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 : This Property is Condemned

 

DC Comics seemed to have an affinity for naming comic books after spooky houses. Other publishers had Vaults (…of Horror, … of Evil) or Chambers (… of Chills, … of Darkness), but the House that Superman Built would settle for nothing less than entire structures for their ghosts to live in.

To be fair, St. John did have a House of Terror. But that was a 1953 one-shot that reprinted older horror tales in 3-D format, and one house a neighborhood doth not make.

DC, on the other hand, had an entire subdivision of eerie edifices. Apart from the domiciles, I referenced in an earlier column, there was a House of Mystery, a House of Secrets, and a Ghost Castle, not to mention Secrets of Haunted House. They also had a Doorway to Nightmare, for readers not yet ready to commit to full home ownership.

House of Mystery was first, debuting as a typical horror comic of its day at the end of 1951. That was a few years before the institution of the Comics Code, so the occasional werewolf or vampire was allowed in its first thirty-five issues. Not that there were many, given that DC was less inclined to such sensationalism than other publishers. Even before the Code, the DC horror titles were rather tame. House of Mystery ran for 321 issues until October 1983, although it spent a few years showcasing superhero features (“Martian Manhunter” and “Dial H for Hero”) rather than spooks and specters. It did feature a vampire series in its later years after the Comics Code was revised to allow such beings.

House of Secrets was more faithful to its horror roots for its run from 1956 to 1978, with a three-year gap from 1966 to 1969. It was not consistently an anthology title, playing host to a few continuing characters, but not superheroic ones like its sister magazine. Eclipso wasn’t really a hero, super or otherwise, and did have a supernatural origin that was revealed years later. His adventures occupied twenty issues of the title, mostly drawn by Alex Toth or Jack Sparling. Mark Merlin, usually illustrated by Mort Meskin, was an occult detective who appeared regularly for six years before being shuffled into an alternate dimension and replaced by Prince Ra-Man, AKA Mind Master. Both features ended with the hiatus.

When the title returned with issue #81, it was all horror, all the time, and the house was virtually a character in the comic book. A similar transformation had occurred over at House of Mystery about the same time. That house was provided with a caretaker by the name of Cain, who introduced the stories, none of which had continuing characters or superheroes.

The new House of Secrets was watched over by Cain’s nebbish brother, Abel, who had an imaginary friend named Goldie. The house frequently tried to rid itself of him by having the resident suits of armor drop their weapons on him, or floors collapse, or other such inconveniences. Covers were frequently by Neal Adams, one of the most talented and influential artists in the industry, during the early years of this incarnation. One exception was issue #92, painted by Bernie Wrightson. It introduced the muck monster, Swamp Thing. I’ve mentioned that one before, so we need not dwell on it here.

Other frequent artists included Bill Draut, Alex Toth, George Tuska, and Jack Sparling, all of whom possessed distinctive styles. As the years passed, the art became rather derivative and bland, as did the stories. I pretty much lost track of the title by mid-decade. Too many more interesting things were happening in comics in the 1970s, some of which I will address in this space in the future.

Cain and Abel did appear together in other venues. They co-hosted the humor title, Plop! and occasionally dropped in on the trio of witches who hosted The Witching Hour comic book. Eventually, House of Secrets and The Witching Hour were absorbed into another magazine, The Unexpected, and the era of DC horror comics began petering out. 

But not permanently. In 1996, House of Secrets was revived for a two-year run under DC’s Vertigo imprint. The house was a mobile venue for judgment upon mortal sinners, who were tried for their evil ways by a jury of ghosts. No Cain, no Abel. That incarnation lasted twenty-five issues and a couple of specials, and that was it for the House of Secrets.

Oh, well. All things must pass.

Let’s meet again in fourteen days to have a listen to the first great movie score, composed for one of the first great horror films of the sound era. It’s sure to be a fun time of truly gargantuan dimensions. Until then, devourers of the demonic…

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 : 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 Leg Bone’s Connected to the… Chandelier? 

I have written before in this space about being in some faraway place for what is likely to be the only time in your life and later finding out that you missed seeing something you would really have liked to have seen. Given the insane number of cool things in the world, that’s almost a given. It’s just about impossible to squeeze everything in, no matter where you go. It happened to me at least once more on that same 2011 trip through Eastern Europe during which I did not see Bela Lugosi’s bust.

It was early June in the Czech Republic, as it was still called in those days. Our Mercedes-Benz bus had left Brno behind after lunch and we motorvated towards the absolutely gorgeous city of Prague. As we neared the capital, we passed south of the town of Kutná Hora. Located in a suburb of that city is the Sedlec Ossuary, in which the bones of between 40,000 and 70,000 human beings have been repurposed as decorations and furnishings for a chapel under Hřbitovní Kostel Všech Svatých, the Cemetery Church of All Saints, in the former Sedlec Abbey.

As much as I would have liked to make that detour, we were well into the second week of our journey and ready for our last major stop. From Prague, we had only to drive back to Frankfurt-am-Main, with a lunch stop at Rothenberg, before heading home. There were forty-some of us on that bus including the driver and guide, and we were all in agreement that it was getting close to being time to break up the band. It had been fun, especially with so many Australians aboard, but we all longed for home and hearth.

Besides, we had spent an afternoon just a few days before exploring the Kaisergruft in Vienna, the crypt beneath a Cistercian monastery in which the remains of almost four hundred years worth of Austro-Hungarian royalty had been interred. That had been just about enough death, I suspect, for most of my traveling companions. Another dose might have proven fatal to what was left of our congenial fellowship. 

And thus it was that we skipped the Sedlec Ossuary for a cruise on the Vltava River, a tour of St. Vitus Cathedral, and a walk across the Charles Bridge instead, as well as good food, great beer, and a fountain in the form of two men urinating at one another. Google search that on your own time. Warning: NSFW!

So, we ate, and we drank, and we were merry, and then we scattered to the four corners of the Earth and basked in the warmth of our memories, which did not, alas, include the Ossuary. I would like to direct your attention to a short film on YouTube that describes what we missed better than I possibly could. It’s only about ten minutes long, and in Czech, but it does have English subtitles. I recommend it highly.

There is a statue about halfway across the Charles Bridge that, when touched, is supposed to bring its molester back to Prague within a year. It didn’t work for me, but I do hope to return to that wonderful city someday and take that short trip to Kutná Hora as long as I’m in the neighborhood. I hope you can, too. Maybe we’ll meet in the Old Town Square in view of the Church of St. Mary before Tyn afterward, and talk about bones over a bottle of Becherovka. 

Wouldn’t that be nice?

I will expound more fully on the Kaisergruft in a future column, by the way, as well as some of the other places I have visited wherein the deceased have found their perpetual rest. Something to look forward to, n’est pas? Do stay tuned.

Our lagniappe is the opening salvo from a collection I cannot recommend to the populace too highly, The 99 Darkest Pieces of Classical Music. While I don’t necessarily agree with all the selections being particularly dark, and certainly find a few of their omissions surprising, it is a good place to start for the budding aficionado of spooky classical music. For your cultural edification, I, therefore, present Franz Liszt’s Totentanz (Dance of Death). Enjoy!

In our next episode, we’ll be taking a look at a variety of games available to kids of my antiquated generation, pastimes designed to circumvent that veil that separates we mere mortals from the spirit world, as well as from future events. For, as Criswell pointed out in Plan 9 from Outer Space, the future is where you and I will be spending the rest of our lives! Join us for some spooky playtime.

And, as always, ye yearners after yeti…

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.

Historian of Horror : Riverdale’s Resident Sorceress

Once upon a time, Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit, and John L. Goldwater decided to get into the nascent comic book publishing business. Using their first initials, they started MLJ Magazines, Inc. Their first title, Blue Ribbon Comics, hit the stands in September 1939. A couple of months later, Pep Comics premiered, featuring the first patriotic American super-hero, the Shield. And so on. 

MLJ put-putted along, never becoming a major player in the growing super-hero market, never challenging any of the Big Three of the time, DC, Fawcett and Quality, for supremacy. Their heroes were all second-banana types, not making much impact outside of their very narrow lane other than a brief, regional radio show based on the Black Hood. Until 1941, that is.

The twenty-second issue of Pep (December 1941) introduced a buck-toothed, red-headed teenager named Archie Andrews, along with his fellow adolescent attendees of Riverdale High School; Betty Cooper and Jughead Jones. Nothing exceptional, on the surface, but for some reason, Archie clicked with a public that had so far not paid much attention to MLJ’s product. By 1946, the company was renamed Archie Comics, and the super-hero line was abandoned in favor of the adventures of Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica Lodge, Reggie Mantle, and the rest.

This is not their story, however. Fast forward to those halcyon days of the early 1960s, when the supernatural was infiltrating the culture like never before. We’ve talked about this in past columns. Monsters and ghosts, and witches, were everywhere. Not even the stable, steady, reliable and, to be honest, tediously repetitive world of Archie Andrews was immune. 

Okay, I’ll admit to not being much of a fan of Archie and his world in my early days of reading comic books. The stories seemed to be a lot of variations of the same themes – Betty and Veronica fought over Archie, Reggie tried to sabotage Archie’s efforts to date one or the other of the girls who, inexplicably, adored him, and Jughead avoided girls altogether in favor of hamburgers. I did dip into the publisher’s brief effort to revive their super-heroes from the 1940s under the secondary imprint of Radio Comics, but I had already discovered DC and Marvel by then. Superman and Spider-Man got my twelve cents, not Fly Man or the Shield.

Anyhow, Archie Andrews. Repetitive his adventures might have been, but his world had spawned dozens of titles by 1962. One, Archie’s Madhouse, contained more jokes and games than anything resembling a story. Still, Archie and crew dominated the title for the first dozen issues. Beginning with the thirteenth issue (July 1961), however, monstrous beings slowly edged the Riverdale gang out of the title. Archie and the rest made token appearances on the covers and in the interior features, but the seventeenth issue (February 1962) didn’t even accord them that courtesy. 

And so it went until issue #22, cover-dated October 1962. Instead of the usual Frankenstein, Dracula, and Wolf Man variations, the first story introduced a beautiful blonde teenaged witch named Sabrina, her cat/familiar Salem, and head witch Della. No last names, yet. The story, such as it was, laid down the rules of witchcraft; basically, the inability of witches to sink in water or fall in love. 

Subsequent stories were pretty much about Sabrina’s efforts to get around the not-falling-in-love rule, her habit of misdirecting love potions or being forced by her superior witches to sabotage her high school’s sporting events. Which was not, by the way, Riverdale. She attended Baxter High School in those years. In fact, she had no interactions with Archie and his gang at all until she joined the Saturday morning cartoon show, The Archie Comedy Hour, in 1969. She had acquired a boyfriend, Harvey, by then, and her two supervising witch aunts had been identified as Hilda and Zelda. Still no last name.

Pseudo-band The Archies were the stars of the cartoon show. They had a number one hit in the United States, a Monkees reject called Sugar, Sugar. The band was in reality a group of sessions musicians assembled for the purpose of recording bubblegum songs for the show, some of which were disseminated on the backs of cereal boxes. I had a few of those. Concurrently, Sabrina was finally integrated into the comic book world of Riverdale, starting with an appearance in Archie’s T.V. Laugh-Out #1. She got her own cartoon show in 1970, and a year later her own comic book title which ran for seventy-seven issues, until 1983. An elementary school version of her also ran in Little Archie from issue #59, cover-dated May 1970.

In 1972, Sabina was recruited to be the hostess of a horror anthology titled, Chilling Adventures in Sorcery, as Told by Sabrina. That only lasted two issues, then it carried on without her under a new title, a new imprint, Red Circle Comics Group, and a new artist, Gray Morrow. Red Circle lasted as long as the comic did, nine issues altogether. Everything was Archie after that, as Sabrina popped up in a variety of the company’s titles through the 1980s and into the 1990s, including annual Christmas Magic issues.

Sabrina and her aunts finally got a last name, Spellman, in 1996, in a television movie and subsequent series that ran for four seasons on ABC and an additional three on the WB. Another couple of animated series and a pair of sequels to the movie followed. More comic book titles also came and went over the years, including a manga-inspired series. 

The whole world of Archie was rebooted in 2015 into a more adult version, called New Riverdale in the comics, and two years later on television as simply Riverdale. Sabrina appeared in the comics from the beginning, but only recently dropped in on the television show after three years in her own in the separate series, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

So, there you have it. Next time, we matriculate to university to take a look at the classic novel of witchcraft on campus, Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, and the three films based on it. Hope you’ll join me in two weeks for that. In the meantime, here’s a little lagniappe – a tasty treat from my favorite early 80s cheesy girl band, Toto Coelo. Enjoy.

Until next time, my loyal pundits of the peculiar…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror: They Really are a Scree-um…

It was the spring of 1969. I was in fifth grade, and the school I attended was having some sort of carnival. There were games with cheap trinkets for prizes, a cakewalk, and a rummage sale. That’s where I found it – the 1965 novelization of The Addams Family television show, written by Jack Sharkey. I think they were asking a nickel for it. I grabbed it up, of course. I’d been a devoted fan of the show during its initial run from September 18, 1964, to April 8, 1966, because, well, of course, I was. 

That’s more than can be said of the creator of the characters and their milieu. Charles Addams thought the creepy old Second Empire house in which the Addamses resided wasn’t creepy enough. It was too clean, too well-maintained. Lurch was simply too good a butler, apparently.

As well, Gomez and Morticia and family were, in Charlie’s considered opinion, much too nice. In the single panel cartoons he’d been creating for The New Yorker since the late thirties, his creatures were most definitely not at all nice in any recognizable sense of the word. They were mean-spirited, malicious, and gleefully vicious. Moreover, their house was supposed to resemble nothing so much as a crumbling wreck, and Lurch ought to be closer to Frankenstein’s Monster than to Mr. Belvedere. The family from the television show impressed him as being more Ozzie and Harriet than Sawney Bean. Quick, go ask your grandparents who Ozzie and Harriet were. We’ll wait. Sawney Bean you’ll probably have to Google. At least until I get around to scribing one of these essays on that particular family’s nefarious misdeeds. 

All that didn’t stop Charlie from cashing the checks he got from ABC, but he didn’t exactly go out of his way to give the impression that he was sorry that the program only lasted for those sixty-four episodes. I, of course, was, but there is a resilience at that age that I envy in my declining years. Not even in concert with the nearly concurrent cancellation of The Munsters was I as devastated as I now, in retrospect, think I ought to have been. There were, to be sure, still a fair number of other psychotronic shows on American television in those days, and no reason to think that the regular broadcast of supernatural-spooky-adventure-packed programming would end.

But it did. By the time I acquired Sharkey’s book, the TV landscape was shifting towards serious detective and spy dramas, non-confrontational counter-culture humor variety shows, and news programming in prime time. Get Smart was out, Mission: Impossible was in. The much-too-edgy-for-the-CBS-censors Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was out, the funny but never really controversial Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was in. The Addams Family was out, and 60 Minutes was in.

At least we still had The Beatles. Wait, what?!?!?!?

Oh, well.

As I mentioned in the last installment, John Astin selected Gomez as the name of the character he would play, the half-mad, lustful pater familias. He had most recently co-starred with Marty Ingles in a sitcom about a pair of incompetent carpenters, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster. I have a vague recollection of having seen it once or twice. I don’t recall having been impressed, but I was five years old. What did I know?

The object of Gomez’ hammed-up affections was played by Carolyn Jones, who had a more impressive horror pedigree than her TV husband. She appeared in two of the most significant horror films of the 1950s, the 3-D extravaganza House of Wax with Vincent Price in 1953, and the first adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in 1956. 

Uncle Fester was Jackie Coogan, a silent-era child star who discovered upon reaching maturity that all the money he’d earned acting alongside Charlie Chaplin and other major film stars of that era had been squandered by his parents. A law to prevent that was passed and was in fact called The Jackie Coogan Law. Forty-three years after achieving fame in The Kid, he shaved off what little hair he had left and stuck a trick lightbulb in his mouth on weekly television. 

Grandmama Frump was the delightfully named Blossom Rock, sister of the leading cinematic soprano from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Jeanette MacDonald. I don’t recall Grandmama belting out any operatic arias, but I bet she could have, between concocting her famous still-writhing dinners. Yummy! Blossom had a long career as a character actress in dozens of films, including I Married a Witch (1942), Gildersleeve’s Ghost (based on the radio show, 1944), Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954), and She Devil (1957).

The kids were Lisa Loring as Wednesday and Ken Weatherwax as Pugsley. Charlie might have had a point about them. They were cute and sweet, and wholly unlike their counterparts. Lisa grew up to be a lovely soap opera star. Ken quit acting to work behind the camera. 

Lurch was the six-foot-nine-inch Ted Cassidy, who later lent his ultra-deep voice to a number of Saturday morning cartoons. Like Rondo Hatten, he suffered from acromegaly, although in his case the disease manifested itself in altitude rather than hideousness. Ted was also the main portrayer of Thing T. Thing, the disembodied hand that was always ready to, um, help out around the house. An assistant director pinch-hit when Lurch and Thing were in the same scene. Thing was created for the show, although there was a 1954 cartoon in The New Yorker with a pair of disembodied hands changing the record on a phonograph. 

Cousin Itt was created for the second and final season of the show. Felix Silla, who at three-feet-eleven-inches was in great demand for roles suited to his stature for the next forty-five years, donned the long blond wig. In later incarnations, the second ‘t’ seems to have been used inconsistently. This disparity has caused numerous online arguments and more than a few bar fights, one is inclined to suspect. 

The family showed up on television again in 1973 as a Saturday morning animated program, with only Cassidy and Coogan returning to provide the voices of Lurch and Fester. Academy Award-winning actress Jody Foster was the voice of Pugsley. Think about that next time you watch The Silence of the Lambs. The show only lasted sixteen episodes.

Most of the original cast returned in 1977 for a TV movie, Halloween with the New Addams Family. Blossom Rock had suffered a stroke not long after the original series ended and was unable to participate. She passed away the next year at the age of eighty-two.

Ted Cassidy underwent heart surgery for a condition related to his acromegaly in 1979 but did not survive the operation. He was only forty-six. Carolyn Jones died of colon cancer in 1983, at the age of fifty-three. Jackie Coogan was sixty-nine when he passed away from heart failure in 1984, and Ken Weatherwax died of a heart attack in 2014. He was fifty-nine. Felix Silla was eighty-four when he passed on in April of 2021. Only John Astin, at ninety, and Lisa Loring are left. She’s six months older than I am and looks a lot better than I do. Astin was the only one of the original cast to participate in a second animated series, in 1992

The 1991 big-budget adaptation starring Raul Julia, Angelica Huston and Christopher Lloyd spawned a sequel, Addams Family Values, in 1993. Of all the reboots and re-imaginings, I think this brace of movies might have met or even exceeded Addams’ expectations. Alas, Raul Julia’s death from a stroke a year later ended the possibility of any further misadventures. 

None of the original show or feature film casts were around for the 1998 revival series produced in Canada and shown on Fox in the United States. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever seen any of the sixty-five episodes. A direct-to-video movie, The Addams Family Reunion, starring Tim Curry and Daryl Hanna, was released the same year. Carel Struycken returned as Lurch, having played the role in the two feature films. A 2010 Broadway musical and a pair of animated features in 2019 and 2021 complete the family’s saga to the present time, other than for a much-too-short series of not-even-remotely-officially-sanctioned-by-the-Charles-Addams-Estate YouTube videos starring Melissa Hunter as the Adult Wednesday Addams. Very funny stuff.

I wonder what Charlie would think about all that? Whatever his thoughts on the other goodies briefly described above, I suspect he’d be okay with Adult Wednesday Addams. Don’t you?

I no longer have that slim paperback book I bought at the school rummage sale in 1969. Somewhere along the way, I sold it or traded it, or lost it. I did recently find another copy on eBay. It cost me a bit more than a nickel. Not the fifty-four bucks Abebooks wants for theirs, but enough to buy a large-sized Big Mac meal and have some change left over for the Ronald McDonald House. It was worth the expenditure. I plan to hang on to this one. My wife says I really need to lay off the Big Macs, anyhow.

Many thanks to Linda H. Davis for the information in this and the previous episode. Her 2006 book, Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life, has been an invaluable resource, along with the several collections of his cartoons I have in my collection. Highly recommended.

Coming up in our next installment, I’ll be examining the almost sixty-year adolescence of Riverdale High School’s perpetual student and resident teenage witch, Sabrina. It ought to be fun. Until then, oh ye questors after the quirky and the questionable…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : Everything’s Just Ducky

I mentioned in my last column that my wife and I traveled down to Key West during our October vacation, where we dropped around to see Ernest Hemingway’s residence. Amongst his remaining effects are the descendants of his famous six-toed cats, currently over fifty of them. They are calm and nonchalant creatures, utterly unimpressed by the hordes of tourists who daily descend upon their abode. They allow themselves to be petted, briefly, after which they do what all cats do. Ignore humans, bask in the warm sunlight, sleep in their preferred spaces, cough up hairballs, whatever. We witnessed all of these activities. If you, like myself, enjoy the company of felis catus, it’s a pleasant experience, apart from the hairballs. If you’re not an ailurophile, maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald has an old house somewhere you could visit instead.

All of which reminded me of a specific case of polydactyly that had a profound effect on my own life and my development as a fan of the fantastic and the frightening. Plus a slightly later instance that was utterly silly but wholly in keeping with a completely different popular genre of the time.

More on that one later. First, we must needs take a look into… The Outer Limits.

I’ve written before in this space that the late 1950s and early to mid-1960s was a golden age of nostalgia for the horrors of times gone by, with new manifestations of frightfulness appearing constantly in all of the then-available media. Television, being by 1958 the dominant common disseminator of culture in the developed world, was filled during the next few years with a variety of spooky and scary, and sometimes amusing, supernatural fare. The Twilight Zone was and remains the best known and most revered, but there was also One Step Beyond, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 13 Demon Street, Way Out, and The Kraft Suspense Theatre, and that was all just on my side of the Big Pond. Even legendary spukmeister Boris Karloff had his own outlet for televised frights, Thriller, and a second that had to wait for home video to finally be shown, The Veil. By 1963, American audiences were only a season or two away from The Munsters and The Addams Family and The Smothers Brother Show (AKA My Brother, the Angel) and Dark Shadows and Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie and My Living Doll starring the stupefyingly lovely pre-Catwoman Julie Newmar, and all manner of delightfully outré goodies oozing into our homes via the cathode tube. And My Mother, the Car, which was outré, but not particularly delightful. Still.

Have I mentioned what a terrific time that was to be a kid? Well, it was. 

And among all that creepy and kooky and altogether ooky wonderfulness, for a single full season and one half of a second, a mere forty-nine episodes, the Control Voice coming over the airwaves from the ABC Television Network brought us “the awe and mystery that reaches from the inner mind to… The Outer Limits.”

Maybe it was more science fiction reliant than most of the other shows, but there was in each episode what the series’ creator, Leslie Stevens, called a ‘bear’ – some creature from outer or inner space, however one wants to define either of those ideas, that posed a challenge to the human beings with whom it interacted. That was grotesque, that was frightening. That was, in essence, a monster.

Sometimes, though, it was the humans who were the monsters.

On the night of October 14, 1963, for reasons that I to this day cannot fathom, my parents allowed five-year-old me to watch the fifth episode of The Outer Limits, one I still find gives me that same frisson I enjoyed the first time I saw it. Of course, my five-year-old self didn’t quite grasp all the nuances, resulting in a barrage of questions to my long-suffering father. Which is probably why I was not allowed to watch any additional episodes until years later when the show was in syndication. 

That broadcast, by the way, is the earliest specific episode of any television program I recall seeing in its first run. In case anyone was wondering.

The story concerns a young Welsh coal miner recruited by a mad scientist to be the subject in an experiment in accelerated evolution. In the process, he grows a big bald head and a sixth finger on each hand.

There’s that polydactyly I promised above.

The title of this particular episode was, in fact, “The Sixth Finger”, and it starred Edward Mulhare as the mad scientist. Mulhare would, in a few years, be cast as one of the title characters in a sitcom based on the 1947 feature film, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. He did not play Mrs. Muir.

The recipient of that extra digit was played by a young Sottish actor and jazz pianist named David McCallum. Of whom you might have heard, if you are a fan of the military police procedural program, NCIS. He has been Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard for over eighteen years on that show. Hence, the title of this offering.

Anyhow. Our hyper-evolved collier proves to be a dangerously arrogant douchebag in his polydactylic state, so the mad scientist contrives to sucker him back into the booth for another treatment, but instead reverses the polarities and briefly winds up with a Neanderthal before restoring our hero to his normal evolutionary state. 

On May 4, 1964, McCallum returned for the thirty-second episode of that first season, “The Form of Things Unknown”, which was also shown as a television movie under the title, The Unknown. It was intended to be the pilot for a spin-off series that didn’t sell. Probably just as well, given that its failure enabled McCallum to spend the next several years as the taciturn but amiable Russian secret agent Ilya Kuryakin in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968), in addition to a cameo in one episode of the sitcom Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and a one-shot revival TV movie in 1983 most notable for the brief second appearance of George Lazenby as everyone’s favorite MI6 agent. Plus a mention in the thirteenth episode of the second season of NCIS. When the lead character, Gibbs, is asked what Ducky looked like as a young man, he responds, “Ilya Kuryakin”.

Ya think?

McCallum spent the next decade-plus appearing in a myriad of television shows and movies, few of them of much note apart from a single episode of Night Gallery, a mad scientist not named Frankenstein in the mini-series Frankenstein: The True Story, one season as an invisible man, and four as the co-star of the British television series, Sapphire and Steel, alongside Joanna Lumley in between her turns as The New Avengers’ Purdey and Absolutely Fabolous’s Patsy. She was Sapphire, McCallum was Steel. Apparently, no one at the BBC could think of a last name for her characters. He and she guarded our world against extra-dimensional and supernatural threats. Quite a lot of fun. 

McCallum’s genre-related appearances slowed to a crawl in the 1980s and 1990s, ending in a role in one episode of the revival of The Outer Limits in 1997. Since then, he’s spent his thespian skills dissecting corpses and reassembling meat puzzles on behalf of the United States Navy. Still kinda creepy, n’est pas

Anyhow, I’ve provided a list below of McCallum’s horrific and macabre appearances, as well as the other performances mentioned herein. I hope the links all work, and that the populace is able to take a gander at some of his work on behalf of our genre. 

Oh, and that other instance of polydactyly? In 1965, in the wake of the spy craze initiated by the James Bond movies and perpetuated by not only the aforementioned Man (and later, Girl) from U.N.C.L.E, but also the often hilarious spoof sitcom, Get Smart, along with a myriad of others, the Topper toy company came out with a plastic super-secret spy gadget in the shape of a manual digit that you set into the crook of your hand between your thumb and forefinger. It shot darts from the tip, and was called The Sixfinger. “The Most Amazing Toy Ever”, according to the advertising. Everyone I knew had one, or wanted one. It’s amazing what’s important when you’re seven or eight, isn’t it? 

Anyhow.

No, I never had one.

Oh, well.

Until next time, then, thou treasure-seekers of terrors, and of tantalizing tacky trinkets…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

 

The Outer Limits, (“The Sixth Finger” Season 1, Episode 5 October 14, 1963)

The Unknown (1964)

The Outer Limits, (“The Form of Things Unknown” Season 1, Episode 32 May 4, 1964)

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968)

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (“Say UNCLE” Season 1, Episode 18 January 11, 1966)

Hauser’s Memory (1970)

Night Gallery (“The Phantom Farmhouse” Season 2, Episode 5 October 20, 1971)

She Waits (1972)

Screaming Skull (1973)

Frankenstein: The True Story (1973)

The Invisible Man (1975-1976)

Dogs (1976)

Sapphire and Steel (1979-1982)

The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen-Years-Later Affair (1983)

Fox Mystery Theater (“The Corvini Inheritance” Season 1, Episode 10 June 8, 1985)

Terminal Choice (1985)

Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Murder Party”, Season 3, Episode 11 May 7, 1988)

Monsters (“The Feverman” Season 1, Episode e1 October 22, 1988) 

The Haunting of Morella (1990)

The Outer Limits, (“Feasibility Study” Season 3, Episode 17 July 11, 1997)

NCIS (2003-2021)

 

Historian of Horror: And Just a Pinch of Cyanide

I don’t think it would be accurate to say that my wife gave up a sparkling career in the theatre to tie herself down to me, but our first date did occur when she invited me to come to the closing performance of the play she was appearing in at the time, Noël Coward’s Hay Fever. She insisted I come along to the cast party afterward, which turned out to be an entire night of revelry in a variety of venues all around Nashville. Three weeks later, after the consumption of far too many Long Island Teas, we became engaged. The wedding was nine months after that, and despite valiant efforts on both of our parts, we are still married forty years later.

Hay Fever was the last stage production she was in, but far from the first. Before we met, she had won some sort of award that used to hang on a wall in our first apartment for playing Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. I had a vague idea of some of the other plays she’d been in, but the details have faded with the years, as they are oftentimes wont to do with advanced age.

Friday before last as I write this, Landra and I loaded way more than we needed to take with us into my Kia Sorento and motorvated on down to damn near the farthest away part it is possible to reach via a combustion engine driven vehicle of the Gulf of Mexico side of Florida, where we have a timeshare. We hopped the Key West Express for a couple of days in Hemingway Country, and the bulk of six more lolling about on the pristine white sand beach a brisk three-minute walk from our condo on Marco Island. Many adult beverages were consumed during that just-over-a-week, let me tell you, along with much seafood of invariably exceptional quality. Two words: conch fritters. Yum!

At some point, late in the week as I recall, I mentioned that I was going to write my next column for this space on Joseph Kesselring’s 1939 play, Arsenic and Old Lace, and its various adaptations into other mediums. She reminded me that she herself had played one of the aunts in a production several years before we became an item, and opined that if we ever did tread the boards again, I would make an excellent Teddy as her co-star. I agreed as I have been well trained to do. And also because I’ve long thought it might be fun to essay a performance of the harmlessly delusional Brewster brother. I haven’t done any acting on stage since, oh, 1976 – the year, not the musical – so maybe we should pay attention to opportunities to indulge that old impulse to inflict ourselves on the theatre patrons of the 21st Century.

Or maybe not. 

The play opened on Broadway on January 10, 1941, and ran for 1444 performances through 1944. It ran almost as many in the West End in London. Naturally, a film version had to be made. And so it was, as well as broadcasts on radio and, later, television, as late as 1969 in the United States. I am aware of televised broadcasts in Europe in 1971 and 2002, and there are probably more. It is a popular play for amateur revivals anywhere those are apt to occur, and if anyone does deign to produce it in my area, well, maybe Teddy is calling me, after all. 

The story unfolds on Halloween, in Brooklyn. Mortimer Brewster has just married Elaine Harper, daughter of the snooty reverend next door. As they are trying to sneak away to Niagara Falls, Mortimer finds out that his dear, sweet aunts, Abby and Martha, have been engaging in the impromptu euthanasia of lonely old men by the surreptitious administration of arsenic, strychnine, and a pinch of cyanide in their homemade elderberry wine. As their prospective lodgers fall victim to what they’ve been telling their loopy nephew, who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt, is yellow fever, he removes the remains to the basement. There he will proceed to dig a new lock in his own personal Panama Canal, in which the newly deceased is interred.

Mortimer discovers the latest victim before Teddy can plant him, and decides that it’s time for all concerned to be ensconced in a chuckles emporium. As he’s trying to arrange this, his long-lost brother, career criminal and psychopathic murderer Jonathan Brewster, comes back to his childhood home, accompanied by the inebriated medico who performs periodic plastic surgeries to hide Jonathan’s identity from the long arm of the law. The most recent operation had been performed after Dr. Einstein had watched a horror film, with rather unfortunate consequences for one gentleman whom Jonathan had killed because, and I quote, “He said I look like Boris Karloff”.

Given that Karloff created the role on Broadway, that line pretty much brought the house down every night.

Eventually, Jonathan is caught, Dr. Einstein slips away unnoticed, Teddy and his aunts receive a group rate admission to the Happydale Sanitarium, and Mortimer and Elaine finally take off for their honeymoon.

When three-time-Oscar winning director Frank Capra adapted Arsenic and Old Lace for the silver screen in late 1941, he retained Jean Adair as Aunt Martha, Josephine Hull as Aunt Abby, and John Alexander as Teddy, borrowing them from Broadway for the eight-week shooting schedule. Alan Joslyn was replaced with Cary Grant as Mortimer, full-time Warner Bros. Studios creepy character actor Peter Lorre became the new Dr. Einstein, and various Hollywood stalwarts took the places of the New York crowd. Alas, Karloff was still playing Jonathan on Broadway and was thus unavailable as he was the show’s main draw, so Capra cast Canadian actor Raymond Massey in his stead. Massey was more than adequate in the role. Because the various contracts specified the film had to wait to be released until the play ended its run, it was not released until 1944. By which time Karloff would have been available to play Jonathan.

Oh, well.

It’s a delightfully warped film, very watchable even after seventy-seven years. It appears regularly on Turner Classic Movies and other old movie channels, is available on DVD, and is currently streaming on Amazon Instant. So, you have no excuse for not seeing it. Get to it. Now!

Or as soon as you finish reading this. I have a couple more things to say about Arsenic and Old Lace.

There were several productions done for the radio during the 1940s and into the 1950s, often with Karloff as Jonathan. Karloff reprised the role for television in 1955, but the broadcast has not survived. The only existing filmed version with Karloff appearing as Jonathan is a 1962 performance done on television’s Hallmark Hall of Fame. Tony Randall co-stars as Mortimer. 

In 1969, shortly after Karloff’s passing, former Herman Munster Fred Gwynne starred as Jonathan in a television movie of the play. A proposed theatrical remake planned for Richard Pryor in the 1970s never happened, so that’s pretty much the end of that. Except for my wife’s performance, which was no doubt one of the best ever. Sorry, dear. THE best.

Apropos of nothing I have said heretofore, I will leave you now with one of my infamous lagnappes, a bit of sonic spookiness that popped up on my playlist this morning. Recorded by Jack and Jim in 1959, here is The Midnight Monsters Hop. Hope it meets the populace’s approval.

And so, until next time, nabobs of necrophilia…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization

Except for those living under a rock somewhere, everyone has at least heard of the Big Two comic book companies, if only peripherally. Marvel, with its Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the rest of the Avengers, and DC, with its Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and their associated Justice Leaguers. In those halcyon days of my misspent youth in the 1960s, during what comics fans now refer to as the Silver Age of Comics, there were several other purveyors of four-color delights of equal importance to me and my peers, publishers long vanished and forgotten by all but the most die-hard connoisseurs of the medium. There was the American Comics Group, publisher of the very first horror comic in the late 1940s, Adventures into the Unknown, and of the most powerful comic book character ever created, the redoubtable Herbie Popnecker. There was Charlton, home to a cluster of third-tier super-heroes and several not-altogether-terrible horror comics. Archie was still putting out the occasional super-hero comics starring the Mighty Crusaders, comprised of characters left over from their Golden Age titles of the 1940s, along with the supernatural adventures of Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch. Dell had a few speculative fiction titles coming out, as well as the first comic book to acknowledge the developing war in Southeast Asia that would soon divide the country. Etc., etc., etc.

My favorite, however, was Gold Key, especially their horror titles – Twilight Zone, Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery, Ripley’s Believe it or Not True Ghost Stories. They also had the monopoly – inherited from Dell Comics in 1962 – on Disney and Warner Brothers cartoon characters and the various Tarzan titles, as well as television adaptations, including The Munsters, Bewitched, Dark Shadows, and Scooby-Doo. And Turok, Son of Stone, great fun with Native Americans vs. dinosaurs in a lost valley.

What a wonderful time it was to be a kid – and all for twelve cents a copy! I don’t even want to know what a comic book would cost these days.

Gold Key was the comic imprint of K.K. Publications, located in the exotically named Poughkeepsie, New York. K.K., in turn, as I only discovered years later, was owned by Western Publishing. Hence, the title of this piece. Although Western survived as a corporate entity until 2001, it had even by then long since been reduced by the vicissitudes of time and the vagaries of the publishing world to but a shadow of its former glory. At least, in so far as this child of the ‘Sixties is concerned. Its last surviving brand, the Little Golden Books, has been taken over by Penguin Random House. Gold Key itself went belly up in 1984.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen!

Late in the story of Gold Key, its titles began to appear under an alternative imprint, Whitman. Whitman is actually still around, but only puts out coin and stamp collecting materials. In its heyday, though, under the steady guidance of Western Publishing, Whitman was a major disseminator of multi-media publications. Big Little Books, small, boxy things about popular movie, radio, and comic strip characters, with alternative pages of simple drawings and simpler text, for example. Some of these are worth a fortune today. I have one of the early Lone Ranger editions I got for the relatively low price of $35 some years ago. Yeah, go ahead. Put a hand on it. You’re apt to draw back a nub.

Popular culture characters also appeared in a series of standard-sized hardbound books, also primitively illustrated. I have several based on comic strips that only lack dust jackets to be worthy of funding my retirement, Blondie and Red Ryder among them. There was also a series of mysteries featuring popular female movie stars of the time, including Judy Garland, Deanna Durbin, Shirley Temple, even Gene Tierney, and Dorothy Lamour. And so on.

But all that was well before my time. In my decade, the 1960s, Whitman revived the Big Little Books with fewer pages and more contemporary characters such as the Man from U.N.C.L.E, Major Matt Mason, and the Fantastic Four. They also put out a couple of horror anthologies I still own, books that have gone a long way towards shaping my interest in all things spooky.

Those titles, Tales to Tremble By and More Tales to Tremble By, both edited by Stephen P. Sutton, came out in 1966 and 1968, respectively. I acquired the second one first, in 1968, around my tenth birthday, under circumstances of which I have no recollection. The first one, according to a note I obligingly scribbled inside the front cover at the time for the benefit of my future self, I bought in Texas. That would be over the Thanksgiving holiday of 1969, when my Uncle Allen married my Aunt Jeannie in Plainview, not far from the New Mexico border. That was at the time the longest trip I had ever been on. I’ve since gone farther than that. Don’t recall picking up anything as cool as Tales to Tremble By in St. Petersburg, Russia, though. I did get my wife a replica Fabergé egg for her birthday. She seemed to like it.

Anyhow, the books. By sometime in the 1950s, Whitman had done way with paper dust jackets and started putting out their books with laminated painted covers. I have a couple of Tarzans from that period. The practice continued for the rest of the company’s run. For all I know, their numismatic stuff comes the same way. Not being a numismatist, I have no idea. I only collect coins up until the point that it’s time to convert them into folding green to be spent upon trivialities like food, clothing, and shelter. And books. Lots and lots of books.

More Tales to Tremble By was not the first scary anthology I had read. My elementary school library had a volume of short stories I’d devoured at least a year before. All I remember of it was that it was a hardback book and old even then, probably from the 1930s or 1940s. Alas, the school has long since been sold off by the City of Nashville and absorbed into the David Lipscomb University system. I drive by every so often and experience sadness. 

I miss that book.

Anyhow. THIS book. The table of contents is like a Hall of Fame of short horror tales and writers of the same. To whit — 

“The Red Lodge” by H. Russell Wakefield.

Sredni Vashtar” by Saki (H.H. Munro)

Thurnley Abbey” by Perceval Landon

God Grante That She Lye Still” by Lady Cynthia Asquith

The Voice in the Night” by William Hope Hodgson

The Extra Passenger” by August Derleth

Casting the Runes” by M.R. James

The Book” by Margaret Irwin

 

“Casting the Runes”, by the way, was the basis for one of the greatest horror films of all time, 1957’s Curse of the Demon (entitled Night of the Demon in England). 

Every yarn here is a certified classic. The other one, the book from Texas, is likewise:

The Hand”, Guy de Maupassant

The Middle Toe of the Right Foot”, Ambrose Bierce

No. 1 Branch Line, The Signalman” (AKA “The Signal-Man”), Charles Dickens

Adventure of the German Student”, Washington Irving

“The Sutor of Selkirk”, Anonymous

The Upper Berth”, F. Marion Crawford

The Judge’s House”, Bram Stoker

Names to conjure with, surely. I anticipate that I shall devote a future column to each of the authors listed here in the future. Except of course for that Anonymous fellow. Can’t find a blessed thing about him. But the others, for sure.

I hope I live that long, anyhow.

There was at least one more horror anthology from Whitman, Ten Tales Calculated to Give You Shudders, edited by Ross R. Olney. It came out in 1972. My copy was originally owned by someone named Cindy, who seemed to enjoy writing her name out as it appears half a dozen times in various places. She also claimed to have been in love with Huey. I think I acquired it in an antique store when I was in college, but I’m not positive. Great stories in it, as well:

Sweets to the Sweet”, by Robert Bloch

The Waxwork”, by A.M. Burrage

Used Car”, by H. Russell Wakefield

The Inexperienced Ghost”, by H.G. Wells

The Whistling Room”, by William Hope Hodgson

The Last Drive”, by Carl Jacobi

The Monkey’s Paw”, by W.W. Jacobs

“Second Night Out”, by Frank Belknap Long

The Hills Beyond Furcy, by Robert G. Anderson

Floral Tribute”, by Robert Bloch. HIM again.

It’s a good book. I enjoy it. But, you know, it’s just not the same as the others. Not a treasured artifact of my childhood. I guess some things just remain more precious because of the context of their acquisition.

Anyhow. If it hasn’t happened before now, I encourage the populace to track down and read these tales. They are among the foundation stones of our genre, historically important, and wonderfully entertaining. Go, seek. You’ll be glad you did.

And so, until next time, mavens of the macabre…

Be afraid. 

Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : The Good Girl vs The Greatest Villain of Them all

The Good Girl Artist vs the Greatest Villain of Them All

Let’s look at the second half of that title first, shall we? Who is the greatest comic book villain of them all?

Lex Luthor? Not even close.

Thanos? Amateur.

Galactus? What a piker.

Darkseid? Can’t even remember which planet he left his Mother Boxes on.

Green Goblin? Red Skull? Purple Pantywaist?

Nope, nope and nope.

The greatest villain in the history of comic books was a Vienna-born American psychiatrist who studied under Sigmund Freud and specialized in the treatment and understanding of violent behavior. His name was Fredric Wertham, M.D.

Like most villains, he was the hero of his own narrative. And, truth be told, he was not otherwise a horrible person. He never slaughtered half the life in the universe. He didn’t eat inhabited planets or reduce them to cinders. He didn’t kill Spider-Man’s girlfriend. His research was even put before the Supreme Court as evidence in the Brown vs Board of Education case that overturned racial segregation in American public schools in 1954. No, all he did was virtually shut down an entertainment medium on the verge of expanding out of its cultural ghetto into near respectability. Would the Pulitzer committee have had to wait until 1992 to award the first and only prize to a graphic novel without his baleful influence? Maybe, but we’ll never know, will we?

Wertham never set out to destroy the comics industry. He simply wanted to stop juvenile delinquency, using the false notion that, because naughty kids read comic books in the 1940s and early 1950s, then obviously, quad erat demonstratum, comic books caused childhood misbehavior. Of course, he had to falsify his data (i.e., make it up out of thin air) to prove his point, given that virtually every child in America read comic books in the period before television absorbed American popular culture into its unblinking cyclopean eye. 

Along the way, he facilitated the forced shutdown of vast swaths of the comic book publishers of the time. The number of markets for comics creators dwindled from dozens to a handful. There were other factors, of course, and other decriers of the latest medium to draw the ire of concerned parents, but it was Wertham’s 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, that slew the so many of the giants of the field and made his name anathema to generations of comic book fans.

Notice I used ‘fans’, there. ‘Fen’ is only the plural of ‘fan’ in science fiction fandom, or was when I was active in both, way, way back in the Cultural Pleistocene Era. 

Anyhow.

Wertham didn’t manage to kill the industry off completely, nor was that his aim. He simply wanted parents to know what their children were reading, and give them tools to help them head off the behaviors he found so problematic. Like that has ever worked. Right, Tipper?

He didn’t even kill off the worst offenders among the super-heroes, Batman with his ‘homosexual’s dream’ relationship with Robin or the ‘lesbian ideal’, Wonder Woman. They, along with Superman, were too big to succumb to the general dying off of the rest of the super-hero genre. 

Wertham did, however, inflict a fatal blow to other genres, particularly crime and horror. A Comics Code Authority was cobbled together by the remaining publishers to address Wertham’s concerns, led by the president of Archie Comics, John L. Goldwater. Werewolves and vampires were banned, as were the very words ‘horror’ or ‘terror’ in the titles of the magazines. Refusal to conform would cost the recalcitrant publisher access to distribution, unless that publisher was the acknowledged curator of wholesome sequential art content, Dell Comics. Those specific restrictions alone wiped out entire companies, most particularly E.C., which had drawn the ire of the Code hierarchy with a merciless and nearly libelous lampooning of Goldwater’s main money-maker, Archie Andrews, in Mad #12. E.C. publisher William M. Gaines soon switched over from putting out titles like Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear to dumping all his yeggs into a single basket, a magazine format continuation of E.C.’s ground-breaking parody comic book, MAD, that was beyond the reach of the Comics Code Authority.

Didn’t see that one coming did you, Goldwater?

Among Wertham’s other targets for opprobrium were the ‘headlight’ comics, those that prominently featured female, er, prominences. One of the illustrations included in Seduction of the Innocent was a specific example of such, the cover of Fox Publications’ Phantom Lady #17 from 1948, an illustration in which the title character was bound with ropes to what looks like a dock piling in such a posture as to accentuate her, um, pulchritudinous assets. 

Oh, my.

The artist who drew that cover was the subject of the first part of the title above. Bet you were wondering when I’d get around to that. His name was Matt Baker, and he was the first significant African-American comic book artist. And from this point on, he is the focus of our tale, for he was the dominant, so to speak, ‘Good Girl Artist’ of his day.

That’s as in artist who drew girls good. The morality of the females involved was not necessarily their salient feature. Or features, as it were.

Anyhow.

Clarence Matthew Baker was born in Forsythe County, North Carolina, on December 10, 1921. His family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania circa 1924, where Matt graduated from high school in 1940 with the stated ambition of being an artist and photographer.

Due to a heart condition, possibly due to having had rheumatic fever as a child, Matt was not eligible for military service during World War II. He did some sort of job for the Navy Department until moving to Brooklyn in 1943 with his brother and working for the National War Labor Board while studying art at Cooper Union in New York. He stayed at that school for only one term before taking a job with the Iger Studio.

Jerry Iger had started a studio that supplied content for the burgeoning comic book markets with his partner Will Eisner, but when Eisner’s creation, The Spirit, gained lucrative newspaper syndication, Iger carried on without him. Through Iger, Baker churned out mass quantities of work for the aforementioned Fox, as well as Fiction House, St. John Publications and myriad smaller houses. He drew mostly jungle hero and heroine stories for Fox and Fiction House, even going so far as to create the first obviously black hero in a mainstream comic book. Voodah ran in Crown Comics, published by a very minor house called McCombs, for the magazine’s entire nineteen-issue run from 1945 to 1949. Alas, Voodah was only dark-skinned in the first few issues before he miraculously transformed into a garden-variety Caucasian jungle hero.

Baker’s work for St. John was mostly in the romance genre, a field in which he excelled. Few artists of his day drew women so beautifully. There are those who claim his attention to the details of feminine beauty was due to him being quite the ladies’ man. There are those who claim the opposite and even speculate on the nature of his relationship with Archer St. John, his primary publisher. Either way, he turned in some great comics stories in those days, along with the first graphic novel, It Rhymes with Lust, published in 1950 by St. John, and a short-lived syndicated newspaper comic strip, Flamingo.

Baker did do horror tales for St. John, as well as for other, lesser publishers. Alas, in the wake of Wertham’s attack on his medium, Baker lost his most reliable markets. Fox and Fiction House were defunct by 1955. St. John held on until 1958, but just barely. Baker spent the rest of the decade working for the less prestigious houses Charlton and Atlas, the latter being the forerunner of the modern-day Marvel Comics. The titles he contributed to for those houses are a litany of defanged spookiness – Out of This World, Tales of the Mysterious Traveler and Strange Suspense Stories for Charlton; Journey into Mystery, Tales to Astonish, and World of Fantasy for Atlas. None of them with the frissons he created in his earlier horror work, but they paid the bills for the remainder of his short life.

Baker passed away from his life-long heart condition on August 11, 1959, at the much too young age of thirty-eight. Had he survived another decade, he would likely have been a major player in Marvel’s ascendancy in the 1960s. But that was not to be.

I doubt that Wertham took note of Baker’s passing. He wrote more books, even managing one last dig at the baleful effect of comics on American youth in his 1968 tome, A Sign for Cain. His last book was a generally favorable examination of the phenomenon of fanzines, those amateur paeans to various fandoms that proliferated in the days before the internet made everyone a pundit on whatever topic took their fancy. Present company included. 

Wertham died in 1981, if not reviled by comics fans, at least regarded with ye olde legendary jaundiced eye. Comics writer Mark Evanier wrote a not entirely condemnatory article that was reprinted in his 2003 book, Wertham Was Right! I won’t go so far as to say that Wertham’s reputation was fully reformed by Evanier’s essay, but it does put his actions, however questionable, into a context that is more favorable than he enjoyed in earlier days.

Baker’s reputation, in the meantime, has remained high and even grown. He was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2009, and numerous artists of the last several decades cite him as a major influence on their own work. Given the comparative legacies of the Good Girl Artist and the Greatest Villain of Them All, I’d settle for Baker’s over Wertham’s any day of the week, and twice on Sundays.

In addition to my well-worn copy of Seduction of the Innocent and the Evanier volume mentioned above, I would like to commend to the populace two other essential works on the relevant history of the period covered herein. To whit, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America by David Hadju, and Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books by Ken Quattro. Both are available from Amazon.

And, so, until next time —

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror : You Had To Be Then

You Had to Be Then

The one Nashville science fiction convention in the second half of the 1970s I couldn’t attend was the 1977 Kublai Khan. None other than the redoubtable and controversial Harlan Ellison was the guest of honor that year. I had just started a job at Opryland, the theme park that is now a mall and a convention hotel and a testament to the excesses of modern American life. Instead of interacting with one of the great writers of the 20th Century, I spent that weekend washing and drying and dry-cleaning and pressing and hanging up the costumes for all the shows performed in the park. 

Oh, well.

Like most of my fellow fen in that deep and abyss of time that was my misspent youth, I had fairly strong opinions about Harlan Ellison. I loved his work and still do. I’d seen him on television several times, so I knew he had little inclination to couch his own opinions in tactful language. And he did have opinions, many of them. I tended to agree with most of them, so missing out on the chance to meet him and hear him speak was yet another one of those regrets I mentioned a couple of columns ago.

Oh, well.

I’d first encountered his writings in the late 1960s, back when he was one of the brash young things pushing science fiction to emerge from the genre ghetto it had existed in for so many decades and evolve into a real live literary form worthy of respect from academia and Hollywood alike as well as being one able to generate lots more money than was being paid to its practitioners in them thar days.

He was part of the New Wave that had started in England during Michael Moorcock’s tenure as editor of New Worlds magazine that was dedicated to taking speculative fiction (as Ellison called what he did rather than the stale old term ‘science fiction that the non-cognoscenti thought meant cheesy special effects and monster costumes with the zippers clearly visible in the back) in new directions.

It was real people doing real things; in space, in laboratories, even in bedrooms. Because real people, you know, have sex. And poop, so, yeah, let’s think about how a being from Alpha Centauri might arrange his bathroom. That’s part of it, although nowhere near all. But you kind of see what some of the ideas floating around were like in those days. Real people, or real BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters), doing what they will probably actually be doing in the future, explained in language that was more sophisticated and poetic than the simplistic pulpy sensationalism of days of yore. Or something like that.

It was the 60s. As the title of this piece points out, you had to be then.

In 1967, Ellison edited a ground-breaking anthology of New Wave stories called Dangerous Visions. He got more than thirty of his fellows in the field whom he had not managed to completely alienate to write the best stories of their lives, the ones they’d always wanted to write, but never felt would get bought by the publishers of that time. The tales that were too avant-garde, too controversial, too dirty for the fiction markets of the day. 

And so, they did, those thirty-plus legendary scriveners. And it was an era-defining success. Fritz Leiber, Jr. (whose novel Conjure Wife will receive some attention in a future column – stay tuned!) won both a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award for his novelette, “Gonna Roll the Bones”, beating out Philip K. Dick’s “Faith of Our Fathers” for the Hugo. Philip Jose Farmer took the Hugo’s novella category for “Riders of the Purple Wage”, and Samuel R. Delany won the same award for his short story, “Aye, and Gomorrah…” That’s pretty much a sweep for a single anthology. Ellison was also honored at the 26th World SF Convention in Berkeley, California (of course) for his efforts. 

Now, those of you denizens of darkness out there who only know of Robert Bloch as having written the book Alfred Hitchcock based his most famous movie on might be surprised to learn that the author of Psycho also wrote science fiction. In fact, he won the 1959 short story Hugo Award for “That Hell-Bound Train”, so of course, he was invited to contribute to Dangerous Visions

And boy, did he deliver. He delivered so well that Ellison was inspired to write a sequel to “A Toy for Juliette” that he called with his typical carefully considered restraint “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World”. But it’s the Bloch tale that concerns us in this space, in this moment, as we’re thinking about time travel this week. 

Simply stated, in “A Toy for Juliette”, a man in the distant future has been fetching people from the past for his bored, jaded, spoiled rotten and thoroughly homicidal daughter to play with. One day, he decides she needs a real challenge, so the toy he brings to her is…

Spoiler Alert!

Spoiler Alert!

Spoiler Alert!

Oh, go ahead and look. You know you want to.

Jack the Ripper.

Yep. That Jack. 

The Ripper. The Whitechapel Horror. 

Hoo, boy.

Dismemberments ensue.

No wonder he was never caught, huh?

Is it science fiction? Well, yes.

Is it horror? Very much so. Did I happen to mention dismemberment?

Is it time travel? You bet. So, it fits with our theme, n’est pas?

If Ellison didn’t suspect Bloch might go that route, he probably ought to have. Bloch had already written one of the most important Jack tales of the 1940s, “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”, which by 1967 had been adapted to both radio and television. Bloch was more than due to revisit his old friend anyhow, and Ellison gave him the perfect showcase for it.

According to its Amazon page, Dangerous Visions does appear to still be in print, if not available from your local second-hand bookstore, if there is such a thing near you. There was a follow-up anthology, Again, Dangerous Visions, which is available as an ebook from Amazon. I found no dead tree editions for sale except in the used book markets. It had forty-six stories from forty-six different writers. 

There was to be a third volume, The Last Dangerous Visions, but Ellison was never able to get it into print before he passed away in 2018. Some of the purported 150 stories he contracted for it by 1979 were eventually placed elsewhere. Some were withdrawn. In 2020, the executor of Ellison’s estate, Michael Straczynski, announced that he intended to go ahead with publication of whatever is left of Ellison’s original compilation. 

I worry, though, that there will turn out to be a consensus that the moment might have passed, that those visions are no longer particularly dangerous. That the tales Ellison gathered together over forty years ago are nowadays pretty much in the mainstream of the genre at best, dated at worst, and that despite all the efforts of the New Wave writers the genre they strove to bring legitimacy to is still called science fiction and still thought of by the illiterati as ‘that Buck Rogers stuff.

Oh, well. 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

The more it changes, the more it stays the same. 

I haven’t provided my fellow horror addicts a lagniappe in a while. You know, that little something extra, like the thirteenth doughnut in a dozen that nobody gives out anymore, or the free lifetime tire rotations you get when you buy four new Michelins. It’s well past time you had une lagniappe, and I think I’ve got a doozy for you.

Way back in the early years of the millennium, I placed a cluster of short stories in several long-out-of-print anthologies published by Rage Machine Books. Rage Machine is an imprint run by a gentleman and a scholar by the name of G.W. Thomas. He has spent a couple of decades doing yeoman labours in the field of the history and study of the supernatural detective story, which was the focus of most my own work in those days, as well as of the Rage Machine anthologies in which the majority of my yarns appeared. G.W. also had an email thingie you could sign up for to receive daily “flashshots”, very short tales of one hundred words or less. I placed eight or nine ultra-short stories in that venue, one of which is right here:

God Bless Us, Every One

Thanks to Scrooge’s change of heart, Tiny Tim lived, and he grew strong. Forty-five years after the events of that memorable Christmas Eve, the man who had been Tiny Tim stood in a dingy, blood-spattered room in Whitechapel, hacking away at the corpse of Mary Kelly, muttering under his breath, “God bless us, every one… God bless us, every one… God bless us…”

Sixty-three words, not counting the title. Not the shortest one I did; a gruesome little piece called “Oops!” clocked in at a mere thirty-two words. I did try to expand “God Bless Us, Every One” into a longer yarn later on, but never could get it right. The concept cried out for a flash tale of sixty-three words, and no more.

Oh, well.

Anyhow, G.W.’s website and associated blog contain a wealth of information on some aspects of the history of our genre that I have not yet examined, and are well worth the time anyone interested in our shared cultural heritage might be inclined to invest in them. I commend them to you. They can be located here:

http://darkworldsquarterly.gwthomas.org/

Go thou and be enlightened, as well as entertained. It’s good stuff.

And so, until next time, fellow fiends…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Monster Madness Month: What Monsters Scare Our Staff

We surveyed our staff to see what Monsters scare them.

Mark Orr – Historian of Horror

When I was maybe three or four, my dad was watching a show about the Golden Age of Hollywood on TV. This would be in the very early 60s. I sat down with him but when it showed Lon Chaney Jr changing into the Wolf Man, I ran out and hid under my bed. So, yeah, werewolves.

Daphne Strasert – Review Director/ Daphne’s Den of Darkness

I HATE zombies. I don’t need hoards of the undead running after my tasty tasty brains, thank you. If the zombie apocalypse ever comes, I’m out!

Naching T. Kassa – Head of Publishing/ Chilling Chat

The monster that scares me most is the Teke-Teke. It’s a Japanese Urban Legend about a kid who was cut in half by a high-speed train. The kid became the Teke-Teke, a creature without legs who drags what remains of its torso behind it. The torso makes a “tik-tik” sound so you know the creature is coming to get you and make you a Teke-Teke too.

Kate Nox – Blog editor

The monster that scares me most is Old Baldy, the former caretaker of a camp I attended in the mountains of Northern California. You can hear him rustling through the trees at night waiting to kill campers and staff who cross his path.

What monsters scare you? Leave us a comment below!

Historian of Horror : Staccatos From The Black Lagoon


When my daughters were young, we listened to Dad’s radio station when Dad was driving. This was back in the days when you were lucky if your vehicle had even so much as a cassette player, so I, being a child of the 60s, had oldies radio stations mapped out for the entire route, wherever we might go. As we passed through Dalton, Georgia, for example, we would let the Chattanooga oldies station go and switch over to the Atlanta station. And so on, all the way down to the southwestern tip of Florida, a frequent destination.

When I was home, all the buttons were set to the local oldies station, WMAK-FM, until that horrible morning in about 2003 when I got in my car and discovered that the station had changed format overnight to ‘whatever we want to play’. Which was not oldies, and not acceptable. After my first “Dude, where’s my radio station?” reaction, I found another one to program all the buttons for, but eventually had to give up and buy a car with a six-CD changer. It was a rag-top Mustang, so that was all right, but I still missed the spontaneity of wondering what great song by the Beatles or the Supremes or Marvin Gaye or Joni Mitchell that Coyote McCloud (God rest his soul) would offer up after this brief message from our sponsor.

Before that horrible day, however, my daughters’ friends would often ask, “Why does your dad listen to so many TV commercials?”, after I’d dropped them and my offspring at the skating rink or movie house or factory for their twelve hour shifts gluing labels onto bottles of shoe blacking. Even in those halcyon days, television advertisers mined no-longer-current popular music for the soundtracks of the mini-dramas designed to entice you to buy their specific brand of depilatory or laxative or breakfast cereal, which my less-enlightened passengers confused with my choices in musical entertainments. Think Bob Seger and Chevy Trucks.  

At least “Like a Rock” makes sense. Trucks are supposed to be tough and solid, like a rock. They should have more mobility than your average boulder, but that’s beside the point. The song fits the commercial. Not all do.

I recall one ad for a cell phone company that used a song from 1973 by the glam-rock band T-Rex. It’s a great piece with a driving guitar hook, but somehow ‘Twentieth-Century Boy’ just doesn’t seem quite right for a 21st Century technology. Similarly, the one for some product I was too appalled to remember suggested that supreme happiness was attainable only by using said product via the medium of having a lovely young lady rip rapturously through what opera buffs know as ‘The Staccatos’, smiling ludicrously as she (probably) lip-synced whatever coloratura soprano actually sang the aria from which they were so rudely plucked. For ‘The Staccatos’ are notoriously challenging for even an experienced diva, and anyone who can do them well can make a lot of money singing them regularly at the Met or La Scala or Covent Garden. I couldn’t recall ever having seen her perform them onstage, on television or in a video, hence my suspicion that she was a shill.

They are also not a part of a happy aria. Not even close. ‘Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen’ (usually shortened to ‘Der Hölle Rache’) is about as far from being the light, pleasant piece the advertisers apparently believed it to be as possible. It is dark, it is direful, it is full of horrific forebodings. The title, which is, as is usual for operatic arias, the first line, translates to “Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart’. Which seems to me unlikely to inspire much confidence among average consumers – but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there are masses of Americans ready to insert something or other into one or another of their various corporeal orifices the creation, manufacture, and marketing of which was inspired by the wrathful rage of His Satanic Majesty. 

For various reasons not appropriate for expression here, it occurs to me that perhaps there are such people in this country who are comfortable with a proposition of that nature. Regardless, I only saw the commercial once, and never again, so, maybe there aren’t. That does leave us with this question, though: What makes this either horror related, or women in horror related?

The piece is often referred to as ‘The Queen of the Night’ because that is the character who, in the second act of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s final opera, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute),  sings it. Die Könegin der Nacht, as she is called in the opera’s original German, is an amalgamation of every evil sorceress and wicked stepmother in all the fairy tales of The Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault combined. She has decided that one Sarastro, high priest of the cult her daughter has joined, needs to be killed, and is such a horrific monster of a being that she hands the girl a knife and tells her to do the dirty deed herself, or be disowned and cursed.

As is often the case, the true horror lies in the presentation, and for this, one must needs judge how much menace and terror each great soprano is capable of bringing to the stage. Some bring more, some less. Some none. And a few, well, they just bring it.

Many have sung the role since 1791. The best are probably lost to the mists of time. The first was Mozart’s own sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer, who sang it to great acclaim for ten years. Alas, the technology to record the human voice wasn’t available for almost a century after Mozart’s demise, which occurred two weeks after the opera premiered. Fortunately, we do have quality recordings of many more recent divas essaying the role so that it is possible for me to pick a specific one to recommend, one in which all the fear and terror the Queen of the Night herself is capable of inflicting is brought down most brutally upon her poor offspring. And upon a receptive audience.

There are certain roles in opera that have become closely associated with specific singers in the minds of those of us that enjoy the artform. We might not all necessarily make the same connections, but I suspect we would understand why someone else might. I think of Aida, for example, and Leontyne Price comes to mind. Mention Medea, and Maria Callas pops up. Lucia di Lammermoor, Joan Sutherland. Violetta from La Traviata, Anna Moffo. For some, Lucia Popp is inextricably connected to her first starring role, which was The Queen of the Night, and I can see why some might feel that way. There are those who consider her the greatest Queen of all time. And again, I can see why, if only at a distance of nearly sixty years and based solely on the one audio recording we have of her performance. Which I love. She had an incredible voice and a technical mastery of it that made it truly magical. However, for me, the crystalline clarity of her divine instrument was just a little light for the weight of the horror that the role demands. The Queen is not a being of light, or lightness. The one video recording of her in the opera was from 1983, and she played the daughter, Pamina. This seems to me a more fitting role for her, if only in consideration of the one prima donna I and many opera buffs agree was, and still is, the best ever.

I would like for the populace to pay particular attention to the following video at the two minute and nine second mark. As was once said of Cruella DeVille, if this doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will. Prithee, watch it before continuing on. I’ll wait for you, right over here. 

 

That is German soprano Diana Damrau. She has practically made a career out of playing this part. There are several videos on YouTube that showcase not only her skill as a singer, but as an actress able to project the appropriate menace the role calls for. This one, though. This one gets to me at that 2:09 mark, when she lifts her gaze to yours and snatches the very soul from your helpless body.

Ahem.

Women characters in operas are so often the tragically unwitting victims of careless or thoughtless or ruthless men, it’s refreshing to see a true villainess dominating the stage. And, so, The Queen of the Night is my nominee for the great female monster of her medium, even if Mozart couldn’t resist a happy ending for this work. 

Curses, foiled again.

Speaking of women being the victims of the male villains in their lives, I would like to commend to the populace Mallory O’Meara’s recently published biography, The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick. Patrick was one of Disney’s first female animators and went from there to Universal Studios. In 1954, she was the primary designer of the head of the costume for the titular star of the classic horror film, Creature from the Black Lagoon. The studio planned a publicity tour with her playing Beauty to the Gill Man’s Beast, but the head of Universal’s makeup department, Bud Westmore, was having none of that. He took all the credit, got her fired out of his infantile masculine jealousy, and she was virtually forgotten. 

That just pisses me off. What an asshole.

The book is quite well-written, and is available in hardback, as a trade paperback, and as an ebook. Highly recommended.

I can sense that we’re getting to the point that I can almost feel through the internet ether the seismic quiver of eyes glazing over and rolling back, so I’ll wrap this edition up by offering the populace a small lagniappe: a few of the sources I use in my research for your own perusal. 

Please do feel free to browse around in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.

http://www.isfdb.org/

I suspect you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find a few familiar names there. Yes, including mine, although their entry on my works is woefully inadequate. Guess I’m going to have to crack the whip on them.

My entry in the FictionMags Index is marginally better, I suppose, given that most of my shorter yarns have appeared in anthologies rather than magazines. 

http://www.philsp.com/homeville/FMI/0start.htm

It also contains information about my mystery work, as opposed to the ISFDb. Which is appropriate. Still, they’ve missed a few entries. Gonna have to fix that.

Fantastic Fiction is a goldmine of information, although it doesn’t separate out the non-genre works from those that are specifically horror.

https://www.fantasticfiction.com/

Still, I recommend it highly, despite there being no entry on your humble correspondent, at all. Quelle horreur.

Enough. I shall have mercy on you all and call it a night. As always, my friends, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Historian of Horror: Hath Music Charms to Soothe the Savage Breast? Not Necessarily

 

I would encourage the populace, if possible, to at least take a look at the recent Netflix series, Ratched. It will help if you’re familiar with the 1975 film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the one that took home a slew of Oscars for that year, the one in which the television series’ title character was the villain, but that’s not essential. Ratched is a beautifully mounted, albeit severely flawed work, and worth seeing if only for the sumptuous set design. Indeed, every frame looks like a photograph from a 1947 issue of Architectural Digest or some similar slick magazine of its type. The costumes could be out of Vanity Fair, the automobiles from Road & Track. It is gorgeous in its every visual element and blessed with a slightly languid pace that allows the eye to gorge itself at leisure on all that gorgeosity.

While I have several issues with the writing (cardboard and occasionally inconsistent characters, cliched situations, predictable plot points), I cannot fault the technical prowess of those who designed the visuals, or, indeed, the audio. The incidental music is eerily reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s score from the 1962 film, Cape Fear, as well as Elmer Bernstein’s score for the 1991 remake. One day, I will discuss both film versions of that story in this space, and the music from each, but today I want to talk about the title music from Ratched, for it touches upon one of my passions.

Yes, I am a Baby Boomer, a member of that much maligned, fairly or unfairly, generation that for all its flaws did indeed spawn the best popular music of the past century. And, yes, I grew up a fan of, among others, the Beatles, the band whose massive output of incredible music in the space of less than a decade was not only the ne plus ultra of its time but the sine qua non of all popular music since. But they and the rest of the 1960s artists were not my first musical love.

That would be classical music. Before the Fab Four showed up on the Ed Sullivan Show on that momentous night in February of 1964, I had already begun to sample my father’s record collection. The first piece of music I remember being enraptured by was Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges. I had no idea at the time what that title meant, for although I was able to operate a turntable at that early age, I had not yet learned to read beyond a very superficial level. In fact, I suspect that it was to decipher the tiny print on the back of all those record sleeves that I set about becoming literate so assiduously at such a tender age. 

I still love classical music. It occupies a significant portion of my listening time. I don’t know squat about music theory, but I know what I like. And in the years since I discovered the wonders on those ancient LPs, most of which are now in my possession, new discoveries of what I like have regularly occurred with delightful frequency. 

I think I must have been about thirteen or fourteen when I first encountered the work of Camille Saint-Saëns, or, rather, a portion of one of his works. A radio station in or near Nashville began to broadcast episodes of the Shadow radio show from the late 1930s, the ones starring Orson Welles. The theme music was eerie and compelling, drawing the listener into the outré adventures of He Who Had the Power to Cloud Men’s Minds. No one I knew could tell me what that strange tune was. Fortunately, this was in the early years of a new cultural phenomenon, nostalgia, and every trip to the bookstore revealed a new volume on some aspect of the cultural ephemera of past decades, including radio. I knew of radio solely as a delivery system for current music, but as my dad told me at the time, it was in his youth the primary source of free entertainment in the home – musical, comedic, dramatic. Frightening.

More on that later. I think it was in a paperback edition of Jim Harmon’s 1967 book, The Great Radio Heroes, that I learned the provenance of that snippet of strange music. It turned out to be the middle section of a symphonic poem by Saint-Saëns, Omphale’s Spinning Wheel. Once I knew that, I began to search for more music by this new composer I’d discovered.

Skip years, indeed, decades ahead, and I’d just settled myself into my favorite spot on the couch to watch the first episode of Ratched. At that moment, my wife of nearly forty years came in, and I surrendered that spot, because when Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. It’s okay. The seat I gave up is slightly off-center to the TV mounted on the wall opposite, and the spot I almost always wind up in has a more straight-on view. Yeah. That’s the ticket.

For some reason, the subtitle function was turned on, which was fine. I watch a lot of films in languages I don’t understand, and I heartily despise dubbing. Nothing ruins the rhythm of a film than the dialogue being out of sync with the actors’ expressions and mouth movements. Give me subtitles, every time. So, I’m used to them, and made no particular effort to turn them off.

No issues with the first episode, although my lovely bride thought it moved a tad slowly. There was no title sequence that time out, the credits rolling at the end. And for just over five minutes, there was no such thing in the second episode.

And then, there was. I immediately recognized the music playing, although the first bit of it had been lopped off. It was Saint-Saëns’ 1874 tone poem Danse Macabre, a piece I play heavily around Halloween, for it is spooky and creepy and laden with dire forebodings.

And then, I noticed the subtitle that popped up as soon as the discordant violin screeched out its first few notes.[haunting classical music playing]

Say, what? Haunting classical music? Haunting classical music?!?!?!? Does no one at Netflix have access to a decent music library? This piece has a name, a title that has been well-known for one hundred and forty-six years. That’s as bad as people calling the tango Al Pacino danced with Gabrielle Anwar in Scent of a Woman ‘the tango from Scent of a Woman’, as if that’s its title. It’s not. It’s called Por Una Cabeza, and it’s by Carlos Gardel, a significant composer of Latin music in the first half of the 20th Century. It’s not quite as bad as pronouncing Porsche as a one-syllable name, but still, come on! Is it all that much trouble to identify a major piece of music by its actual name?

Ahem. Sorry ‘bout that.

Danse Macabre was based on a Late Medieval allegorical theme of death as the one truly universal reality, and its application in a variety of artistic expressions. Paintings, frescoes and woodcuts depicting souls of all financial stations and every societal stratum dancing their ways along to the grave accompanied by decomposing corpses and animated skeletons were all the rage in the waning decades of the Middle Ages, and into the Renaissance. 

I know most folks think of the term ‘classical music’ as encompassing all that stuff you had to sit through during school field trips to the local symphony hall, but for the cognoscenti, classical refers to the music of roughly the 18th Century, composed by folks like Mozart and Haydn in an organically structured and sometimes excessively ornamental style that reflected the artistic sensibilities of the concurrent Rococo period in art and architecture. During the preceding century, more-or-less, both art and architecture on one hand and music on the other were done in what was known as Baroque style, which was also overly ornamented but with a somewhat more constrained, almost geometrical structure. Kind of. That’s very much a Reader’s Digest Condensed version of things, but not, I hope, totally off the mark. 

The 19th Century in music was dominated by the Romantic period, and Saint-Saëns was very much a Romantic composer. That word does not mean, as applied to the music of its time, what you think it does, just as an opera comique is not necessarily funny. Romantic in relation to the music of composers from Schubert and Beethoven in the early 19th Century to Dvorak and Verdi near the end of the century, and even beyond with Rachmaninoff and Ravel, was intended to produce within the listener a sort of naturalistic evocation of emotions, so that the music inspired more than merely an aesthetic response. It is no accident that the Romantic period in music coincided in its later decades with Impressionism in painting. The intended reaction from the consumer was the same in both areas, an empathic connection with the artist through the medium.

And Danse Macabre did produce an emotional reaction from early critics, indeed. It was not received well at first, as it was considered to be a source of anxiety for those who heard it. As I stated before, I know little about music theory, but I have been given to understand that there are certain key signatures that lend themselves particularly well to certain types of music, and even the emotions those pieces are meant to convey. According to what I have read on the subject, G Minor is one of those keys that tends to invoke dread and angst, and Danse Macabre is in that key. I’m going to go ahead and assume my informant was correct, for it does put the nerves on edge. 

Listen to it throughout that title sequence in Ratched, when and if you’re able to watch it, and see if it doesn’t augment the show’s overall feeling of fearful expectation, even more so perhaps than the story warrants. Then, listen to it in its entirety. 

Then, please don’t tell me you felt nothing from that – no frisson, as it were. I hope you do. I might just worry about you if not, just a little. 

Also, rest assured I won’t leave you hanging regarding all the possibly unfamiliar references above. I will, one of these days, wax poetic on horror as it was used in old time radio programs and operas, comique and otherwise, as well as by other composers, artists, and even architects. I might even explain just what is meant by a ‘slick magazine’, translate the Latin phrases I love tossing around like confetti, and reveal from what major genre work I lifted the neologism ‘gorgeosity’. Stay tuned.

And, as always, be afraid. Be very afraid.