Saturday, October 6, 2012

My Stay at the House of Mystery Part 2:

 It’s my second night here, and guess what I’m going to review? That’s right, the very first issue of House of Mystery from 1951! (Well, technically, I’m reviewing the Millennium Edition reprint from 2000)
 I know DC’s horror comics have their fans, but by and large, DC’s horror anthology output was pretty weak. Welcome Back to the House of Mystery may not exactly have been the most sterling of compilations (What with it featuring stories that had already been reprinted, stories only reprinted because of the art, and stories not even from House of Mystery) but all in all it summed up DC’s horror output quite well. The main reason House of Mystery had lasted so long after the code was basically because, well, it really hadn’t gone for the kind of luridness that other publishers’ horror comics had reveled in.
 Thus, considering how tame DC’s horror comics were even in the 70s (Barring the occasional shocker from Michael Fleischer or John Albano, of course), you just have to cringe at the thought of how tame their early 50’s stuff had to have been! An unenthusiastic review that I remembered reading of this issue on some now gone and forgotten Geocities site that compared these stories to Scooby Doo plots wasn’t exactly encouraging. Nevertheless, I opened up this issue, and dug in.
 Color me surprised. While it’s true there’s no gore, crazy rambling plots, or cruelly ironic twist endings, so what? Horror should be all about the ambience, and this first issue gets by on atmosphere, characterization, and solid writing (Well, for comics). I wouldn’t exactly compare it to Val Lewton or something, but this is “clean” horror done right. While it’s true that two (Arguably three) of the four stories here have what modern audiences would call out as Scooby Doo endings, they both manage to be very entertaining and well thought out.
 So let’s explore these new rooms, the oldest ones in the house. Spoilers abound, as usual.
 Room #1: “I Fell in Love with a Witch”. Art by Curt Swan:
 A slightly shady but likeable private investigator named Carter Blake meets and befriends a woman named Jean Brewster while on a train, and various coincidences force them to continually run into each other. By the end of the day, they’re contemplating marriage.
 Sounds like a typical, poorly written comic book romance, right? No, because Blake himself begins to realize the ridiculousness of it all, and get suspicious when he considers all the coincidences that have led up to this after a friend jokes about how he barely knows Jean but is marrying her. Blake starts wondering if some sort of strange power is what has drawn him to her.
 Then he finds out that Jean has been married before, and every one of her husbands has died mysteriously, with rumors swirling that she’s jinxed or a witch. Gotta be a coincidence right? Then bizarre incidents occur which endanger his life, and each of them occurs after he kisses Jean. Still has to be a coincidence, right? Maybe his mind is playing tricks on him, or maybe an angry client is trying to kill him. He better think fast…
 How does this room check out? I’m going to spoil this one. It turns out that an angry client has been trying to kill Blake, and is responsible for cutting his tires, and the story apparently ends happily.
 However, there are several odd things that stick out, and leave me wondering if they really are just plot holes, or some of the most subtle writing I’ve read in horror comics. For example, it’s never revealed how all those strange circumstances occurred which drew Blake to Jean, or why her ex-husbands have all died. There’s also a scene where Jean reveals that what Blake thought was a mandrake root was actually driftwood from Cape Cod. Cape Cod is in Massachusetts, and we all know what happened there
 Is it possible that although Blake’s client was trying to kill him and Blake’s imagination filled in some details, Jean really is a witch, or at least a murderess? This isn’t just conjecture; there are actually bits in the story that support this, in spite of the all’s well that ends well final panel. If so, then that’s damn subtle writing for a 50’s comic book. If it isn’t, then that’s still impressive writing if the story can be that ambiguous unintentionally.
 In any case, I enjoyed this more than I expected to. Some parts are a little sexist, and there’s some stuff which can’t be explained away as intentional ambiguities, but it holds up surprisingly well. Also, who knew Curt “Superman” Swan could create such moody art? 4/5.
 Room #2: “Man or Monster?”. Art by Bob Brown:
 Dr. Jason Hunt jokingly writes down the formula for a Jekyll & Hyde type potion after visiting the home of a recently deceased man who was interested in the occult. He creates the potion as a joke, and stupidly puts it in a milk bottle. After his maid (Whom he seems to delight in telling to shut up) accidentally gives it to him and he drinks it, he becomes a monster and starts killing people every night.
 How does this room check out? Sounds pretty slapdash and unoriginal doesn’t it?
 Yes, in concept. But in execution, this is easily one of the most impressive and unique Jekyll & Hyde variations I’ve read in comics. For one thing, Hunt isn’t exactly a likeable character, but something of an ass. However, he doesn’t want to kill people, and even further, the people he targets aren’t just strangers, but his friends. You have to admit that’s a pretty creepy premise: You suddenly feel compelled to kill your friends, and don’t know why. Hunt’s guilt is believably portrayed, and when he learns what his evil self’s motivation is, he’s doubly horrified; because it’s over something he has genuinely forgiven and forgotten.
 Then there’s how his transformations are portrayed. Hunt doesn’t take the potion and expect different results, nor are the transformations uncontrollable; instead, he is compelled to continually drink the potion against his will. Taken out of context, the scenes of him trying to restrain himself read exactly like someone struggling with drug addiction:

I hate to say that this has happened to me a few times

 The ending is also surprisingly dark:
 Definitely the creepiest story in the book, even though it’s based on a theme that was done to death even then. Bob Brown’s art is also top notch. 5/5.
 Room #3: “The Curse of Seabury Manor”. Art possibly by Bernie Krigstein:
 Another old, familiar plot: A daredevil resolves to spend a night in a haunted house.
 This particular house has a curse on it so that whoever enters and leaves will die within 24 hours. Dan Perry is up to the challenge, and everything goes swell…until he gets the bright idea to go back to the house for proof that he was there.
 How does this room check out? If they gave industry awards for prose in comic books back in the 50s, this would have won for sure:
 This is a pretty straight-forward ghost story, and it’s similar to “I Fell in Love with a Witch” in that the supernatural is left ambiguous. The difference being that here, it’s clearly intentional and not just a plot hole that could possibly have been an intentional ambiguity.
 Like “Man or Monster”, the execution is what makes the stock plot work. The story is moody, establishes it’s characters and their personalities quickly and through their actions, and the ambiguity is perfectly played out: Perry’s tragic fate really could be either the work of a curse or caused by his own foolhardiness. This one doesn’t have an easy answer, and is all the spookier for it.
That's some pretty introspective characterization for 1951

 Oh, and by the way, it accomplishes all of this in just 4 pages. 4/5.
 Room #4: “Wanda was a Werewolf”. Art by John Prentice:
 An engineer named Doug goes to visit his fiancée Wanda in her home town. He soon finds that she and her family are quite unpopular with the locals, reason being that they’re werewolves. Or are they?
 How does this room check out? This one is also similar to “I Fell in Love with a Witch” in that it has a man suspecting his fiancée (Whose past he conveniently knows nothing about) of being a supernatural being. Unfortunately, it lacks that story’s ambiguity and atmosphere. This one fully cops to giving a “logical” explanation.
 There’s also some very funny writer-artist miscommunication going on, since although mention is made of Wanda leaving paw prints, her werewolf form is no different from her human form; she is merely shown running with wolves. Oh well, at least the artist delivered on the cover image, and the cartoony art style does give the local hillbillies an appealing Lil’ Abner feel. Enjoyable, and worthy of being the cover feature, even if it is the weakest story in the book. 3.5/5.
 Even considering all of its flaws, I still have to say this was a very impressive first issue. Only two of the stories (“Witch” and “Wanda”) used the Scooby Doo cop-out that I’ve heard the early issues of this series criticized for, and “Witch” was still plenty ambiguous. They were both still atmospheric and enjoyable, which is what should count. “Man or Monster?” and “Curse of Seabury Manor” are both fantastic chillers despite their stock plots, and easily the standouts of the issue. Sometimes it’s just nice to have a book where all the stories are good or at least enjoyable.
 Perhaps what sets this issue apart mainly though, is the feeling that the people who put this together cared. Most horror comics have a two-act set-up; introduction and then skip to the twist ending. These stories all go out of their way to follow a three act structure and to make room for characterization and mood setting. These stories are also very text heavy, and that text is very well-written, suggesting that whoever wrote these stories took inspiration from the classier horror radio shows of the time, or from some of the more intellectual horror writers. It would explain the restraint on monsters and violence, as even the most violent story here (“Monster”) doesn’t show a single drop of blood, which is definitely a temptation to use when writing comics, since they are a visual medium.
 The House of Mystery comics published from the 60s to the 80s were definitely some weak stuff enlivened mostly by the art, and it’s quite possible that the decay had set in even earlier, and that I might hate the subsequent pre-code issues of this series if I were to ever get my hands on them. However, for this first issue, I can certainly say that House of Mystery was well worth spending a night at.
The continental breakfast sucks though

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