, but not as many major ones as one might think. Wonder why that is?
To find that out, we must needs peer back into the dark and abyss of time, to 1910. Carl Laemmle, a film exhibitor in New York City, decided he’d had enough of paying a royalty to Thomas Edison every time he used a movie projector. He also had a desire to make his own movies, but Edison collected even more exorbitant sums from anyone with the temerity to use one of his patented cameras. Laemmle’s solution was to uproot his whole operation, which consisted mostly of his relatives and relocate to somewhere in California, anywhere in California, far away from Thomas Edison and his patent attorneys. How about that sleeping little farming community near Los Angeles called Hollywood? Sure, sounds good. He called his new organization Universal Pictures. He set up shop out there and started making movies.
Within a couple of years, Jesse Lasky’s Famous Players followed suit, becoming Paramount Pictures in 1912. And so on, until Edison gave up on enforcing his patents and all the other studios followed Laemmle out to Hollywood.
Here’s the thing about Carl Laemmle: He never really caught on to the notion that feature-length was the way movies should be made. He was of the opinion that one or two reels per picture was plenty, each reel spooling out at roughly ten minutes. His underlings, Irving Thalberg and his son, Carl, Junior, among them, managed to convince him to allow longer productions, but Universal films still tended towards the shorter lengths. Nothing like the eight hours Erich von Stroheim was originally granted to make films like Greed over at M-G-M in 1924, but one of the biggest stars of the day, Lon Chaney, made a couple that hovered around an hour long while he was at Universal, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera among them. Before long, both Chaney and Thalberg had moved over to M-G-M, and it was up to Carl, Junior, to convince the old man to let him make feature films. Senior gave in, but was still loathe to let things get too far out of hand.
And so it is that once Universal get into the horror movie business in 1931 with Dracula and then Frankenstein, these films are still a tad shorter than the standard feature-length. Dracula came in at an hour and fifteen minutes, Frankenstein at an hour and ten minutes.
Which has what to do with the state of film preservation that seems to favor our beloved genre over others? Simply this – that when Universal started marketing fifty-two of their classic horror films to television in October of 1957 under the name Shock!, that just-over-an-hour length was very attractive. Add in the right number of commercials, and Shock Theater, as the release was generally called by the local television stations, came in at a comfortable hour and a half time slot. The program managers at those stations liked that ninety-minute block, and gobbled up the package all over the United States. There was even room for a local host to make a few jokes about the picture, and still, fit everything in. Another batch containing both Universal and Columbia releases the next year called Son of Shock made the old monster films a national phenomenon.
America went monster crazy. Every scary picture ever made was resurrected from whatever archive it had been interred in to be shown on late-night weekend, early morning, or after school television. Hence, the unusual percentage of old horror pictures that survived, in comparison with most other genres.
Inspired by the renewed interest in the classics, American International, a Poverty Row studio that specialized in teen-oriented films for drive-in theaters, switched from hot rods and motorcycle gangs to teenage werewolves, Frankensteins, and cavemen. They hired Roger Corman to make black-and-white fright films on a budget, and once the studio had raked in enough teenage dollars, they bought some color stock and turned Corman loose on Edgar Allen Poe. England got in on the action, too, and Hammer films began remaking the old classics in lurid color. A new generation of horror stars arose – Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, along with a new set of scream queens in tight Victorian bodices barely containing their, um, huge tracts of land. Monsters weren’t just hip – they were sexy!
Of course, at the tender age at which I began to absorb all this cinematic mayhem in the early 1960s, sexy wasn’t really an issue for me. I just liked the stuff – the model kits, the toys, the Halloween costumes, the games, the television shows.
And the magazines. In particular, one magazine. The one essential chronicle of all that was unholy in the popular culture of the 1960s and beyond – Famous Monsters of Filmland.
Back in 1957, before I was even a gleam in my daddy’s eye, legendary science fiction fan, and collector, and literary agent to the speculative fiction field, Forrest J. Ackerman, had come across a French magazine, Cinema, while on a tour of science fiction conventions in Europe. The specific issue he found featured articles on horror movies, and even had a picture of Henry Hull’s lycanthrope from the 1935 Universal picture, The Werewolf of London, on the cover.
Once back in the states, Ackerman contacted a men’s (read, girly) magazine publisher named James Warren who had lost his shirt on his previous publication and was looking for something to put his last few dollars into. Ackerman sold Warren on the idea of a one-shot about the classic horror films, using stills from Ackerman’s own extensive collection and written by Ackerman himself in a sort of jokey, corny and yet very ingratiating style that later generations of comic-book fans might associate more closely with Stan Lee. The idea was for it to appeal to an ideal demographic of eleven-and-a-half-year-old boys. Younger and older ones with thirty-five cents would be welcome to purchase a copy, however, as well as girls of all ages.
Ackerman began assembling his first issue, but Warren couldn’t find a distributor. Fortunately, Life Magazine ran an article on the resurgence of interest in the old horror pictures, and suddenly any publication with a monster on the cover was pure gold. That first issue appeared on newsstands in February of 1958, Warren himself pictured on the cover in a Frankenstein mask ‘menacing’ his girlfriend. The furor over the horrors of yesteryear demanded an ongoing series, and so it was ordained. It was six months before the second issue came out, but by the third, dated April, 1959, FM (as true fans know it) was appearing quarterly. By the tenth issue, it was bi-monthly. It ran as a Warren publication until 1983 and has been revived a couple of times since then by other publishers.
The first issue I ever got my hands on was Number 35, dated October 1965. I had just turned seven. I have no recollection of how I acquired it, although I suspect I traded for it with one of the kids in the neighborhood. Probably swapped a comic book or two for it. That was still a thing in 1965. Anyhow, I thought we might flip through it and see what horrors lurk inside.
The cover is by Vic Prezio, depicting Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Not from the 1931 Dracula, the older vampire from Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Not sure if that was the intent, but it seems that way to me. Basil Gogos is the artist most often associated with FM covers, but Prezio did a fair number in this period. The inside front cover is a close-up photo of Oliver Reed’s lycanthrope from the 1961 Hammer film, Curse of the Werewolf. Page 3 is a synopsis of the contents, followed by ads for the Famous Monsters of Filmland Club, free to join with the attached coupon, and for the 1966 Yearbook. Then, there’s a table of contents, followed by a photo of Lugosi that I believe is from 1935’s Mark of the Vampire. It’s labeled ‘Public Vampire No. 1’. Subtle, ain’t it?
The first article covers Lugosi’s 1951 trip to England, during which time he gave lots of interviews and co-starred in a film variously called Vampires Over London, My Son the Vampire and Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. Old Mother Riley was a popular character in English comedies at the time, played by comedian Arthur Lucan in drag. Not Bela’s finest moment, although much worse was yet to come.
A full-page close-up still of Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster is followed by the announcement of the winner of an amateur film-maker’s contest, won by Madona Marchant, who by the time this issue went to press had married cartoonist Rich Corben. Corben went on to have a long career illustrating horror comics for Warren’s Creepy and Eerie magazines, as well as the American iteration of the Heavy Metal magazine.
More on all those publications in a future installment of this column. Stay, as they say, tuned.
A rather interesting article is next, about the recently (at the time) discovered first film ever made by Charlton Heston. Heston was a seventeen-year-old high school student when he starred in an amateur film version of the Henryk Ibsen play, Peer Gynt. You can find it here:
Heston went on to star in the best version to date of the Richard Matheson novel, I Am Legend, 1971’s Omega Man. Moses vs Vampires! Who could resist that?
The backlash by parents worried that horror movies, like horror comics a decade before, were warping their precious offspring, is addressed in the next article, “Monster Are Good for My Children – Yours Too!!!” I found it more persuasive than my mom and dad did, alas. Still, I survived and have yet to commit any of the atrocities forecast by those who were sure we monster fans were all destined to be mass murderers. Yet, being the operative word here.
One of the many ads for short snippets of eight-millimeter films scattered throughout the magazine follows, then came the Mystery Photo. This was a regular feature, an obscure still with vague clues to tantalize the fans, the answer to be revealed in the next issue.
Nine pages are devoted to one of the absolute worst horror movies of the first half of the 1960s, Night of the Blood Beast. Why? I have no idea. A few pages of miniatures photographed in Frankensteinian dioramas in France is followed by another regular feature, Hidden Horrors, in this case, a close-up of Norman Bates’ mother from Psycho. Mom’s looking a bit peaked there, Normie.
We then get a synopsis with stills of the American release of Godzilla (1956), Revenge of Mystery Lines (a horror movie quotes quiz), You Axed for It! (reader requested stills), and a two-page advertisement for back issues. “The Gordons Will Get You!” concerns the cheesy b-movie makers Alex and Rich Gordon, who made several of the very first horror-SciFi movies I remember seeing on television. More ads, then a two-page spread on Lon Chaney, Junior’s 1952 appearance as the Frankenstein monster on the television series, Tales of Tomorrow, which like most early television was broadcast live. No mention is made, however, of Chaney being too far in his cups to realize it wasn’t a rehearsal. He was therefore very careful to not break any of the furniture he was supposed to, thinking it would be needed for the ‘real’ broadcast. Sort of diminished the verisimilitude, that.
A letters page, Monster Mail Call, and Headlines from Horrorsville finished up the editorial content and were followed by over twenty pages of ads for 8mm films, projectors on which to show said films, books, records, masks, decals, the first few issues of Creepy, knickknacks, gewgaws and various odds and ends. All the advertising indicated the goodies were to be ordered from Captain Company, Warren’s own distributor of the sundries sold throughout the issue, and every issue for the magazine’s run. The history of Captain Company will no doubt be told in a future installment.
That’s a pretty average issue, regardless of year. FM reprinted content constantly, so every article in this issue showed up in a later one. In the 1970s, Star Wars sort of took over, but you could always count on the monsters of yesterday filling in. I happened to be reading a much later issue containing an article on 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein reprinted from God-knows which earlier issue the first time I heard “Your Move” by progressive rock band Yes on the radio, in about 1971. To this day, I can’t hear the song without thinking about the movie, and vice versa. Funny how memory works, isn’t it?
I did meet Ackerman, once, in 1980. He was one of several guests at the Nashville science fiction convention that year, Kubla Khan Ate, with Stephen King being the main Guest of Honor. ‘Uncle Forry’ showed me the rings he was wearing, one that Lugosi wore in Dracula in 1931, the other worn by Karloff in The Mummy the next year. We had a nice chat about those films, and others then settled down to discuss silent films of all genres. It was one of those pleasant little interludes that occurred at cons in those days. One of many things I miss from my misspent youth. I did run into King, briefly, the last day of that convention. I spent considerably more time with him a few years later, at the 1983 DeepSouth Con in Knoxville. More on that later.
So, there it is. I do hope folks are enjoying these little excursions through my monstrous memories. Expect more next month, when the theme for the first part of April is religious horror. No idea as of yet what I’ll share about that topic, but I hope it will be interesting. Until, then, as always —
Fiends in the Funnies, Creatures in the Comics by Mark Orr
One of my fondest memories of my pre-literate childhood is of sitting on the couch with my dad after he got home from work, or after church on Sundays, and he would read me the comic strips from the newspaper. He did all the voices differently, with lots of drama and humor and everything you’d want in a comics reader. Li’l Abner and Kerry Drake, Miss Peach and Grandma, Jimmy Hatlo’s They’ll Do it Every Time are all long-gone and forgotten now. Blondie and Dick Tracy and Nancy are still around, but who reads newspapers anymore?
Dad is eighty-eight and thinking about moving into an assisted living facility, so those memories are very much on my mind these days. I roll them over and over on my mind’s tongue, savoring as many of the minutes as I can call up after almost sixty years.
One thing I don’t recall is that any of our regular favorite comic strips in either of the Nashville papers of that time were in the least monstrous or horrific. Since I started accumulating material for my vast amorphous history of horror project some years ago, of which this column is a manifestation, I have looked for expressions of horror in all possible media, and generally found an abundance in each one. Except in the syndicated newspaper comic strips.
Full disclosure: I have not subscribed to a printed newspaper in years. However, I do subscribe to a daily service that sends approximately seventy-five comics strips to my email box every day. Of those seventy-five, exactly one has the kind of themes or characters one most often thinks of as horror-related. Almost all of them are more-or-less the typical gag-a-day strips usually found these days. Day-to-day continuity lasting over weeks and months is virtually a thing of the past.
Once upon a time, though, a significant proportion of the comics page was taken up with extended storylines in strips in all the genres represented in the medium – humor, drama, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, westerns, war, romance, soap operas, even religion. And thanks to the internet, a huge amount of that material is available for the perusal of historians of those bygone years.
I belong to what used to be a Yahoo group before Yahoo did away with groups, that mines online newspaper archives and stacks of slowly disintegrating newspapers for comic strips and disseminates them to the membership. I receive a minimum of sixty or seventy old comics strips every day, usually closer to two hundred. Some days, long runs covering years or decades of one or more particular strips will show up, and that count goes up into thousands or even tens of thousands. Of all the titles I receive, the ones with even peripherally or occasional horrific content go into a separate file on one of my external hard drives. The list is not a long one. It begins with…
Okay, so, if Dinosaurus can be sort of classified as a monster picture, or Jurassic Park or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms or The Giant Behemoth, then dinosaurs are monsters, right? They are monstrously big, and there are plenty you wouldn’t want to meet in person. Several strips have been set in that mythical period during which humans and dinosaurs ‘co-existed’.
The first was Our Antediluvian Ancestors, which ran from 1901 to roughly 1906. It was created by prolific cartoonist Frederick Burr Opper for the Hearst Syndicate.
There are only two currently running that I know of. One is B.C., a gag-a-day strip that only occasionally features dinosaurs, and then only in service of a specific joke. B.C. premiered seven months and eight days before I did, in 1958. Created by Johnny Hart (1931-2007), who also created The Wizard of Id (see the section on dragons, below), it is currently being produced by Hart’s grandson, Mason Mastroianni.
The longest-running dinosaur strip is Alley Oop, which debuted in 1932, three months and a day after my father. Are we seeing a trend here? Alley is a caveman who rides a brontosaurus named Dinny. In 1939, he and his girlfriend Ooola were snatched out of time and brought to the 20th Century by Professor Wonmugg’s time machine. I know of no one in my immediate or extended family born around that time. His subsequent adventures sent him all up and down the timeline, where (when?) he encountered ghosts and witches, among many other characters. In 1953 he found himself in the time of Macbeth as the events of Shakespeare’s play occurred, despite the play having little to do with the historical Macbeth.
Peter Piltdown was another anachronistic prehistoric comic strip, created by Mal Eaton. It ran from 1935 to 1946, then re-appeared in the pages of Boy’s Life Magazine in 1953 under the title of Rocky Stoneax. It lasted there until 1970. It was retitled because the Piltdown Man fossils had been found to be a hoax in the meantime, which is a whole ‘nother discussion I’ll save for later, if ever. Boy’s Life was produced by and for the Boy Scouts of America, so every Boomer boy who spent any time in Scouts likely ran across the strip. I remember it fondly, now that its original version has recently been among those I get via email from time to time.
Gary Larson’s The Far Side occasionally featured dinosaurs in his daily gags, usually observing the meteor about the wipe them out. They weren’t necessarily the focus of the strip, though, so that’s all I have to say about that.
Which of course leaves The Flintstones, although they began as a prime-time animated television series before appearing in newspaper syndication, as well as in comic books and other media. More dinosaurs used as props, generally, for the prehistoric antics of Fred and Barney and the gang.
One step up the monster ladder from dinosaurs would be, naturally, dragons. Dragons tend to pop up in strips set in Medieval times, along with witches and wizards and knights in shining armor. The aforementioned The Wizard of Id has been running since 1964. The dragon in that strip is the pet of the title character.
In 1937, Hal Foster turned the art chores on the Tarzan comic strip over to Burne Hogarth. He then began what has consistently been the most beautifully drawn comic strip ever since, Prince Valiant. Appearing only as a full-color Sunday strip, it has been drawn by John Cullen Murphy since 1971. Foster also gave legendary comic book artists Wally Wood and Gray Morrow tryouts before giving it over to Murphy. More of a Medieval adventure strip, the occasional dragons tend to be more-or-less lizards of unusual size, rather than true fire-breathers.
Two years before Prince Valiant, writer William McCleery and artist Ralph Fuller debuted Oaky Doaks, a strip about a Medieval farmboy who makes his own suit of armor out of a tin roof and goes about rescuing damsels in distress and slaying the odd dragon in the process. The strip ran until 1961.
Sir Bagby, created by brothers Rick and Bill Hackney, ran from 1957 to 1967. I’ve only got eighteen examples in my collection, but those few strips do include a polite but not altogether trustworthy dragon and a gryphon having an identity crisis.
There have been a number of science fiction comics strips with the occasional monster popping up like the saarlac in Return of the Jedi, but they weren’t really the focus of the strips. In this class we find Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Brick Bradford, Don Dixon and others, none of which warrant much more than a mention here. Worth looking at, but not particularly in this space.
Numerous comics strips have had the occasional spooky storyline, mostly ones that turn out to be less due to supernatural causes than the machinations of evil mortals. Oriental adventure strip character Ming Foo, who spouted more aphorisms in one strip than Charlie Chan managed in an entire movie, began life in 1934 as a ‘topper’ strip for the Little Annie Rooney Sunday page. Back in the days when Sunday comics were full page affairs instead of chopped up to fit five or six on one page, a secondary strip would often run at the top, over the main one, hence ‘topper’. Jungle Jim was the topper for Flash Gordon, Colonel Potterby for Blondie, and so forth. Ming Foo encountered a Mad Monster in 1940, a Sea of Mirthful Demons in 1941, and wandered about on the Graveyard Island in 1942. He vanished from the comics pages a year later.
In addition to his many years in the Saturday morning cartoon milieu, Bullwinkle enjoyed a few years as a daily comic strip. He spent a few months in 1963 in Transylvania, where everybody’s favorite moose encountered a Dr. Jekyll who looked suspiciously like Boris Karloff, Count Draculet, a ballet-dancing mummy, and a singing werewolf.
You would think that a comic strip about a character called The Phantom would have more supernatural content, but the Ghost Who Walks is no ghost. Rather, he was a generational hero whose costume and accouterments were passed down from father to son. He has faced the odd witch doctor since he was created in 1936 by Lee Falk, but that’s about it. His adventures are still appearing, and are even more popular in Australia, Scandinavia and India than in his home country.
Adaptations of popular books and stories in the daily comics were a fairly regular occurrence in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. I have three separate adaptations of the classic Charles Dickens ghost story, A Christmas Carol, from 1937, 1950 and 1957. A strip called Famous Fiction adapted a couple of Edgar Allen Poe tales, “The Gold Bug” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, in the early 1940s. I’m sure there were others I have yet to track down.
There was a whole class of single panel comics during the Golden Age of Hollywood that were basically promotional strips for the studios, featuring the odd hobbies of the stars or hints that you really, really need to get out and see this or that movie when it comes around to your town. Horror movie stars such as Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney or Bela Lugosi were occasionally mentioned, which is just enough horror content to justify this paragraph. The titles of these strips included Closeup and Comedy, Private Lives and Seein’ Stars.
And now, we’re down to the four strips that can honestly be considered horror, that are truly inhabited, from beginning to end, top to bottom, side to side by monsters. The peripherals and occasionals are dealt with, and we’re left with these favored few. Over one hundred and twenty-five years of comic strip history, and this is what it boils down to.
And three of them are humorous.
Maybe the comic strip medium simply isn’t suitable for sustaining the tension of the genre. Perhaps three panels a day and a Sunday page just won’t bear the weight of true fright. Perhaps. Regardless, here they are:
Before creating the classic children’s book, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson came up with one of the great comic strips of all time. Barnaby was a five-year-old child who wished for a fairy godmother. What he got was a cigar smoking and rarely competent fairy godfather named Jackeen J. O’Malley. Their whimsical adventures meandered through plots involving standard issues of the day like scrap metal drives and victory gardens, but also ogres, gorgons, witches and wizards, and of course, Gus the Ghost. Never a success, Barnaby limped along from 1942 to 1952, never appearing in more than fifty-two newspapers. Still, Dorothy Parker loved it. There have been several reprints of the strip since 1943, when Holt issued two hardback volumes, both of which occupy honored places in my library. Fantagraphic Books has issued four volumes of a projected five-volume set of reprints covering the entire run. A play based on the characters was written and produced in 1946. It was adapted to television in 1959, starring Ron Howard as Barnaby and former Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr as Mr. O’Malley.
Russ Myers’ 1970 creation is still running. The title character is an alcoholic, cigar-smoking witch whose best friend is a troll. There’s a monster in a cave named Grelber who insults anyone foolish enough to get close to him. It’s a gag-a-day about these monsters and a few other beings. I’ve always enjoyed it, but it’s not scary. Moving on.
Gary is a vampire who has retired to suburbia with his demonic henchman, Leonard, a bedsheet-clad ghost named Owen, and a severed head in a jar named Travis. There’s also a zombie baby wandering around the neighborhood in one of those circular walker things all my grandkids had. Don’t try to tickle that baby. You’ll draw back a nub. It’s a gag-a-day, usually involving Leonard being horrible to anyone in reach, Owen whining about being dead or Travis wishing he still had limbs. Scary Gary was created by Mark Buford in 2008. It’s one of the seventy-five strips I get every morning in my email, and usually, the first one I read.
Finally, a serious comic strip with real continuity, starring daytime soap opera vampire Barnabas Collins. It was drawn by long-time comic book and comic strip artist Ken Bald under the penname Ken Bruce to avoid confusion with the other strip he was doing at the time, Dr. Kildare. Because those were so much alike. Dark Shadows had already been adapted to a Gold Key comic book that lasted thirty-five issues, and a long series of gothic romance novels by Marilyn Ross, who was actually William Edward Daniel Ross, because nobody would buy a gothic romance by a man in those days. Bald’s work on the newspaper version was beautifully done, a significant improvement over the comic books drawn by Joe Certa.
Which was probably why the strip lasted, oh, let me see…
A year. A YEAR? Seriously? One measly year?!?!?
‘Fraid so. March 14th, 1971 to March 11, 1972. That’s it. That’s all we get of the only truly horrific monster-populated comic strip ever created in the century and a quarter of the existence of the art form. Unless I’ve missed one, which is possible. If I have, please let me know in the comments.
Maybe we’ll have another one, someday, if the medium survives. We can only hope. In the meantime, as always…
Oh, one last thing: the article in the link below came to me too late for Women in Horror month, so I’ll just leave it here and let the populace peruse it at will.
At the end of the silent movie period, French film director René Clair went on the record as being very skeptical of sound, feeling that it was “an unnatural creation” Cinema as its own art form was a purely visual one, he thought, and the introduction of sound would make films nothing more than recorded stage plays. He relented, and made some truly great sound films, but watching what is, as far as I’ve been able to determine the earliest surviving Japanese horror film, Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Kurutta Ippeji (A Page of Madness), one might wonder if he wasn’t on to something.
Not that Kinugasa was aware of Clair’s opinion in 1926, or even of his work; there’s no indication that he saw any western films at the beginning of his career. He started in the industry as a female impersonator in 1917, then switched to directing once Japanese studios began using female actors in the early 1920s. It wasn’t until 1929 that he had the opportunity to travel abroad and encounter European films, which makes Kurutta Ippeji all the more remarkable. Stylistically, it would fit very nicely into any one of several European traditions, particularly German expressionism. There is in Kinugasa’s picture more than a trace of what the French called Caligarisme, that most extreme variety of expressionism exemplified by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, to be sure. However, it’s purely a parallel development, as Kinugasa wouldn’t have known Caligarisme in 1926 if he tripped over it. He was talented enough to discover it on his own.
A more impressive achievement is that it truly is a silent film, even more so than any that Clair had directed in France up until that time. There are no intertitles, those cards that pop up periodically in almost all silents with bits of dialogue or expository material. Kinugasa was able to tell a coherent story with no dialogue, no expository material. The images are the story, and they need nothing else.
The story is, to be sure, a simple one. A man hires on as a janitor at the insane asylum where his wife is an inpatient. He loses contact with reality himself while attempting to extricate her from the asylum against her will, plus deal with his daughter’s disintegrating marriage. His own mental state comes to mirror that of several of the other inmates, and it is in the presentation of their madness and his that Kinugasa creates some truly horrific imagery. It possesses a poetic subtlety that possibly doesn’t translate well into our time for most modern horror fans, which is a damn shame.
Like almost all early Japanese films, it was thought lost until Kinugasa came across a copy in his garden shed in the 1970s, a few years after his long and very productive career had come to an end. He died in 1982, at the age of eighty-six.
Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday was yesterday as I write this, an anniversary that should be near and dear to the hearts of all horror fans. Poe is also revered by the mystery buffs, who named their most prestigious award the Edgar in his honor. And in his honor, the second part of this celebration of Asian horrors is herewith presented unto the populace.
Japanese mystery writer Tirō Hirai adopted the pseudonym Edogawa Ranpo (sometimes written as Rampo) in 1923. If you say that new name fast, it sort of sounds like Poe’s full name, which was the point, I do believe. Regardless, he had a long and distinguished career as a mystery author, penning numerous novels and short stories.
Which has what to do with horror, Asian or otherwise? you may well ask. Well, like many writers, Ranpo had difficulty playing in his own sandbox. On occasion, he would tinker with other genres. One such time, he came up with what might well be the creepiest tale I’ve ever read.
A prominent lady writer receives a manuscript from an aspiring author. In it, he tells of his life as a hideously ugly and poverty-stricken chair-maker, a man whose carpentry skills are as great as his social skills are poor. Having received a commission for a large chair to be installed in a fancy hotel, he decides to build one that he can hide in so that he can sneak out and steal from the wealthy clientele. He spends months living in this chair, emerging from it at night to pilfer valuables. He waxes rhapsodic on how various people sit on him during the day, how he could differentiate one type of person from another by how their bodies press down onto his.
After a long time, the carpenter writes, the hotel decided to redecorate, and the chair was sold. And guess what! You’re sitting on me now! The lady author freaks and flees, only to receive a second letter telling her that the manuscript is pure fiction, ha-ha, just kidding. Did you like it and would you help me get it published? It shall be called, “The Human Chair”. This seems like a cheat on a par with The Wizard of Oz having all been a dream. If the second letter is true.
See? Creepy, right?
Ranpo published his story, also called “The Human Chair”, in 1925, in the October issue of the literary magazine, Kuraku. I first read it in David Alexander’s 1962 paperback anthology, Tales for a Rainy Night.
It can also be found in Peter Haining’s 1972 anthology Beyond the Curtain of Dark and in Ranpo’s own collection, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination. And no doubt in others. I encourage all and sundry among the populace to seek it out, in order to see for yourself if it delivers the same frisson to you it did to me the first time I read it.
As is de rigueur for this time of year, we look back at some of the genre connected people who passed away in 2020. Some connections are tenuous, some very solid. A few names, everyone knows. Many, I didn’t even know until I set out on this journey.
By the way, there be spoilers here. Act accordingly.
Veronika Fitz (3/28/36-1/2/20) German actress with a nearly six-decade career. Her only genre performance that I could find was a bit part in The Haunted Castle (1960). Oh, well. We had to start somewhere.
Robert Blanche (March 30, 1962 – January 3, 2020) American actor, played Sgt. Franco on the American television program, ‘Grimm’, from 2012 to 2017.
Edd Byrnes (July 30, 1932 – January 8, 2020) American actor, best known to the generation just prior to mine for his role as Kookie in the television mystery show, ’77 Sunset Strip’. Played a psycho killer in 1973’s Wicked, Wicked, a film notable only for its use of a split-screen for its entire running time. Brian de Palma had used the technique of showing two scenes at once in parts of his film, Sisters, that same year. Too much of a good thing, in this case.
Buck Henry (December 9, 1930 – January 8, 2020) American actor, writer, director. Creator of the classic ‘60s TV spy spoof ‘Get Smart’, frequent first season contributor to ‘Saturday Night Live’, and doomed swinger in the 1982 dark comedy, Eating Raoul.
Ivan Passer (10 July 1933 – 9 January 2020) Czech director of 1988’s Haunted Summer, one of several films about the 1815 gathering in Switzerland that produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and John Polidori’s Vampyre.
Mike Resnick (March 5, 1942 – January 9, 2020) Award-winning American science fiction writer and editor. Author of The Official Guide to Fantastic Literature (1976).
Carol Serling (February 3, 1929 – January 9, 2020) The widow of Rod Serling, who guided the Twilight Zone brand through decades of reinvention and adaptation into other media, including the magazine of the same name.
Neda Arnerić (15 July 1953 – 10 January 2020) Serbian actress, Venom (a.k.a. The Legend of Spider Forest, 1971)
Patrick Jordan (10 October 1923 – 10 January 2020) English actor who spent most of a long career as a character actor on the BBC, but did manage to squeeze in a bit part in the 1959 kaiju classic, The Giant Behemoth.
Robert Sampson (May 10. 1933 – January 18, 2020) American actor who appeared in the TV shows ‘One Step Beyond’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’, and as Dean Halsey in 1985’s Re-Animator.
Terry Jones (1 February 1942 – 21 January 2020) Welsh actor and writer and founding member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Played Sir Bedevere in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a performance that required him to run away from several scary things. That rabbit’s dynamite!
John Karlen (May 28, 1933 – January 22, 2020) American actor. Ah, yes. Willie Loomis himself, who foolishly awoke vampire Barnabas Collins on the classic horror soap opera, ‘Dark Shadows’. In the second half of the 1960s, everyone I knew ran home from school to plop down in front of the television in order to find out what devilment Barnabas was up too, all because Willie had been tempted by the rumors that the undead main character had treasure buried in his coffin with him. He ought to have known better. Nobody puts chains around a coffin to keep people out. The chains are obviously there to keep the occupant in. Duh.
Robert Harper (May 19, 1951 – January 23, 2020) American actor devoured by the inhabitant of ‘The Crate’ in 1982’s Creepshow.
Monique van Vooren (March 25, 1927 – January 25, 2020) Belgian actress who essayed multiple roles in Andy Warhol’s 1973 film, Flesh for Frankenstein.
Jack Burns (November 15, 1933 – January 27, 2020) American actor and comedian, best known for his partnership with Avery Schreiber in the comedy team of, you guessed it, Burns & Schreiber, and for being Barney Fife’s replacement on ‘The Andy Griffith Show’. Did make one appearance on the late ‘60s supernatural TV show, ‘The Ghost & Mrs. Muir’.
Norbert Moutier (1941 – 27 January 2020) French director of 1983’s Mad Mutilator and 1993’s Dinosaur from the Deep.
Marj Dusay (2/20/36-1/28/20) American actress who had a lead role in the 1969 TV movie, Dead of Night: A Darkness at Blaisedon, a pilot for a supernatural investigations series that was not picked up by the network. She appeared in virtually every television series made in the United States during her very long career, including in one episode of the short-lived Tucker’s Witch in 1982, also a supernatural investigations show.
Nicholas Parsons (10 October 1923 – 28 January 2020) English actor. Okay, blame the Beatles for this, or maybe Elvis, but it seemed that every rock & roll band in the ‘60s made an effort to break into movies. The Spencer Davis Group tried their hand in 1966 in a fab little feature called The Ghost Goes Gear. Gear being a synonym of the time for fab, or george, or groovy. As opposed to grotty. Clear as mud? Parsons played the band’s manager, a nobleman whose manor house was haunted. I recommend sticking with A Hard Day’s Night.
Dyanne Thorne (October 14, 1936 – January 28, 2020) American actress, ‘star’ of Ilsa: She-Wolf of the S.S. (1975). Naughty, naughty Ilsa, performing all those awful experiments on her barely clothed female prisoners in her own personal Nazi concentration camp. Camp being the operative word.
Mary HigginsClark (December 24, 1927 – January 31, 2020) American author of numerous suspense novels than danced around the edges of being horror.
Andrée Melly (15 September 1932 – 31 January 2020) English actress in The Brides of Dracula in 1960 and the cheapjack retread of William Castle’s 1963 remake of The Old Dark House called The Horror of it All in 1964. Her image from Brides was also picked for the Old Maid in a 1964 monster card game in which she is misidentified as Dracula’s Daughter.
One of several things that Milton Bradley got wrong. Sounds like meat for a future column.
Katsumasa Uchida (19 September 1944 – 31 January 2020) Japanese actor, played an Interpol agent in 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla.
Lila Garrett (November 21, 1925 – February 1, 2020) American writer who scribed a dozen episodes of the 1960s supernatural TV series, ‘Bewitched’.
Luciano Ricceri (26 April 1940 – 1 February 2020) Italian production designer for the 1966 dark comedy, The Devil in Love.
Lovelady Powell (May 9, 1930 – February 2, 2020) American actress who appeared in one episode of ‘Dark Shadows’ in 1966 and in the 1972 horror thriller, The Possession of Joel Delaney
José Luis Cuerda (18 February 1947 – 4 February 2020) Spanish producer, The Others (2001), with Nicole Kidman.
Gianni Minervini (26 October 1928 – 4 February 2020) Italian producer of the 1976 Giallo, The House of the Laughing Windows
Kirk Douglas (December 9, 1916 – February 5, 2020) American actor not generally known for genre work, but he did star in a not-well-received musical TV version of ‘Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ in 1973.
F. X. Feeney (September 1, 1953 – February 5, 2020) American screenwriter on Roger Corman’s 1990 adaptation of the Brian Aldiss novel, Frankenstein Unbound.
Raphaël Coleman (30 September 1994 – 6 February 2020) American actor in the 2009 remake of It’s Alive.
Orson Bean (July 22, 1928 – February 7, 2020) American actor who was all over television in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and who made one appearance on ‘The Twilight Zone’.
Robert Conrad (March 1, 1935 – February 8, 2020) If you love steampunk, this is one of the guys who created it. Conrad was the star of ‘The Wild Wild West’, still after fifty years my favorite TV show of all time. Only one episode is truly horror related, ‘The Night of the Man-Eating House’. Hurd Hatfield from 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is the guest star.
Paula Kelly (October 21, 1942 – February 8, 2020) American actress in the borderline horrific science fiction films, 1971’s The Andromeda Strain and 1973’s Soylent Green. Spoiler alert: It’s People!
Ron McLarty (April 14, 1947 – February 8, 2020) American actor whose first film role was as the real estate agent in 1977’s The Sentinel, which was based on the Jeffrey Konvitz horror novel of the same name.
Mirella Freni (27 February 1935 – 9 February 2020) Italian operatic soprano who sang in several genre-related operas over her illustrious fifty-year career, including Gounod’s Faust and Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame (AKA Queen of Spades).
Marjorie Redmond (December 14, 1924 – February 10, 2020) American television actress, likely best known as Sister Jacqueline in ‘The Flying Nun’ (yes, a ‘60s TV show about a nun who, you guessed it, could fly), with stopovers along the way in ‘The Twilight Zone’ and ‘The Munsters’, as well as an episode of the spin-off (sort of) from Rod Serling’s ‘Night Gallery’, ‘The Sixth Sense’ in 1972.
Raphael Romero Marchent (May 3, 1926 – February 13, 2020) Mexican director, Santo vs Doctor Death (1973) and Curse of the Black Cat (1977).
Zoe Caldwell (14 September 1933 – 16 February 2020) Australian actress with one appearance on the TV version of radio’s classic series, ‘Suspense’, in 1960. She’s best known for her stage performances in Macbeth and Medea, both of which have horrific connections. In fact, in early 1983, she brought her touring company of Medea to Knoxville, Tennessee, while my wife and I were students there. Yes, we saw it, and, yes, it was very, very good. Mitchell Ryan, late of ‘Dark Shadows’ and Dame Judith Anderson, who co-starred with Vincent Price in the great film noir, Laura, in 1946, appeared with her. There is a filmed performance of that production on YouTube.
Frances Cuka (21 August 1936 – 16 February 2020) English actress in 1980’s Watcher in the Woods with Bette Davis, and one episode of the ‘Hammer House of Horror’ BBC series.
Sonja Ziemann (8 February 1926 – 17 February 2020) German actress, Ghost in the Castle (AKA Spuk im Schloß, 1947)
Flavio Bucci (25 May 1947 – 18 February 2020) Italian actor, Suspiria (1977)
Bob Cobert (October 26, 1924 – February 19, 2020) Soundtrack composer on numerous genre films and TV shows, including the aforementioned ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ with Kirk Douglas; House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971); and The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973), the forerunners of the ‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker’ TV series. Also, The Norliss Tapes (1973), 1974’s TV Dracula with Jack Palance, and the 2012 Dark Shadows feature film with Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins.
José Mojica Marins (13 March 1936 – 19 February 2020) Brazilian actor best known as Coffin Joe in a trilogy of films, 1964’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, 1967’s This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse and The Embodiment of Evil in 2008, with numerous other spooky film and TV appearances along the way.
Peter Dreher (26 August 1932 – 20 February 2020) German artist who enjoyed painting skulls. He called this series of creepy images ‘Totenschädel‘.
Claudette Nevins (April 10, 1937 – February 20, 2020) American actress, The Mask (1961). Not the one with Jim Carrey. This one is in 3-D, which would be much too much to tolerate from a Jim Carrey movie.
Nicola Cuti (October 29, 1944 – February 21, 2020) Comic book writer, editor and artist who wrote well over two hundred scripts for the horror comics line published by Charlton Comics in the 1970s, and co-created with artist Joe Staton the classic comic book super-hero, E-Man.
Boris Leskin AKA Boris Lyoskin (5 January 1923 – 21 February 2020) Romanian actor who had a small role in 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss with Nicolas Cage.
Russ Cochran (July 3, 1937 – February 23, 2020) A former physics professor who quit academia to collate and reprint the EC Comics of the early 1950s, preserving for new generations those gruesome yarns from crumbling issues of Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear and The Vault of Horror. And some other stuff, Disney and Hopalong Cassidy comics and the like.
Ben Cooper (September 30, 1933 – February 24, 2020) American actor who made appearances on TV’s ‘Suspense’, ‘One Step Beyond’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’.
Michael Hugh Medwin, (18 July 1923 – 26 February 2020) American actor with one genre performance, in 1949’s Queen of Spades.
R. D. Call (February 16, 1950 – February 27, 2020) American character actor with appearances in ‘X-Files’ and ‘Supernatural’, among many, many other television shows.
Dieter Laser (17 February 1942 – 29 February 2020) German actor, Human Centipede (First Sequence), 2009
Frank McLaughlin (March 18, 1935 – March 4, 2020) Comic book artist and art director for Charlton Comics whose first credited work was on a story in the kaiju comic, Reptisaurus, in 1961.
Max von Sydow (10 April 1929 – 8 March 2020) Swedish actor and long-time collaborator with director Ingmar Bergman, he played chess with death in 1957 in The Seventh Seal and died trying to drive Pazuzu out of Linda Blair in The Exorcist in 1973.
Gary B. Kibbe (January 9, 1941 – March 9, 2020) American cinematographer on the John Carpenter films Prince of Darkness (1987), They Live (1988), In the Mouth of Madness (1995), Village of the Damned (1995), Escape from L.A. (1996) and Vampires (1998), and one episode of HBO’s ‘Tales from the Crypt’, 1992’s ‘King of the Road’ starring Brad Pitt.
Suzy Delair (31 December 1917 – 15 March 2020) French actress in the 1942 dark comedy L’assassin habite… au 21 (The Murderer Lives at Number 21).
Roy Hudd, (16 May 1936 – 15 March 2020) English actor who played a morgue attendant in 1968’s The Blood Beast Terror, which starred Peter Cushing.
Stuart Whitman (February 1, 1928 – March 16, 2020) American leading man, star of many theatrical and television westerns, mysteries and adventure yarns, with one episode of ‘Night Gallery’ on his resume. He also co-starred with Psycho victim Janet Leigh in 1972’s Night of the Lepus, generally considered one of the worst movies ever made. I will not take an opposing position on that question.
Giovanni Romanini (27 December 1945 – 20 March 2020) Italian cartoonist, illustrator of the dark and often horrific Italian comic book series, Satanik, in the early 1970s.
Lucia Bosè (28 January 1931 – 23 March 2020) Italian actress who had a small role in Jean Cocteau’s 1960 film, Testament d’Orphee.
David Collings (4 June 1940 – 23 March 2020) English actor who played Bob Cratchit in 1970’s Scrooge.
Melinda O. Fee (October 7, 1942 – March 24, 2020) American actress who played Mrs. Webber in 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddie’s Revenge.
Stuart Gordon (August 11, 1947 – March 24, 2020) American screenwriter and director on 1985’s Re-Animator, the 1991 version of The Pit and the Pendulum, 2001’s Dagon, and two episodes of the ‘Masters of Horror’ TV show.
Juan Padron (January 29, 1947 – March 24, 2020) Cuban director of Vampiros en La Habana (1985) and Mas Vampiros en La Habana (2003).
Barbara Rütting (21 November 1927 – 28 March 2020) German actress in early ‘60s adaptations of a couple of Edgar Wallace’s horror-thriller novels, Der Zinker (The Squeaker, 1963) and Das Phantom von Soho (1964).
Krzysztof Penderecki (23 November 1933 – 29 March 2020) Polish composer of Die Teufel von Loudun (The Devils of Loudun), a 1968-1975 opera based on an episode of mass demonic possession in 17th Century France. Yes, it took him seven years to write an opera. How long does it take YOU?
Hilary Heath, AKA Hilary Dwyer (6 May 1945 – 30 March 2020) British actress in 1968’s The Witchfinder General and 1969’s The Oblong Box, both with Vincent Price in Edgar Allen Poe inspired films, 1970’s Cry of the Banshee, also with Price, and in the 1970 version of Wuthering Heights, which starred future James Bond Timothy Dalton.
Vincent Marzello (July 4, 1951 – March 31, 2020) American actor in 1990’s The Witches.
Olan Montgomery (April 12, 1963 – April 4, 2020) An American actor known for playing a newsman for four episodes during the third season of the Netflix series, ‘Stranger Things’. He died of COVID-19.
Honor Blackman (22 August 1925 – 5 April 2020) British actress who made her mark in film history by portraying the redoubtable Pussy Galore in the third James Bond film, 1964’s Goldfinger, after having spent two seasons practicing her judo throws on bad guys in the BBC series, ‘The Avengers’. She co-starred with Christopher Lee and Nastassja Kinsky in 1976’s To the Devil a Daughter, based on the Dennis Wheatley novel.
Lee Fierro (February 13, 1929 – April 5, 2020) American actress who played the mother of the little boy eaten by the shark in Jaws in 1975.
James Drury (April 18, 1934 – April 6, 2020) American actor who spent nine seasons starring in the ninety-minute television western, ‘The Virginian’. Before that, though, he was a crewman on the spaceship C-57D in the 1956 science fiction classic, Forbidden Planet, which was loosely based on Shakespeare’s marginally horrific last play, The Tempest, and did have folks killed by something called ‘the monster from the Id’. So, yes. It counts as horror, at least a little.
Allen Garfield (AKA Allen Goorwitz; November 22, 1939 – April 7, 2020) American actor who specialized in playing officious minor authority figures whose bark was always worse than their bite. Except, of course, when he starred in 1978’s Sketches of a Strangler, in which he put the bite on several actresses in a manual way. He was also in the 1996 remake of the classic French horror film, Diabolique, with Sharon Stone.
Mort Drucker (March 22, 1929 – April 9, 2020) For decades, Hollywood actors only knew they’d finally ‘arrived’ when this Mad Magazine artist and master caricaturist included them in one of his movie or television parodies. Drucker started out doing war comics for DC before signing on with EC, Mad’s publisher, shortly after they shut down their comic book line (see the Russ Cochran entry above) in favor of putting all their eggs in the Mad basket. The first one of his I remember seeing must have been in one of the reprint collections Mad issued a time or two a year. It was the parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, Psycho. To this day, there are frames from that film I see in my mind’s eye, not in cinematic black and white, but in Drucker’s distinctive style as he recreated them for the magazine.
Nobuhiko Obayashi (9 January 1938 – 10 April 2020) Japanese director, House (1977)
Margot Hartman (August 15, 1933 – April 11, 2020) American actress, Curse of the Living Corpse (1964). Janet Leigh should stay out of showers, and poor Margot should stay out of tubs for the same reason. How is a lady supposed to stay clean?
Danny Goldman (October 30, 1939 – April 12, 2020 American actor in 1974’s Young Frankenstein. He was the obnoxious medical student who drove Gene Wilder to stab himself in the thigh with a scalpel.
Joel M. Reed (December 29, 1933 – April 13, 2020) American schlock director of Blood Sucking Freaks (1976) and other exercises in questionable taste.
Brian Dennehy (July 9, 1938 – April 15, 2020) American tough guy actor, who discovered in First Blood that he wasn’t nearly as tough as Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo. He didn’t do much better as the fire chief in 1977’s Ants!
Gene Deitch (August 8, 1924 – April 16, 2020) Czech-American animator on Where the Wild Things Are (1975), and creator of one of my childhood favorite cartoon series, ‘Tom Terrific’, who appeared periodically with his sidekick, Manfred the Wonder Dog, on the Captain Kangaroo show. Ah, the good old days.
Jacques Rosny (25 March 1939 – 18 April 2020) French actor who had a small role in Roman Polanski’s 1976 psychological horror film, The Tenant.
Hector Garrido (1928 – April 19, 2020) American illustrator who painted hundreds of paperback book covers in all genres, including horror.
Shirley Knight (July 5, 1936 – April 22, 2020) Oscar-nominated American actress whose only genre work I know of was an episode of ‘The Outer Limits’ in 1963, co-starring Martin Landau.
John Lafia (April 2, 1957 – April 29, 2020) American director of 1993’s Man’s Best Friend, one of several lethal dog movies from around that period
John Ericson (September 25, 1926 – May 3, 2020) German-American actor, the leading man and personification of the Great God Pan in The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao in 1964, and the German officer whose invading force was driven off of Britain’s shores by empty suits of armor animated by apprentice witch Angela Lansbury in the 1971 Disney live-action feature, Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
Richard Sala (June 2, 1954 – May 7, 2020) American comic book creator on 1995’s The Ghastly Ones and Other Fiendish Frolics from Manic D Press, and IDW’s 2005 Dracula, among others.
Marty Pasko (August 4, 1954 – May 10, 2020) Canadian comic book writer who primarily worked in the super-hero genre for DC and Marvel, but who began his career with a script each for Warren Publication’s Eerie and Vampirella magazines in the early ‘70s.
Jerry Stiller (June 8, 1927 – May 11, 2020) American comedian and actor, father of Ben. He appeared in one episode of ‘Tales from the Darkside’.
Frank Bolle (June 23, 1924 – May 12, 2020) Italian-American comic book artist who, among many other things, illustrated horror stories for Atlas Comics, the precursor to Marvel Comics, in 1956 and 1957.
Fred Willard (September 18, 1933 – May 15, 2020) American comedy actor, perhaps best known for his work in the series of Christopher Guest comedy films of the 1980s and 1990s, beginning with This is Spinal Tap. He did make a memorable appearance as the rascally realtor in the 1979 TV miniseries Salem’s Lot who gets caught with his pants down, both by the cuckolded husband and by vampire Kurt Barlow.
Cindy Butler (October 15, 1955 – May 26, 2020) American actress, The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976) and Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues (1984). Neither one, to paraphrase Dr. Samuel Johnson, worth seeing, and even less worth going to see.
Richard Herd (September 26, 1932 – May 26, 2020) American character actor whose genre career began with 1980’s Schizoid and culminated in a videotaped performance of patriarch Roman Armitage in 2017’s Get Out, with a stop in the ‘Tales from the Crypt’ TV series along the way.
Anthony James (July 22, 1942 – May 26, 2020) Twitchy American actor, sort of the poor-man’s Anthony Perkins, who played the chauffeur in the 1976 classic Burnt Offerings with Bette Davis.
Dan van Husen (30 April 1945 – May 2020) German actor who, among many other minor horror roles, played the warden in 1979’s Nosferatu the Vampyre. If forced to choose between this among his films, or Killer Barbys vs Dracula from 2001, I think you know which way to jump.
Andrée Champagne (July 17, 1939 – June 6, 2020) Canadian actress, Playgirl Killer (1967). Not Canada’s finest hour.
Joanne Lara (June 3, 1952 – June 9, 2020) American actress notable, if that’s the word, for being the title character (‘Maria’) in an episode of ‘Tales of the Unexpected’, and for playing a bit part in It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive.
Joe Johnson (June 25, 1957 – June 10, 2020) American actor, victim of a misapplied power tool in The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
Dennis O’Neil (May 3, 1939 – June 11, 2020) American comic book writer who worked for both Marvel and DC but is best known for his long association with the artist Neal Adams on Green Lantern/Green Arrow and on the various Batman titles, many stories for which he included a supernatural element. ‘The Secret of the Waiting Graves’, the Batman story in Detective Comics 295 from January of 1970 concerns a couple whose time ultimately runs out after several hundred years, for example. O’Neil also worked with artist Steve Ditko on Beware… the Creeper in the 1960s and with Mike W. Kaluta on The Shadow in the early 1970s.
Ian Holm (12 September 1931 – 19 June 2020) Distinguished English actor who, long before he was Bilbo Baggins, played a murderous android in 1979’s Alien.
Philip Latham (17 January 1929 – 20 June 2020) English actor, Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Joel Schumacher (August 29, 1939 – June 22, 2020) American director, notorious for taking the campy surrealism of Tim Burton’s two Batman films and twisting the franchise in his own two sequels into a surrealistic campiness that was a definite step down. Viewers can make up their own minds as to whether he redeemed himself by directing Gerard Butler in the film version of the Phantom of the Opera musical in 2004. This deponent sayeth not.
Joe Sinnott (October 16, 1926 – June 25, 2020) Legendary comic book artist, favored inker over the pencil work of King of the Comics Jack Kirby, and prolific illustrator of 1950s horror tales for the aforementioned Atlas Comics.
Stuart Cornfeld (November 13, 1952 – June 26, 2020) American producer, The Fly (1986)
Taryn Power (September 13, 1953 – June 26, 2020) American actress, daughter of Golden Age of Hollywood megastar Tyrone Power, Junior, and granddaughter of silent movie star Tyrone Power, Senior. She appeared in the Ray Harryhausen classic, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and not much else. This apple did, it seems, fall far from the tree.
James Holloway (d. June 28, 2020) American illustrator for many monster-laden Dungeons & Dragons related publications, including Dragon Magazine.
Johnny Mandel (November 23, 1925 – June 29, 2020) American music producer, orchestrator and conductor, Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)
Dan Hicks (July 19, 1951 – June 30, 2020) American actor, Evil Dead II (1987) and Darkman (1990).
Billy Tang (1951 – 7/2/20) Chinese director, Dial D for Demons (2000)
Yoon Sam-yook (May 25, 1937 – July 2, 2020) Korean screenwriter, Suddenly in the Dark (1981)
Ronald L. Schwary (May 23, 1944 – July 2, 2020) American producer, Meet Joe Black, the 1998 remake of the classic Death Takes a Holiday, previously filmed in 1934 and 1971.
P.H. Aykroyd (February 5, 1922 – July 4, 2020) Canadian father of Ghostbuster Dan Aykroyd, author of “A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Seances, Mediums, Ghosts and Ghostbusters” with Angela Narth
Ennio Morricone (10 November 1928 – 6 July 2020) Italian soundtrack composer, The Thing (1982), as well as numerous gialli. The spaghetti western scores he is most famous for comprise a small percentage of his total, voluminous output. Tell me you didn’t just whistle the opening bars to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Go ahead. Not that I’ll believe you. Wah-WAH-wah…
Charlie Daniels (October 28, 1936 – July 6, 2020) American musician, The Devil Went Down to Georgia. The Devil should have known better than to bet a golden fiddle against the soul of a Saltine-American bluegrass champion. Stupid Devil.
Raymundo Capetillo (1 September 1943 – 12 July 2020) Mexican actor, Bestia Nocturna (1986).
Kelly Preston (October 13, 1962 – July 12, 2020) American actress, Christine (1983).
Sonia Darrin (June 16, 1924 – July 19, 2020) American actress best known for playing the snarky porno dealer in the 1946 Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall film noir classic, The Big Sleep, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler. That was pretty much the pinnacle of her brief career, but she did manage to squeeze in a bit part in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943.
Jacqueline Scott (June 25, 1931 – July 23, 2020) American actress, Macabre (1958).
John Saxon (August 5, 1936 – July 25, 2020) American actor, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). I had no idea he was living maybe twenty miles from me when he passed away. I’m not sure what I would have done had I known, but I’d like to think if I’d run into him at some point, I might’ve asked to shake the hand of a man who had sparred with Bruce Lee. That’s something not a whole lot of folks can say they’ve done.
Dame Olivia de Havilland (July 1, 1916 – July 26, 2020) British actress born in Japan, the woman no less an expert on the topic of feminine pulchritude than Errol Flynn always considered ‘the one that got away’. They made some damn good movies together, starting with 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, far and away the best film version of that legend. Alas, Errol died in 1959, and a few years later Olivia joined the brigade of past-their-prime actresses in the psychological horror film fad of the early 1960s. Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte was the 1964 entry in that sweepstakes, and it’s a doozy, with Bette Davis, Bruce Dern, Mary Astor, Joseph Cotten and Agnes Morehead along for the ride.
Jan Skopeček (19 September 1925 – 27 July 2020) Czech actor, The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (1981)
Gianrico Tedeschi (20 April 1920 – 27 July 2020) Italian actor, Frankenstein: Italian Style (1975) and Dr. Jekyll Likes Them Hot (1979).
Alan Parker (14 February 1944 – 31 July 2020) English director, Angel Heart (1987), starring Mickey Rourke and Robert DeNiro as the Devil, based on the novel by William Hjortsberg.
Wilford Brimley (September 27, 1934 – August 1, 2020) American actor and commercial spokesman, owner of one of the few mustaches more impressive than mine, and one of the poor fools isolated at the top of the world with an interplanetary shapeshifter in 1982’s second version of The Thing. Okay, the 1951 original scared the hell out of me when I was eight and caught it on Night Owl Theater early on a Saturday morning, but I totally get why many folks consider John Carpenter’s remake of John W. Campbell’s 1938 short story ‘Who Goes There?’ to be superior. I don’t agree, but I don’t totally disagree. Either way, Brimley’s performance is suitably creepy, albeit brief.
Daisy Coleman (March 30, 1997 – August 4, 2020) American actress and advocate for her fellow victims of sexual violence, she made Texas Death Trippin’ in 2019 before committing suicide a year later. Regardless of the film’s quality, it’s such a terrible waste of a human life and potential that I find the situation far more horrific than the film could possibly be. People suck.
Ben Cross (16 December 1947 – 18 August 2020) English actor who essayed the role of Barnabas Collins in the revival of the TV classic, Dark Shadows, in 1991. He also appeared in an episode of HBO’s ‘Tales from the Crypt’, and played another vampire in 1989’s Nightlife opposite Maryam d’Abo.
Lori Nelson (August 15, 1933 – August 23, 2020) American actress, Revenge of the Creature (1955). Clint Eastwood has a bit part as a marginally competent lab assistant. Lori gets carried off into the Florida swamps by the escaped Gillman in this first sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon, until she’s rescued by leading man and former Mr. Shirley Temple John Agar. Like the first one, this is also in 3-D.
Joe Ruby (March 30, 1933 – August 26, 2020) American television producer and co-creator of Scooby-Doo. Darn those meddling kids!
Peter Licassi (April 1, 1959 – August 27, 2020) Actor, Killer Clowns from Outer Space (1988)
Sidney Noel Rideau (December 25, 1929 – August 27, 2020) New Orleans TV host of ‘House of Shock’ (Dr. Morgus).
Bob Fujitani (October 15, 1921 – September 6, 2020) American comic book artist of Irish-Japanese ancestry. He illustrated numerous stories in all genres for a variety of publishers in the 1940s, including some horror. He had a long run on the peripherally horrific series, The Hangman. The Hangman appeared in MLJ’s Pep Comics as well as in his own title. MLJ was the original name of the publisher now called Archie Comics, by the way.
Dame Diana Rigg (20 July 1938 – 10 September 2020) British actress who, like Honor Blackman, graduated from female lead of the BBC’s ‘The Avengers’ to Bond Girl status in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969. Unlike Blackman, she got 007 (George Lazenby) to put a ring on it. Too bad arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld machine-gunned her out of the British spy’s life before the wedding night. She went on to play the daughter of crazed Shakespearean actor Vincent Price in 1973’s Theatre of Blood, probably the best specifically Vincent Price movie ever. Partisans of the Dr. Phibes films are free to disagree, but they’re still wrong.
Barbara Jefford (26 July 1930 – 12 September 2020) British actress who manages to get herself garroted in her wheelchair in The Ninth Gate (1999). How rude!
Michael Chapman (November 21, 1935 – September 20, 2020) American cinematographer, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). The second version of the classic Jack Finney story first published in Collier’s Weekly magazine in the 1950s. The tale of how I and two friends saw this film at the old Tennessee Theater in downtown Nashville is the stuff of legend, and if you and I ever run in to one another in a bar or pub somewhere, and you buy me a few drinks, I will tell you all about it. The saga involves a 1956 Chevy, a double-boom wrecker and a multiple Hugo Award winning science fiction author, so I don’t think I’m too out of line in assuming that you’ll be obliged to admit in advance that it’s worth the price of a few drinks to be told. If I’m wrong, I’ll apologize.
Ron Cobb (September 21, 1937 – September 21, 2020) American production designer and concept artist, Alien (1979). And what a great job he did! I’ve got to tell you folks, I saw this film the first night of its release, and I was the only person in the audience who knew about the chest-burster scene. You have not lived until you’ve been in a movie theater with four hundred strangers going absolutely berserk over what’s happening to John Hurt, while you’re sitting back and laughing at the whole bloody thing.
Xavier Loyá (December 31, 1934 – September 22, 2020) Mexican actor, one of the partygoers trapped in the apres-opera drawing room in the Luis Buñuel classic, The Exterminating Angel (1962). He was also in Santo vs the Vampire Women the same year. A very versatile fellow, apparently.
Juliette Gréco (7 February 1927 – 23 September 2020) French actress, Jean Cocteau’s Orphee (1950).
Yūko Takeuchi (April 1, 1980 – September 27, 2020) Japanese actress, Ringu (1998).
Maud Hansson (5 December 1937 – 1 October 2020) The Swedish actress appeared as a witch in the 1957 Ingmar Bergman film, The Seventh Seal.
Armelia McQueen (January 6, 1952 – October 3, 2020) American actress, Ghost (1990).
Henryk Boukolowski (January 11, 1937 – October 4, 2020) Polish actor in the 1972 short film, Beczka Amontillado, based on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, ‘A Cask of Amontillado’. For the love of God, Montressor!
Margaret Nolan (29 October 1943 – 5 October 2020) English actress, went from a bit part in 1964’s Goldfinger with Sean Connery to a bit part in 1968’s Witchfinder General with Vincent Price. Not exactly a step up, but neither was it a step down. Call it a lateral move.
Osvaldo Ruggieri (January 8, 1928 – October 10, 2020) Italian actor, Werewolf Woman (1976).
Rhonda Fleming (8/10/23-10/14/20) Zaftig American actress known as the Queen of Technicolor for how the process loved her red hair, green eyes and fair skin. She made mostly westerns and a few films noir, as well as the first (and best) version of The Spiral Staircase in 1946, based on the novel by Ethel Lina White. She gets her pretty neck wrung by serial killer George Brent well before the denouement. Am I beginning to sense a theme here?
Spencer Davis (17 July 1939 – 19 October 2020) Welsh musician and actor. Way up there, near the top of this list, I mentioned The Ghost Goes Gear. Here it is again. See the previous entry. Davis discovered his lead singer, Steve Winwood, later of Traffic, when the fourteen-year-old was playing jazz in a club in Birmingham, England. The Spencer Davis Group made some very good records. Movies, not so much. Unlike Herman’s Hermits, who made three films, they had the good sense to quit when they weren’t too far behind.
Gianni Dei (21 December 1940 – 19 October 2020) Italian actor, Patrick Still Lives (1980).
Wojciech Pszoniak (2 May 1942 – 19 October 2020) Polish actor, The Devil (1972).
Marge Champion (September 2, 1919 – October 21, 2020) American dancer who, with her husband, Gower, was perpetually prominent in the MGM musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and who modeled for Walt Disney on his feature films, Snow White & the Seven Dwarves (1937), Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940). Not specifically for characters in the scary parts of those pictures, but close enough for inclusion here.
Richard A. Lupoff (February 21, 1935 – October 22, 2020) American speculative fiction author and genre historian. I can’t say that knew Dick Lupoff, although he was a member of a couple of Yahoo groups I belonged to when that was still a thing. We might have commented on the same threads, I don’t recall. I wish I had interacted more with him when I had the chance, for he was a treasure. He was one of the editors and contributors to both All in Color for a Dime and The Comic Book Book, two of the seminal histories of one of the crucial media by which our genre has been disseminated, and both of which volumes included important chapters regarding horror in the comic books. Future columns on horror comics will no doubt contain information gleaned from one or the other of those two volumes.
Jacques Godin (September 14, 1930 – October 26, 2020) Canadian actor, The Pyx (1973) with Karen Black and Christopher Plummer.
Ricardo Blume (August 16, 1933 – October 30, 2020) Peruvian actor, Sobrenatural (All of Them Witches, 1996)
Sean Connery (25 August 1930 – 31 October 2020) Scottish actor. There is a no-doubt apocryphal story that Connery was contacted when Gordon Scott decided to hang up his loincloth and retire as the cinematic Tarzan. Connery had played one of the villains in Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure in 1959, Scott’s penultimate appearance in the series. Sean had done such a good job that he was supposedly asked if he’d be willing to don the loincloth himself. According to legend, he told Tarzan producer Sy Weintraub that he was committed to star in some spy picture, and that once that was finished, he’d consider the offer to play the Lord of the Jungle. As everyone knows, Connery went on to play James Bond another six times after Dr. No, won an Oscar for The Untouchables in 1987 and never got around to playing the apeman. Weintraub was forced to go with the villain from Scott’s last Tarzan picture, Jock Mahoney, as his next jungle lord. The two pictures Mahoney starred in are considered among the best of the Tarzan films. A pity Connery got so tied up with Bond. He might have made something of himself, had he dispensed with the vodka martinis, Aston-Martins and Bond Babes, doffed his tuxedo and run off into the jungle wearing a scrap of deerskin instead. Ah, well. Fortunately for horror fans, he had already appeared in the Disney live-action Halloween staple, Darby O’Gill & the Little People, in 1959, as scary a picture as the Mouse Factory ever produced.
Rachel Caine (April 27, 1962 – November 1, 2020) Author of, among other works, the Morganville Vampire series of young adult novels.
Elsa Raven (September 21, 1929 – November 2, 2020) American actress, The Amityville Horror (1979).
John Fraser (18 March 1931 – 6 November 2020) Scottish actor in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), with Catherine Deneuve.
Ken Jones (d. November 6, 2020) American actor, Phantasm (1979).
Sven Wollter (11 January 1934 – 10 November 2020) Swedish actor, The 13th Warrior (1999).
Philip Voss (20 August 1936 – 13 November 2020) English actor, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974). Voss’s last work was as Mason in the British TV series, ‘Vicious’, with Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Derek Jacoby.
Daria Nicolodi (19 June 1950 – 26 November 2020) Italian actress, Dario Argento’s Profundo Rosso (Deep Red, 1975) and Paganini Horror (1989).
David Prowse (7/1/35-11/28/20) English bodybuilder and actor. Yes, yes we all know about Darth Vader, but everyone eulogizing Prowse seems to have forgotten that he also played the monster in two Hammer films, The Horror of Frankenstein in 1970 and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell in 1974. And in 1980, he was in Nashville for a Star Wars convention I attended. I was standing in the back of one of those big hotel ballrooms, in front of a pair of double doors, listening to Peter Mayhew talk about being Chewbacca. I was twenty-two years old, six-foot-one, 210 solid pounds, young and impressive and in the best shape of my life, with all my teeth and a lot more wavy, blond hair than I possess now. I frequently enjoyed the company of attractive ladies, and they seemed to enjoy my company, as well. I was feeling, in other words, pretty good about myself.
And then, something huge moved into the room behind me. It was like being in the gravity well of a small planet. I turned and looked up and up and up at David Prowse, not in the Vader costume, but a head taller and a twice as wide across the shoulders as me on my best day. I felt very, very small and insignificant, indeed. We smiled and nodded, and then he was gone. I never spoke to him at that convention. I’m not sure I would have been able to.
The weekend was not ruined for me, I’m glad to say. That evening turned out well. Remember those drinks you were going to buy me? Add a few more, and you’ll hear the epic saga of a gold-plated droid, an AMC Hornet, and a crimson crustacean.
Richard Corben (10/1/40-12/2/20) American comic book artist. I first noticed his distinctive air-brushed style in the black and white Warren magazines, Creepy and Eerie, around 1970. His best-known work was probably in the Heavy Metal magazine in the late 1970s, for which he created the perpetually naked, bald and musclebound hero, Den. Den’s origin story was adapted to animated form in the Heavy Metal movie in 1981. He also did a lot of horror genre work for underground publishers Last Gasp and Rip Off Press.
André Gagnon (2 August 1936 – 3 December 2020) Canadian soundtrack composer, Phobia (1980)
Eduardo Galvão (April 19, 1962 – December 7, 2020) Brazilian actor, appeared in one episode of the 2002 television series ‘O Beijo do Vampiro’ (A Vampire’s Kiss).
Barbara Windsor (6 August 1937 – 10 December 2020) English actress, played Jack the Ripper’s second victim Annie Chapman in 1965’s A Study in Terror. The poor lass was well and truly dismembered before Sherlock Holmes (John Neville) could put a stop to Jack’s spree of spontaneous vivisection.
Hanna Stankówna (4 May 1938 – 14 December 2020) Polish stage and screen actress from the lovely city of Posnan, where my wife and I enjoyed a delightful lunch and some damn good beer some years ago. Her only genre role, as far as I can tell given my non-existent ability to decipher titles or plot synopses in her native language, was Lokis. Rekopis profesora Wittembacha (Lokis, the Manuscript of Professor Wittembach), from 1970.
Peter Lamont (12 November 1929 – 18 December 2020) British art director and production designer, Aliens (1986), as well as a slew of James Bond films.
Jiří Hálek (9/10/1930-12/18/2020) Czech actor, The Cremator (1969).
David Giler (January 10, 1943 – December 19, 2020) American film producer & screenwriter, Alien (1979).
Pero Kvrgić (4 March 1927 − 23 December 2020) Croatian actor, Nausikaya (1995).
Guy N. Smith (21 November 1939 – 24 December 2020) Prolific British horror author.
Josefina Echánove (September 29, 1927 or July 21, 1928 – December 29, 2020) Mexican actress, Amityville 3-D (1983).
Corrado Olmi (24 October 1926 – 29 December 2020) Italian actor in the dark comedy The Devil in Love (1966) and in the classic Giallo, The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971).
Dawn Wells (October 18, 1938 – December 30, 2020) American actress. Like most families in the 1960s, we only had one television. While my parents were pretty indulgent as far as allowing my brother and I, and later our sisters, to watch whatever we wanted to, Dad did draw the line a few times. One of those instances was whenever Gilligan’s Island came on. He considered it the dumbest show ever, and objectively, at this considerable temporal remove, it’s only the existence of My Mother, the Car that argues very much against that assessment. So it was that I rarely watched it in first run. However, it ran, and still runs, in syndication, so I caught up with it as I raced into puberty in the early 1970s. And I was Team Ginger, all the way. I never got why anyone would prefer Mary Ann, and still don’t. I didn’t dislike her. As a character, I thought she was fine. As fine as the material allowed, anyhow. She seemed very sweet, and she was pretty in a cornfed sort of way, but for pure prurient interest, it was Ginger for whom I lusted. Oddly, in the case of WKRP in Cincinnati, I’m all about Bailey instead of Jennifer, which is the exact opposite dynamic. Wonder why that is?
Never mind. When Dawn Wells died, yesterday as I write this, from COVID-19, I was shocked and more than a little saddened. She lived in my hometown of Nashville for some years, and lent her support to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, a worthy cause if there ever was one. Ginger is the last surviving castaway, and that makes me feel more than a little old. Dawn’s only forays into horror were a couple of truly wretched B-flicks, The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976) and Return to Boggy Creek (1977). Probably just as well she didn’t make any more, but I’m glad there were enough to include her in this list, even if she never was the object of my desire.
Robert Hossein (30 December 1927 – 31 December 2020) French writer, director and actor, The Wax Mask (AKA Maschera di Cera, 1997)
And there it is. Hopefully, the list I compile at the end of 2021 will be shorter. ‘Twould be a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.
They tell me this is Freaky Foodie Month here at HorrorAddicts.net, so I’ve wandered down into the kitchen area of the basement laboratory and cobbled together a tasty little treat that I hope will satisfy the palate of even the most discriminating connoisseur de frissons. And yes, there will be dessert. I call this offering:
Submitted for Your Approval – A Man with No Upper Lip
Rod Serling got his start as a writer by winning a radio contest, after spending a few years in the Pacific Theater jumping out of airplanes in order to expedite the extermination of Japanese soldiers. He gradually worked his way up to the new medium of television in time for what is considered its Golden Age, a period when every evening brought Great Dramas into the homes of millions of Americans. Serling wrote his fair share of those Great Dramas, including Patterns and Requiem for a Heavyweight. Both were later made into movies and are considered high points of that Golden Age.
This was all heady stuff for a decorated war veteran and one of early television’s cadre of angry young men, but Serling wanted more. He yearned for a vessel into which he could pour his social concerns about censorship, racism, and war, and maybe exorcise the psychological demons left over from his military service. Alas, comfortable and complacent Middle America wasn’t ready to have its collective face shoved into its sins, and so a more allegorical approach was called for.
The Twilight Zone premiered on October 2, 1959. For five years, Serling, along with collaborators Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, created a series of little morality plays couched in the more palatable tropes of science fiction, fantasy, and horror tales. And then, it was gone, cancelled by the suits, only to reappear in the realm of perpetual syndication, where it lives on even today. Sixties television devolved into an endless parade of sitcoms, many of them with a supernatural bent; westerns; shoot-em-up action dramas; variety shows; spoofs of comic books and spy movies; and body counts from the Vietnam War on the evening news.
Like the War, the Sixties slopped over into the next decade. Popular music continued on much as before, not yet sullied by the arrival of disco. The usual array of genres persisted on television. And the news was still just as depressing as ever. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Serling spent the second half of the Sixties much as he had the Fifties, writing dramas for a medium that had turned out to be too small for him. He wrote a successful teleplay about an airline high-jacking, and an adaptation of A Christmas Carol that was as weighted towards modern concerns as the original story was towards the social ills of the Victorian Era. He created a high-brow western series called The Loner that only lasted one season, and lent his distinctive voice and stiff-upper-lip visage to a number of commercials.
At the end of the decade, he came up with a made-for-TV movie superficially similar to his last great success. Night Gallery was an anthology of three spooky stories, more horror-based than Twilight Zone ever was. Serling introduced each tale by revealing a painting inspired by it. Hence, the ‘gallery’ part of the title. The middle section, Eyes, starring Joan Crawford, was directed by Steven Spielberg. It was his first professional media job, and very nearly her last. Her final performance came a few years later in Night Gallery’s spin-off series, The Sixth Sense. More on that, and her, and him later in this space. Stay tuned!
Night Gallery was picked up for regular broadcast in 1971, one of a set of four titles that rotated weekly episodes as part of what was called a wheel series. The other show that survived Four in One’s only season was the fish-out-of-water detective show McCloud, starring Dennis Weaver. McCloud moved over into another wheel series with two other long-running mysteries, Columbo and McMillan and Wife. Night Gallery went into regular production as a weekly program. Win for Serling!
But not quite as much as before. More of the same, but less, I’m afraid. This is not to say that Night Gallery wasn’t a good program; it was. It just wasn’t The Twilight Zone. But then, what was? Not even a major motion picture and a couple of revival series have been able to recapture that particular lightning-bolt-in-a-bottle.
It might have helped had Serling been able to exert more creative control than he was allowed, but that was not to be. Still, Night Gallery is not a series to be brushed aside without due consideration. It adapted some of the great stories in the genre, including works by H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Fritz Leiber, Algernon Blackwood and Robert Bloch, and by Serling’s old pal from Twilight Zone days, Richard Matheson.
Christianna Brand is not a name well-known to horror enthusiasts, I suspect. She was a mystery writer of some renown, but she only wrote enough horror tales to fill one collection, What Dread Hand?, published in 1968. One of the yarns therein, ‘The Sins of the Fathers’, first appeared, as far as I have been able to ascertain, in The Fifth Pan Book of Horror Stories. It was edited by Herbert van Thal four years previously. If you’re not familiar with this delightful series of anthologies, I urge you to haunt whatever used paperback vendors you have available to you and track down as many editions as you can get your talons into. I shall have more to say later on regarding the estimable Mijnheer van Thal, but for now, the dish upon the table is getting cold. And a little, um, congealed.
Sin eating is an old practice found in Wales and those English counties bordering Wales, in which a poor person would be hired for a nominal sum to dine upon bread and ale placed atop the corpse of a recently deceased sinner as it lay in state. The sins of the late reprobate would transfer, through the bread and ale, to the soul of the diner, preventing the lamented one from wandering the Earth as a vengeful spirit. The question remains, what of the sins of the sin eater, both original, and those acquired through gustation? What keeps that worthy in his grave? Therein lies the tale.
‘Sins of the Father’ was one of two stories presented in the second episode of Night Gallery’s second season, airing on February 23, 1972. It starred, among others, Barbara Steele, she of the vast, magnetizing eyes long familiar to horror aficionados from her performances in such classic terror films as Black Sunday, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Ghost. Frequent Oscar nominee and future winner Geraldine Page was along for the bumpy ride, as well, along with soon-to-be John-Boy Walton Richard Thomas, former Batman butler Alan Napier, and Michael Dunn, who had just recently completed a long run as master villain Dr. Miguelito Loveless on the classic spy-western show, The Wild Wild West.
Dunn scours the Welsh countryside on half of his master, who lies three days dead, covered in a feast of lamb and cakes and cheeses. The servant is in search of a sin eater, one who has not already succumbed to the plague and famine ravaging the land. With time running out, he finds his last option too sick with disease and hunger to travel the distance, but that sin eater has a son. The boy absconds with the food without taking on the sins of the dead man, but when he returns home, finds his own father dead. Where are that sin eater’s sins to go, but into the starving mouth of the next one in line?
Not so horrifying in the brief description, perhaps, but like any fine meal, there’s so much more in the presentation. Even better, every name mentioned above has a genre pedigree that dates back, in some cases, into the silent era. Lots of material for future installments.
I did mention dessert, yes? Well, Stanley Ellin is another mystery writer of historical significance who dabbled in the macabre. His first published short story, ‘Specialty of the House’, is one of those that really sticks to the ribs, so to speak. A restaurant that caters to a very particular clientele offers an occasional specialty that only the best customers get to sample, or participate in the preparation thereof. Creepiness is on the menu, served with healthy dollop of frisson on the side.
‘Specialty of the House’ has been reprinted in dozens of periodicals, collections and anthologies since it was first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, in the May, 1948 issue. It was adapted to television during the fifth season of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents show and broadcast on December 13, 1959, and on the revival of that series on March 21, 1987. Robert Morley, whose turn upon the spit in Theatre of Blood also involves food, stars. That classic film deserves its own lengthy consideration, rather than a superficial glossing over here, so more on that later.
The first one is available for viewing here:
In the early Seventies, Vincent Price was among several stars who were part of an attempted revival of old-time radio in the modern era. His BBC program, The Price of Fear, featured an adaptation of the yarn on April 13th, 1974. It can be found on You Tube or in the Internet Archives. Worth seeking out!
So, there it is. Hope you enjoyed my little concoction. Would you like an aperitif? A little libation to wash it all down with? Don’t worry, there will be more coming, perhaps sooner than you think. Stay blood-thirsty, my friends. And, as always –
I would encourage the populace, if possible, to at least take a look at the recent Netflix series, Ratched. It will help if you’re familiar with the 1975 film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the one that took home a slew of Oscars for that year, the one in which the television series’ title character was the villain, but that’s not essential. Ratched is a beautifully mounted, albeit severely flawed work, and worth seeing if only for the sumptuous set design. Indeed, every frame looks like a photograph from a 1947 issue of Architectural Digest or some similar slick magazine of its type. The costumes could be out of Vanity Fair, the automobiles from Road & Track. It is gorgeous in its every visual element and blessed with a slightly languid pace that allows the eye to gorge itself at leisure on all that gorgeosity.
While I have several issues with the writing (cardboard and occasionally inconsistent characters, cliched situations, predictable plot points), I cannot fault the technical prowess of those who designed the visuals, or, indeed, the audio. The incidental music is eerily reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s score from the 1962 film, Cape Fear, as well as Elmer Bernstein’s score for the 1991 remake. One day, I will discuss both film versions of that story in this space, and the music from each, but today I want to talk about the title music from Ratched, for it touches upon one of my passions.
Yes, I am a Baby Boomer, a member of that much maligned, fairly or unfairly, generation that for all its flaws did indeed spawn the best popular music of the past century. And, yes, I grew up a fan of, among others, the Beatles, the band whose massive output of incredible music in the space of less than a decade was not only the ne plus ultra of its time but the sine qua non of all popular music since. But they and the rest of the 1960s artists were not my first musical love.
That would be classical music. Before the Fab Four showed up on the Ed Sullivan Show on that momentous night in February of 1964, I had already begun to sample my father’s record collection. The first piece of music I remember being enraptured by was Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges. I had no idea at the time what that title meant, for although I was able to operate a turntable at that early age, I had not yet learned to read beyond a very superficial level. In fact, I suspect that it was to decipher the tiny print on the back of all those record sleeves that I set about becoming literate so assiduously at such a tender age.
I still love classical music. It occupies a significant portion of my listening time. I don’t know squat about music theory, but I know what I like. And in the years since I discovered the wonders on those ancient LPs, most of which are now in my possession, new discoveries of what I like have regularly occurred with delightful frequency.
I think I must have been about thirteen or fourteen when I first encountered the work of Camille Saint-Saëns, or, rather, a portion of one of his works. A radio station in or near Nashville began to broadcast episodes of the Shadow radio show from the late 1930s, the ones starring Orson Welles. The theme music was eerie and compelling, drawing the listener into the outré adventures of He Who Had the Power to Cloud Men’s Minds. No one I knew could tell me what that strange tune was. Fortunately, this was in the early years of a new cultural phenomenon, nostalgia, and every trip to the bookstore revealed a new volume on some aspect of the cultural ephemera of past decades, including radio. I knew of radio solely as a delivery system for current music, but as my dad told me at the time, it was in his youth the primary source of free entertainment in the home – musical, comedic, dramatic. Frightening.
More on that later. I think it was in a paperback edition of Jim Harmon’s 1967 book, The Great Radio Heroes, that I learned the provenance of that snippet of strange music. It turned out to be the middle section of a symphonic poem by Saint-Saëns, Omphale’s Spinning Wheel. Once I knew that, I began to search for more music by this new composer I’d discovered.
Skip years, indeed, decades ahead, and I’d just settled myself into my favorite spot on the couch to watch the first episode of Ratched. At that moment, my wife of nearly forty years came in, and I surrendered that spot, because when Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. It’s okay. The seat I gave up is slightly off-center to the TV mounted on the wall opposite, and the spot I almost always wind up in has a more straight-on view. Yeah. That’s the ticket.
For some reason, the subtitle function was turned on, which was fine. I watch a lot of films in languages I don’t understand, and I heartily despise dubbing. Nothing ruins the rhythm of a film than the dialogue being out of sync with the actors’ expressions and mouth movements. Give me subtitles, every time. So, I’m used to them, and made no particular effort to turn them off.
No issues with the first episode, although my lovely bride thought it moved a tad slowly. There was no title sequence that time out, the credits rolling at the end. And for just over five minutes, there was no such thing in the second episode.
And then, there was. I immediately recognized the music playing, although the first bit of it had been lopped off. It was Saint-Saëns’ 1874 tone poem Danse Macabre, a piece I play heavily around Halloween, for it is spooky and creepy and laden with dire forebodings.
And then, I noticed the subtitle that popped up as soon as the discordant violin screeched out its first few notes.[haunting classical music playing]
Say, what? Haunting classical music? Haunting classical music?!?!?!? Does no one at Netflix have access to a decent music library? This piece has a name, a title that has been well-known for one hundred and forty-six years. That’s as bad as people calling the tango Al Pacino danced with Gabrielle Anwar in Scent of a Woman ‘the tango from Scent of a Woman’, as if that’s its title. It’s not. It’s called Por Una Cabeza, and it’s by Carlos Gardel, a significant composer of Latin music in the first half of the 20th Century. It’s not quite as bad as pronouncing Porsche as a one-syllable name, but still, come on! Is it all that much trouble to identify a major piece of music by its actual name?
Ahem. Sorry ‘bout that.
Danse Macabre was based on a Late Medieval allegorical theme of death as the one truly universal reality, and its application in a variety of artistic expressions. Paintings, frescoes and woodcuts depicting souls of all financial stations and every societal stratum dancing their ways along to the grave accompanied by decomposing corpses and animated skeletons were all the rage in the waning decades of the Middle Ages, and into the Renaissance.
I know most folks think of the term ‘classical music’ as encompassing all that stuff you had to sit through during school field trips to the local symphony hall, but for the cognoscenti, classical refers to the music of roughly the 18th Century, composed by folks like Mozart and Haydn in an organically structured and sometimes excessively ornamental style that reflected the artistic sensibilities of the concurrent Rococo period in art and architecture. During the preceding century, more-or-less, both art and architecture on one hand and music on the other were done in what was known as Baroque style, which was also overly ornamented but with a somewhat more constrained, almost geometrical structure. Kind of. That’s very much a Reader’s Digest Condensed version of things, but not, I hope, totally off the mark.
The 19th Century in music was dominated by the Romantic period, and Saint-Saëns was very much a Romantic composer. That word does not mean, as applied to the music of its time, what you think it does, just as an opera comique is not necessarily funny. Romantic in relation to the music of composers from Schubert and Beethoven in the early 19th Century to Dvorak and Verdi near the end of the century, and even beyond with Rachmaninoff and Ravel, was intended to produce within the listener a sort of naturalistic evocation of emotions, so that the music inspired more than merely an aesthetic response. It is no accident that the Romantic period in music coincided in its later decades with Impressionism in painting. The intended reaction from the consumer was the same in both areas, an empathic connection with the artist through the medium.
And Danse Macabre did produce an emotional reaction from early critics, indeed. It was not received well at first, as it was considered to be a source of anxiety for those who heard it. As I stated before, I know little about music theory, but I have been given to understand that there are certain key signatures that lend themselves particularly well to certain types of music, and even the emotions those pieces are meant to convey. According to what I have read on the subject, G Minor is one of those keys that tends to invoke dread and angst, and Danse Macabre is in that key. I’m going to go ahead and assume my informant was correct, for it does put the nerves on edge.
Listen to it throughout that title sequence in Ratched, when and if you’re able to watch it, and see if it doesn’t augment the show’s overall feeling of fearful expectation, even more so perhaps than the story warrants. Then, listen to it in its entirety.
Then, please don’t tell me you felt nothing from that – no frisson, as it were. I hope you do. I might just worry about you if not, just a little.
Also, rest assured I won’t leave you hanging regarding all the possibly unfamiliar references above. I will, one of these days, wax poetic on horror as it was used in old time radio programs and operas, comique and otherwise, as well as by other composers, artists, and even architects. I might even explain just what is meant by a ‘slick magazine’, translate the Latin phrases I love tossing around like confetti, and reveal from what major genre work I lifted the neologism ‘gorgeosity’. Stay tuned.
On a regular basis when we were kids, my brother and I were shipped off from Nashville to visit our grandmothers and cousins for a few weeks every summer so our parents could get a well-deserved rest from our shenanigans. Today, I suspect that would be considered child abuse at best, given that we were ferried by either car or train to a small town in Northern Alabama in the days before the pervasive hum and whir of air conditioning could be heard everywhere.
The funny thing is, I don’t remember the heat being all that oppressive. There were lots of electric fans, and open windows, and sleeping in upstairs bedrooms under thin sheets, while the distant sound of a train whistle carried us away with it into slumberland after long discussions about girls and Auburn football and whether or not it were possible to tip one of my uncle’s Black Angus bulls. It’s not, by the way, and given how much at least one of them resented the attempt, it’s a wonder any of us are still alive.
Even better, for the voracious consumer of popular culture that I was even at the tender age of eleven, was that a marvelous new invention did arrive in Athens about 1969, one that would not make it to Nashville for another sixteen years. Nowadays, cable television is almost quaint, but in those halcyon days of three channels, it was a magic carpet ride that carried me for that brief, hot period beyond the Lawrence Welk schmaltz and Mike Douglas talking about God knows what with people you’d never heard of and soap operas that for some reason didn’t feature vampires, and all the other adult programming that pervaded the local airwaves of the tiny town to which we were remanded into durance vile for those few weeks.
I’m exaggerating, of course. We had lots of fun with the cousins, and occasionally with the kids who went to the Baptist and Methodist churches in which our grandmothers were virtually matriarchic figures. But there are times when you just want to turn on the TV, and it was in Athens that I first encountered What Lay Beyond.
Athens is about halfway between Nashville to the north and Birmingham to the south, and twenty miles west of Huntsville, which at the time had, I believe, one television station. If the weather conditions were just right, you could almost pick up a Nashville station and maybe two Birmingham stations, but you couldn’t count on it. Which is exactly why the first rudimentary cable system I encountered was in tiny Athens. Its original purpose was apparently to bring those distant network affiliates (and their commercials) out into the hinterlands.
I have no idea at this late date which of the ten buttons on my grandmother’s cable box I pressed to find the old horror pictures I was already enamored of, but I sure figured it out at the time. A few days into our enforced vacation, I had started missing the daily after-school movie, the Big Show on Channel Five from which I normally got my fix. When I discovered something close enough to it to serve in a pinch, I latched on to it. I remember seeing old-time movie star Jon Hall stomping around in a rubber suit in Monster in the Surf for the first time on whatever channel it was, along with the big-headed BEMs from Invasion of the Saucer Men and a string of pictures that were rather clumsily dubbed into English and with the credits in Spanish.
I had never seen Mexican horror movies before. The Big Show was full of Universal monsters and Hammer horrors and Japanese behemoths stomping model cities flat, but nothing like this new thing I’d found. I don’t recall any specific titles from that summer more than fifty years ago, but I do remember that they were fun, and spooky, and some of them starred masked wrestlers. I was a big fan at that age of the local wrestlers who popped up on TV back home, Jacky Fargo and Tojo Yamamoto and that crowd, so I gleefully absorbed the adventures of Santo and the Blue Devil as they battled a variety of monsters and mad scientists that summer, while my grandmother was off working at the local newspaper where she was the society editor. I’m sure she would have disapproved, had she known.
But isn’t that the best part?
The Mexican horror movies weren’t there on her cable box the next time I visited Athens. It was years before I saw any of them again. It took the internet to bring them back into view, and while I understand the draw those specific films must have had on my eleven year old mind, this much older geezer is looking for something a little more sophisticated. And, just as one should never judge classic North American films by, say, the Bowery Boys, one should look for a higher level of fright-inducing Mexican cinematics with an expectation that one would find it.
I will admit that, despite my early exposure to Mexican films, I am not yet as conversant with the national oeuvre as I am with, say, French or Japanese filmmaking. I suppose it does take a while to get all the way around the world and back close to home again in exploring world cinema, even with the wonders available online. I am of course familiar with the great films made by Spanish ex-patriot Luis Buñuel during his time in Mexico from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. The Exterminating Angel is the closest I can think of to Buñuel having made a genre film, but I’m not really sure it can be classified as a horror film. I might take a gander at it in this space down the road, anyhow, but for now, let’s look, as we would pretty much have to in regards to North American horror films, at the middle range of overall cinematic quality.
And there it is that we find a number of quite good Mexican horror films in the early 1960s, on a level with anything being done in the genre by Hollywood filmmakers such as Roger Corman or William Castle, if not, in some cases, better. (Notice how nimbly I wriggled out of including Psycho in that category? Hitchcock was a director on a par with Buñuel, and like the Spaniard, not really a horror director, per se, no matter how he might have dabbled in its pleasures.)
I will speak in future of Messers Corman and Castle. For now, let’s speak of la Llorona.
The Weeping Woman, in English. An old Mexican folktale about an abandoned mother who avenges the betrayal of her unfaithful husband/lover by murdering their children. She regrets her act when denied entry into Heaven, and is fated to roam the Earth in search of her dead children. Since they are beyond her reach, she seeks to replace them with the children of other mothers, with dire results all around. It’s one of those cautionary tales meant to keep the younguns of Mesoamerica in line. I have no data as to how well it works. What I do have is some Mexican-made films I want to have us all take a look at.
I’m not in this instance concerned with the numerous recent North American and Mesoamerican cinematic examinations, of varying quality, of the ancient legend. And by recent, I should point out that I mean anything since about 1980. When you get to my age, that’s when the cut-off date between old and new falls. Hell, I’m so old, cougars are barely legal.
Can I get a rimshot? No? Oh, well. Never mind.
I want to examine in this space three of the earliest films that were constructed around this legend – 1933’s La Llorona, 1960’s La Llorona, and 1963’s The Curse of the Crying Woman. There is one from 1947 I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy of yet, La Herencia de la Llorona, but I hope to correct that oversight in the very near future. I expect I’ll address that one in a coda to a future column if you would all be so kind as to be patient with an auld phart.
The first la Llorona film, indeed the first Mexican horror film, was directed by Ramón Peón, one of roughly seventy films he made over a long career. La Llorona is not a bad film, but production-wise, about on a par with one of the better Hollywood Poverty Row studio films of its period. Some of this impression could be a simple lack of a good, restored copy, given that I’ve only been able to find a rather fuzzy presentation on YouTube, along with poorly synced subtitles to match. Maybe. The running time, like many of the la Llorona films of all periods, is taken up with an extensive flashback of the original legend as it unfolded in the late 16th Century. There is a second flashback to an even earlier, similar legend, that of la Malinche. She was the Aztec translator for and lover of Hernando Cortez, who also responded to being treated shabbily by killing the children she had borne the Conquistador almost a century before la Llorona began to weep. I’m not sure that segment adds to the overall quality of the film, but it does have some interest as a historical artifact. None of the other pictures I looked at for this column featured that older tale.
I think I might have just noticed a few eyes glaze over there a moment ago when I mentioned Poverty Row. My wife has been complaining for forty years now that I tend to throw out terms without always explaining them. I promise I will take a long, loving, terrified look at the old Hollywood studio system in the not-too-distant future, including what that phrase meant in the history of our genre. For now, you only need to know that Poverty Row was the collective noun for small, cheaply run and often fly-by-night independent studios mostly clustered along Gower Street in Hollywood that produced, at best, grade B movies. Westerns, serials, gangster pictures, and low-grade but often quite enjoyable horror pictures poured out of these movie mills, some shot in a matter of days on budgets that wouldn’t pay for a good used car today.
Moving on. That first La Llorona film has placed around the two flashbacks a contemporary story involving descendants of the original family, and the peril to the newest member, Juanito, on his fourth birthday. According to a legend related by the mother’s father, every first-born child in that line of descent disappeared on their fourth birthday, carried away by la Llorona. A mysterious, cloaked and masked figure lurks around the set, peering through secret panels and other such conventions of the Old Dark House sub-genre. It has comic relief, red herrings and all the trappings of better, and worse films. The climax reveals – Spoiler alert! – that it has been a trusted servant that has been possessed by the evil spirit of la Llorona. It had been she who was behind the several thwarted attempts to make away with the little boy.
As I stated above, not bad. Competently acted and directed, with a brisk but not rushed pace, it’s an enjoyable film of its period, with all the technical limitations inherent to that era. I just wish I could have found better subtitles, as my Spanish is not much better than at a ‘decipher-the-menu’ level. I suspect if I had been able to, I’d rate this one at C+. As it is, it’s a solid C.
The identically named version from 1960 is, structurally, very similar to the first film, but technically on a much higher level. I could easily see this coming from a North American studio of the caliber of Columbia or a second-tier Universal unit in that same time period. In fact, it reminds me, stylistically and technically, of one of the better William Castle vehicles, without the distracting gimmicks. A solid, well-made film, very enjoyable. I liked that the identity of la Llorona is made clear during her repeated attempts to do away with the child in this version. The build up of suspense for every attempt is handled with stylistic flair and subtle, gradual make-up effects at least as good as a contemporary Hollywood picture of its kind and time. B+
That leaves us with what is perhaps the most problematic of the films under consideration, The Curse of the Crying Woman, AKA La Maldición de la Llorona. Problematic in that it doesn’t exactly fit thematically with the others, being closer in tone and storyline to one of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. Still, it’s quite an attractively mounted film, albeit in black-&-white rather than the color productions Corman was making by 1963. Otherwise, the influence is obvious. Its historical setting, in this case, the mid-to-late 19th Century, the mise en scene, the acting, are all seemingly in keeping with the style Corman had established north of the Rio Grande. And yet, its departures from the basic legend make it hard to judge as a la Llorona film.
Oh, boy, I did it again, didn’t I? Mise en scene is, simply put, everything in a film or play that isn’t acting or dialogue. Costumes, set design, props, lighting, music, etc. Clear as mud? Moving on.
This time out, the spirit of la Llorona is lurking around an ancient house, waiting to displace the soul of her nearest available female descendant. At the exact moment of her twenty-fifth birthday, the latest in the line is fated to pull a spear out of what looks like a Medieval torture device known as a Catherine Wheel upon which the decayed corpse of the original la Llorona has been pinned since she was executed for her crimes. That will free the spirit of la Llorona to possess the young woman so she can carry on her demonic career. The somewhat convenient escape of the insane former owner of the crumbling house, up until the climax locked away in the bell tower, scotches the evil plans by strangling the villainous aunt so that the heroine can escape with her less-than-hypercompetent husband.
Good, solid filmmaking of its kind and era. I rate it a B.
I hope the populace doesn’t object to my comparing these efforts of the Mexican studios to the contemporary output of Hollywood. I’m making the perhaps unwarranted assumption that the majority of the folks likely to read this are more familiar with North American horror films, and that that familiarity might provide some context for fitting these three pictures into the overall history of the genre. If I’m incorrect, feel free to let me have it with both barrels in your comments. I’m a tough old codger. I can take it.
So, read the edges of maps in the Age of Discovery, that period when Europeans wandered around the planet, snatching up lands and property and natural resources from indigenous peoples, to designate those areas into which they had not yet ventured. They feared what was there, but coveted the treasures they suspected would be found in those unexplored and unexploited regions. That’s where the monsters were, they thought, never realizing that they themselves were the monsters.
Isn’t that how it goes? The peril in staring so long into the abyss, according to Nietzsche, is that the abyss stares back into us. We become what we fear if we’re not careful. Alas, we are not very often a careful species. As Pogo Possum pointed out in the 1950s, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
And so, off the edge of the map, we sail, in search of treasures. And, in the case of the horror genre, monsters. For what would horror be without monsters?
The easy answer is, it would be suspense. There’s nothing wrong with suspense, as a genre. In many of its respects, it is very much like horror. It relies on many of the same tropes and tricks as horror. It’s just not what we’re are gathered here together to talk about. And, therefore, we must needs talk about monsters.
We love them, we hate them. We fear them, we pity them. We jump when they suddenly appear, we weep when they fall off of the Empire State Building. They are the primary and most reliable delivery system for le frisson, that delicious shiver we’re all looking for in our horror diet. That transient, delightful, cathartic physical sensation we feel when fangs pierce flesh when the mask is ripped away from the Phantom’s hideous face when clawed fingers emerge from the darkened room on the other side of the slowly opening door. The goosebumps, the dilation of the pupils, the quickening of the breath as we eagerly and, let’s admit it, sadistically anticipate the gruesome demise of some unfortunate nonentity.
Who’s the monster now?
More importantly, what is a monster?
The word comes from the Latin monstrum, from an earlier word that meant a warning or omen, often of evil events raining down upon humanity from the gods themselves. As applied to the manifestations of those warnings, it refers to beings that are disfigured or distorted in body or mind, the unnatural and the supernatural, those that are both outsized and outside the norm in other ways. In other words, those that we readily identify in our own culture as monsters.
Fritz Leiber, Jr. is more renowned for his fantasy than for his horror, having coined the term ‘sword and sorcery’ in 1961 and being arguably its most adept practitioner over the bulk of his nearly sixty-year career, but he wrote quite a few tales of terror and one major novel in the genre, Conjure Wife. He also won five Hugo Awards for science-fiction, but that’s even more neither here nor there than the fantasy. It’s horror we’re after! And I do plan to cover the estimable Mr. Leiber and his novel in more detail later, so don’t worry that you’ve inadvertently skipped a page or something, or that I’ve gotten you turned around or otherwise lost in the narrative. All shall be revealed at a later date.
Anyhow, in 1974, DAW Books published The Book of Fritz Leiber, for which he wrote a short essay entitled, “Monsters and Monster-Lovers”. Over the course of thirteen pages – and how fitting is that? – Leiber explicated his understanding of what a monster is, whence comes our fascination with them, and how does one go about most effectively creating them and using them to summon that frisson I mentioned earlier. Along the way, he lists some of his favorites, all of whom I intend to expound upon in future entries herein. Lovecraftian menaces from the outer darknesses, creatures of folklore and science fiction, giant apes and shapeshifters and even poor old Richard III, all will have their say in this space. Feeling that shiver of anticipation yet?
No? Then let me introduce you to legendary anthologist Peter Haining, who included in his 1988 collection, Movie Monsters: Great Horror Film Stories, a prologue by the late great Ray Bradbury. In “Inviting Frankenstein into the Parlour”, Bradbury covered much of the same ground Leiber had fourteen years earlier, with some additions. Including Vertigo, of all things. He made a fairly good case for a third Hitchcock horror film, along with Psycho and The Birds. I expect I’ll take a look at that one of these days, as well. It’s too soon to mark your calendars, but don’t be surprised when it pops up.
Haining himself deserves a lengthy entry or two, along with other great gatherers of literary horrors like Richard Dalby, Donald A. Wollheim, August Derleth, Marvin Kaye, Christine Bernard, Dennis Wheatley, Gerald Page, Herbert Van Thal, and Charles Birkin. That and more will be forthcoming in times to come, along with so much more. But for now, the central question remains:
Why monsters? What is it about the disfigured, the deformed, the gigantic and the unnatural that draws us into their world, time and again? Is it some deep-seated need to exorcise our fears, or tap into the collective unconscious, or connect with the like-minded, or some other intense but subcutaneous psychological need?
Or is it simply that monsters are fun?
Yeah. I think that’s it. Don’t you?
I came along at the tail-end of that first generation to be inundated by the classic horror films of the 1930s and 1940s when Universal and other studios realized they had a gold mine and dumped their catalogs onto local television stations all over the United States. I was too young to stay up late on weekend nights to watch Shock Theater or whatever it was called in Nashville, but there were frequent appearance by Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man and their myriad fellow denizens of the night on our local stations during the hours when I was awake. I, like a few million other boomer kids, scheduled my playtime around movie presentations like the Big Show, which came on right after Dark Shadows and had at least one classic horror film a week. Or I’d crawl out of bed at five o’clock on a Saturday morning to catch Son of Frankenstein or The Mummy’s Curse on Night Owl Theater, before settling in with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch and a morning filled with cartoons. The Universal horror films were rarely much more than an hour in length, so once commercials were spliced in, they fit very nicely into the ninety-minute slot allotted to them. I’ve always suspected that was why it was that horror movies were so widely distributed on television, and thus one of the first entire classes of films largely preserved for future generations. Thank the Elder Gods for ninety-minute time slots.
Kids today are accustomed to massive promotional campaigns for pretty much anything that shows up on TV or in the movies, but that was a fairly new phenomenon in the early 1960s. There had been such campaigns in the 1950s for TV cowboys and such, but they were very specific. Hopalong Cassidy was the first, and Davy Crockett the most extensive, but those were before my time. My earliest memories of advertising premiums were the action figures from the third James Bond film, Goldfinger, that several of my fellow second-graders had, or the lunch-boxes decorated with pictures of popular TV and movie characters. Those, and all the monster stuff. And what monster stuff we had!
My parents frequently shopped at the old Sears store on Lafayette Street in Nashville. That building is now the Union Rescue Mission, but when I was a kid, when you came in through the garden department, you emerged into a magical world. Toys as far as you could see, and to your right a display of Matchbox Cars, back when they were actually packaged in matchbox-sized cardboard containers. Hence the name. Just beyond those was the real treasure trove, a long wall filled with plastic models, including the Aurora Monster kits. Frankenstein. The Mummy. Godzilla. Dracula’s Dragster. The Bride of Frankenstein. I built them all, at one time or another. There were monster wallets, too. I had one with the Phantom of the Opera on one side and the Wolf Man on the other. Didn’t have any money to put in it, though. My allowance was fifty cents a week, which barely covered a few comic books and some baseball cards and the occasional paperback or Whitman hardback or Big Little Book. But I had the wallet! And I had a Thingmaker, with metal molds you filled up with Plastigoop and baked in the little oven until Creepy Crawlers emerged that you could throw at your little sister and freak her out.
Best of all, when you could find one, were the issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. Articles on all the old horror films, and news of upcoming ones, with lots of pictures and groan-inducing puns. The thirty-five-cent cover price took up most of my allowance, cutting into my comic book collecting, but it was worth it to read Forrest J. Ackerman’s deathless prose about Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre and peruse the ads in the back for Don Post monster masks and 8mm films of old horror movies and real-life venus flytraps and record albums of scary stories and all the other goodies for sale to those whose allowance was more generous than mine.
All of which I intend to examine in some detail in installments yet to come, along with all the other spooky goodies I’ve read and seen and heard and otherwise accumulated in the decades since then. Hang around and travel down my memory lane with me into dark corners of horror you might not have ever suspected existed, and meet some monsters you might not have encountered yet.
It should be fun. Because, yeah, monsters are fun.