It seems you couldn’t go wrong with a collection of DC’s anthology horror stories. They had fantastic artists working for them like Wrightson, Joe Orlando, Wally Wood (The latter two being EC alumni), their premiere horror title House of Mystery lasted all the way from 1951 to 1983, and they published the famous “Hopping down the bunny trail” story in Unexpected that a truly shocking number of people who don’t read comics are familiar with. In what ways could you possibly go wrong with such a collection?
Well, haphazardly chosen stories, outright stinkers chosen because of good art, focus on only one era of the comic’s history, inclusion of stories that are not even from House of Mystery (Although to be fair, this gets commented on in the framing sequence), and modern comedic vignettes by Sergio Aragones that are often more entertaining than the stories themselves are some of the ways.
Now, this is not a collection you should pass up, by all means. If you see it, get it. The majority of this stuff has never been reprinted elsewhere to the best of my knowledge (Though to be fair, I don’t know how far the Showcase TPBs have gotten); it’s just that you can see why it hasn’t. Thus, if you need my opinion rammed down your throat, feel free to keep reading. Also, spoilers.
This piece of real estate is about to be evaluated, room by room.
Room #1: “The Gourmet” from Plop! #1, by Steve Skeates & Bernie Wrightson.
Isn’t it a great sign when a “best of” collection starts out with a story that isn’t even from the series it purports to collect? Actually, I can overlook this, because it’s one of the better tales in this collection.
The aptly named Vernon Glute is a rich man who likes eating frog legs and exotic fruits. Since he demands his frog legs to be as fresh as possible, his chef slaughters the frogs right in the kitchen. However, one day, the chef is mysteriously attacked, with a strange screeching noise coming from the kitchen, as if dozens of wheels are spinning. What could be the cause?
How does this room check out? Not bad, that’s a fantastically surreal image to end a story on! Sadly, that isn’t the end, it continues for another page, and then it just gets stupid, not to mention that it doesn’t make a lick of sense. Plop! was intended to be a horror/comedy series, and this story fails because Skeates didn’t end the joke while it was still funny. That image of the frogs cornering Glute is the perfect “punchline”.
Also, Vernon Glute may come off as kind of a dick, but since it’s not he who cuts off the frog’s legs, but his chef, as well as that he apparently has no knowledge of the fact that the chef is letting the frogs live with their limbs chopped off instead of humanely killing them, he doesn’t quite come off as deserving of his fate. Still, it’s a good concept with nice art. 3/5.
Room #2: “Sno’ fun” by Sergio Aragones (As the writer!) and Wally Wood from House of Mystery #199.
Dr. Peterson murders his colleague so that he can take credit for finding a lost civilization in Antarctica. He ends up being trapped underground after falling through a crack in the ice, where he is taken in by a strange race of creatures that devolved from humans, and who melt when exposed to normal temperatures.
Slowly, he adapts to the environment, and escapes, only to find out that he’s changed more than he’s realized:
"and all that I can say is that I hate the smell of ammonia and grow faint at a draught of unusually cool air "
How does this room check out? Pretty good, even though the ending is a bit predictable for anyone who has ever read Lovecraft’s “Cool Air”. The Antarctic creatures are fascinatingly weird; I wouldn’t mind seeing them brought into DC continuity (Marvel brings monsters from its horror and sci-fi comics into continuity all the time). Wally Wood’s art is fine as usual. 4/5.
Room #3: “Nightmare” by Neal Adams from House of Mystery #186.
A young girl with shitty parents has bizarre dreams involving a vaguely pedophilic monster.
Nah, it’s nothing like that. It’s a story about a lonely little girl in a Dickensian household who becomes friends with the god Pan in her dreams, and he saves her from some nightmare monsters.
How does this room check out? It tries to be a tearjerker, but c’mon, it’s about Pan (The greek satyr god who screws anything that moves) following a little girl around trying to take her to “his world” and making her close her eyes for a "surprise".
"Hello, Dateline? This is going to sound kind of weird..."
I’m sure Adams was trying to pattern the relationship of the girl and Pan off of Lucy and Tumnus from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, but it just comes off as creepy. If anyone other than Adams had drawn this story no one would remember it. Nice work on the monsters though. Good pacing too, for a story with such big panels. 2.5/5.
Room #4: “Secret of the Egyptian Cat” by Bob Kanigher & Bernie Wrightson from House of Mystery #186 (Man, they just love that issue, don’t they?).
Fun fact: Bernie Wrightson invented furry porn:
Yeah that’s right internet, once again the world of comic books has pre-dated your depravity.
How does this room check out? The heroine is a woman turned into a cat, so the evil sorcerer who did the deed gets his comeuppance by being turned into a…You know what? Let’s make this review interactive and offer up a guessing game for what he gets turned into:
A) A mouse.
C) A red laser pointer dot (My two cats love chasing those around)
D) A fuzzy ball.
E) Steve Gutenberg.
Winner gets a special Blu-Ray double feature of The Day the Clown Cried and London after Midnight with commentary by D.B. Cooper, Bigfoot and the guy who killed OJ’s wife. 1.5/5.
Room #5: “The House of Endless Years” by Gerry Conway & Bill Draut from House of Secrets #83.
Some kids find a mysterious old mansion while looking for their lost brother. The owner of the place is an old hag who everyone in the village remembers as being old even several decades ago. What is her secret?
How does this room check out? This is interesting, because it’s one of the earliest “horror” issues of HOS after a decade of that title being devoted to science fiction and superheroes (Such as Bernard Baily's masterpiece Prince Ra-Man). The twist here is pretty good: All I’m going to say is that the old hag’s secret isn’t that she’s immortal. 3/5.
Room #6: “The Demon Within” by John Alabano & Jim Aparo from House of Mystery #201.
A little boy has the ability to turn into a monster, which he uses to go around pulling pranks on people. His parents, who seem to be less concerned with the fact that their son can turn into a freakin’ monster, and more concerned over the “impropriety” of it all, resort to desperate measures to make the boy “normal”. I’m not spoiling this one.
I never thought Jim Corrigan would be such a strict dad
How does this room check out? Best story in this collection so far. This is one of those stories that works because so much goes unexplained: How did the kid acquire his ability? Why do people act as if the kid is just being really obnoxious instead of, you know, calling the National Guard because there’s a monster on the loose?
All in all, it’s a memorably weird story that serves as a metaphor for how parents try to force their kids to be normal through medication, etc. It actually won Albano an award. 4/5.
Room #7: “The Burning” by Jack Oleck & Mike Sekowsky (With inks by Tom Palmer) from House of Mystery #206.
A man named Adam Strat wakes up with no memory in the home of an old witch named Meg. Although Meg is a witch, she is kind to Adam, but he wants nothing to do with her and sells her out to the villagers (Even though they shun him) to be burned at the stake. He’s about to discover why he has no memories…
How does this room check out? My personal favorite of the collection, even though the dialogue is weak and Tom Palmer obviously re-drew this entire story himself. It’s a nasty little revenge yarn that would have fit in perfectly with the EC’s. Somewhere, Nathaniel Hawthorne is smiling. I also really like how the witch’s accuser is an outcast himself; people too often forget that in real witch-hunts in the past, it was usually society’s scummiest outcasts who did the accusing, often because they were afraid of being accused themselves. 4/5.
Room #8: “His Name is Kane” by Mike Friedrich & Gil Kane from House of Mystery #180.
Gil Kane kills Mike Friedrich for harassing him with deadlines, so he gets sucked into his own artwork. Huh?
How does this room check out? An odd self-referential piece which comes off even odder when you consider just how limited Friedrich’s output had been up to this point in his career. Guess you’re never too young for self-parody. Amusing and well-drawn, but nothing more. 2/5.
Room #9: “Oh Mom! Oh Dad! You’ve sent me away to summer camp and I’m so sad!” by Michael Fleischer & Alex Nino from House of Mystery #212.
A young boy named Richie who is confined to a wheelchair gets dumped at a summer camp by his parents, and is tormented by the other children because they think he’s a “spy” for the counselors. Then kids start mysteriously dying… Then counselors start mysteriously dying…
How does this room check out? Although the sci-fi twist ending may ruin it for some, this is definitely the creepiest and most suspenseful story in the book. Michael Fleischer does a great job capturing the protagonist’s vulnerability and isolation, as well as the cruelty and paranoia of the other children. Only problem is Alex Nino’s art, which perfectly suits surreal, otherworldly stories, but feels a bit out of place for a story that’s supposed to be realistic up until the twist. 4/5.
Room #10: “Molded in Evil” by Ed Noonchester, George Kashdan & Bernie Wrightson from Plop! #5.
Pierre Gouny is a sculptor who has found a way to make his sculptures come to life, and he intends to create a beautiful young woman whom he can run away with. However, his nagging wife destroys the statue, so Pierre kills her and makes her corpse up to look like a gargoyle:
I would have watched "Norbit' if it had ended like this
How does this room check out? Ah good, a Plop! story that’s funny!
Keep the womenfolk away from this one at all costs. 3.5/5.
Well, five out of ten isn’t bad, but all in all, this is a pretty mediocre “Best of” collection. I mean, even if it was a set-up for a gag, it’s pretty telling when you have to include stories from other series. Maybe this was done as a shout-out to the 1972 Amicus Tales from the Crypt movie, where only a few stories were actually from Tales from the Crypt, but I doubt it.
Oh, by the way, all of the Bernie Wrightson stories from this issue had already been reprinted before in DC’s Masterworks Series of Great Comic Book Artists #3, so they definitely weren’t chosen for quality, but just to save on printing plate costs. How lazy can you get?
All in all, it was fun to be welcomed back to the House of Mystery, but I wouldn’t want to stay there again at those prices, especially with such hit-and-miss room quality...
Oh wait? What’s that? I get another free night? Looks like I’m going to be staying a little while longer after all!