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.