Historian of Horror : Magus of the Magazines

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?

Charlotte Brontë 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.

Any volunteers?

 

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…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : Sutch a Bother

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.

And so, until next time…

Be afraid.

Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : Monsters to Marvel At!

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.

And as always, my darling demoniacs…

Be afraid.

Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : Down to the Sea in Ships

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…

Be afraid.

Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : Herr Sandmann, bringt mir ein Traum

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…

Be afraid.

Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : Republic Robots Running Rampant!

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…

Be afraid…

Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : It Ain’t Heavy, it’s My Metal

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 Metal was 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…

Be afraid…

Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : Frankie Goes to Horrorweird

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…

Be afraid…

Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : Max and the 8th Wonder

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. King Kong 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

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

 

Historian of Horror : The Foggiest Notion

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.

Ouch!

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 Vampira Birago 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.

Until we meet again, dear fiends…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : They Get the Funniest Looks from All the Fiends They Meet!

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,

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror: The Subject Was Bridges

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.

Groundbreaking, indeed.

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…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : It’s Just a Game

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…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : The Price of Fame is, Apparently, Seven Bucks

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 Internet Archives. 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.

Until then, fellow x-plorers of the x-treme…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : The Perils of Real Estate


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.

And British actress Veronica Carlson, 77, who starred in three Hammer films (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), and The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), shuffled off this mortal coil on February 27th.

On a happier note, here is some surf-guitar/spaghetti-western/zombie-apocalypse goodness courtesy of The Metrolites, “Gunfight at the Zombie Mineshaft”. Enjoy!

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. 

Until then, watchers in wariness…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : The Prehistory of the Horror Comic Book; or, Ten Cents a Scare

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 as Classics 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.

But they were the first to envision the future of horror comic books. Before Tales from the Crypt, before House of Mystery, before Strange Tales, before This Magazine is Haunted or Ghostly Tales from the Haunted House or Creepy or Chilling Adventures in Sorcery, Avon established the format for so much to come. 

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…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : Boo-La-LA!

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, le frisson, 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…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : Unnatural and Unkind


Oft have I digged up dead men from their graves 

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.

Anyhow. 

Until next time, my fellow tourists in the tombs…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror: The Last Karloff Picture Show


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.

The other one, well, has not. The less said about The Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women the better. 

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…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror: Third Time is Definitely NOT the Charm

Third Time is Definitely NOT the Charm

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.

Oh well. Until next time, then…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.