Friday, October 10, 2014

Frank Belknap Long's forgotten fiend: The Living Ghost!

 I know it’s a point I bring up a lot, but the influence of the pulp authors on the comics cannot be overstated. Often, pulp writers and artists could be found writing for comics while on their way up or on their way out. Gardner Fox gave us The Flash, Hawkman, The Sandman, Starman, Doctor Fate and dozens of others, Edmond Hamilton gave us Batwoman, The Batmen of all Nations, Chris KL-99 and a bunch of canon-fodder Legionnaires, Alfred Bester gave us the Green Lantern oath, Vandal Savage and some zombie guy, Frank R. Paul drew the iconic cover of Marvel Comics #1, Matt Fox drew some incredible Atlas horror stories, Virgil Finlay gave us Tommy Tomorrow and Frank Belknap Long gave us The Living Ghost.
 The Living Ghost??!!
 Who, or more precisely, what is The Living Ghost?
Boy is that a million dollar question. You see, even Frank Belknap Long and co-creator Fred Guardineer (of DC comics and Lev Gleason fame, not an artist you’d think would be suited to horror, but just wait) didn’t seem to know!

 Just look at him: He’s called a ghost, but he has fangs and claws like a vampire, looks like a zombie (and is that eye supposed to be missing or just blind?) and as we’ll later see, he has cloven hooves and demonic powers. He also has wolves celebrating his misdeeds (and no, that’s not just for symbolism) and apparently likes to steal corpses from graves. It’s every possible monster cliché you can think of! All he needs to be doing is threatening to pour molten lead on that woman (or approaching her with a sacrificial knife) and it would be a perfect pulp cover.

 Vaguely defined and cliché as the Ghost himself may have been, the story that introduced him to the world featured some interesting “firsts”, not the least of which was that it was featured in ACG’s Adventures into the Unknown #1, the first ever continuously published horror comic!
 Here’s the atmospheric cover, and a word from the publisher, partly to welcome readers to the new series, partly to make sure that kids reading this didn’t get too scared by reassuring them that ghosts did not exist, and partly to reassure parents that the writers didn’t take it seriously either (not that that would help in a few years):


Now on to the story.
 The whole affair began at a railroad switching station, as the operator was suddenly startled by a ghastly sight:

 After killing the operator, the Ghost switched the wrong tracks, causing a horrific train wreck:

 We’re only a page and a half in and that’s already quite a body count!
 Who could possibly stand up to a being like the Living Ghost? Well, if you’ve ever watched any movies featuring synthetic flesh, devil bats, missing guests, men who could not hang and unfunny slasher parodies, surely you’d know the only person qualified to investigate something like this (besides superheroes or occult detectives) are nosy, story-starved reporters! That nosy reporter in question was Gail Leslie, “The Scoopless Wonder” according to her assistant DA boyfriend Tony Brand, and yes, their relationship was just as cringe-worthy as you’d think:

 Gail thought she smelled gunpowder, but Tony assured her it wasn’t a shooting.

 That very night, the Living Ghost committed his second major atrocity. He randomly attacked a couple in lovers’ lane by flipping their car off a cliff with them in it:

 Somewhat low-key compared to causing a train wreck, but pretty chilling just the same.
 Gail and Tony investigated the next morning, and Gail again noted the stench of gunpowder in the air, only this time she wasn’t so sure it was gunpowder, but brimstone:

 What an asshole.
 Gail discovered a hoof-like mark nearby and followed the trail it left, eventually reaching a cave, only to find herself being watched:

 The Ghost trailed her home and abducted her, also giving us an unintentionally hilarious glimpse of his dainty little hooves while flying:

 When Tony came to pick her up, he found the name “The Living Ghost” scrawled on the wall and the Ghost’s face embedded into a shard from a broken mirror. That’s right; the Ghost is so ugly his image can embed itself in mirrors! (I’m willing to bet the cops who examined the inside of that flipped car got a similar nasty shock):

 Tony then went to see Dr. Vandyke, a professor of the occult who had heard of the Living Ghost and gave us the closest thing we’d get to an explanation of what he is:

  Apparently he was Malevo, “The personification of black evil itself”, more evil than Satan and condemned to wander the earth in “human shape” for eternity. Well…at least it explains the hooves.
 Vandyke said that because Malevo was only part human (based on the story, shouldn’t he not be human at all?), there was no way to stop him, no way at all…except for an olive branch that could render him mortal, that Vandyke conveniently happened to have.

 Well, that was suspenseful.
Meanwhile, back at the cave, Malevo decided not to kill Gail but to instead make her his queen. In order to impress her, he decided to demonstrate his power by summoning forth all the evil spirits who were in his debt. While needless to say that seeing something like that failed to impress (only terrify) Gail, his display certainly did impress someone: The reader.

 Fred Guardineer went all out showing the various ghoulies answering Malevo’s call. Here’s the whole page:
You can just hear "Night on Bald Mountain" playing

 Sure they’re mostly just skeletons, but that page alone probably made any reader who was disappointed thus far with this issue feel they had gotten their money’s worth. I love how it’s mostly silent and Guardineer makes sure to show the same creatures we saw rising show up in line. Keeping panel-to-panel continuity was no small feat back then. Definitely the highlight of the story.
 Meanwhile, Tony was passing through and witnessed the parade of monsters heading toward the cave and followed them. He saw what was going to happen, so he did the logical thing: He decided to infiltrate them by smearing mud all over himself. Somehow it worked (I like to think the other ghouls didn’t say anything because they thought he died very recently and wanted to be accommodating to the new guy).

 When the monsters arrived at the cave, Gail was so repulsed she gave in to marrying Malevo, so long as he made the other monsters go away.

 However, by sending all the others back, Tony’s ruse was exposed. A fight ensued, with Tony eventually robbing Malevo of his powers and trapping him under a huge boulder.

 And now for the craziest part of the story: Rather than just leaving him there, Tony called the cops on the fiend, who saw to it that the centuries old villain was tried, convicted and sentenced to death! (Now that would have been a trial to see).
  But suddenly!
  Yes, The Living Ghost’s powers returned, and he swore he’d be back for revenge next issue!
  Yes indeed folks, The Living Ghost was no one-shot anthology story villain, he actually was intended to become an ongoing feature in Adventures into the Unknown. And I bet all this time you thought I was covering some non-series horror story just because Long wrote it.

The sequel began with Tony and Gail at a mountain retreat, trying to forget their strange encounter, although if you ask me, constantly referring to him as you know who and making asides to “his ghostly kind’ being gone for good isn’t the way to go about it.

 Of course, Malevo was up to his old tricks, and tried to abduct Gail again that very night, only to get socked by Tony (You know you’ve fallen on hard times when you’re older and more powerful than Satan himself but can be knocked off your feet by a punch from an ordinary man).

 Still, Malevo triumphed and made off with Gail. Tony later decided to investigate rumors of smoke that smelled of brimstone coming from the same mountain where Gail had been abducted.

 Sure enough, it was Malevo, who is apparently so scary even bears and mountain lions fear him:
 Unfortunately, Malevo had placed zombie guards everywhere. Tony decided to get help from Dr. Vandyke again, but he didn’t exactly have the most comforting things to say:

 Until that is, Tony happened to spy a painting of another vaguely-defined ghost/demon/sorcerer thing; The Dark Phantom, who was Malevo’s greatest enemy.

 Tony hit upon the idea to enlist this being as an ally despite him supposedly being more evil than Malevo. Vandyke claimed that little was known about the Phantom, only that he was destined to be destroyed by a human who carried around an ancient symbol of destiny- - -which Vandyke conveniently happened to have again.


 Tony then met up with a medium named Mavelli, who contacted emissaries of the Phantom’s, who then took him to their dimension:

 The Phantom was initially hostile, until Tony told him he could lead him to Malevo. The two flew off together to hunt down their mutual foe.

 The most badass fight of all time ensued, at least, when it comes to fights between skeletons wearing dresses :

The Phantom eventually overpowered Malevo, and imprisoned him in rock.

However, you don’t get called “dark phantom” because you’re good with children, and the Phantom then decided to kill Gail for the fun of it:

 However, Tony pulled out the destiny stone, destroying the Phantom.

Things seemed fine, except, now that the Phantom was gone, his spells were also undone:

What kind of revenge would Malevo seek on our heroes next? What one-of-a-kind magical item would Dr. Vandyke coincidentally have lying around to help Tony?
 Sadly, we never found out. The Living Ghost was never seen again. Apparently it wasn’t because ACG was averse to running a series, as a truly ridiculous and much longer-lived series called “Spirit of Frankenstein” soon popped up in its place.
 The two Living Ghost stories aren’t exactly masterpieces, and I probably wouldn’t be posting about them if it wasn’t for who wrote them and the significance of where they debuted. Still, there are some interesting elements to these stories I find worth exploring.
 One is how Malevo goes about his campaign to conquer the world. He gets off to a good start with the train wreck, but then goes after some random couple in lovers’ lane! Malevo as a character has no depth, and his design is so overdone it’s hard to really find him scary, but there are ways to make “embodiments of evil” like him work, and having him go around committing random murders for the sheer joy of it, regardless of how long it will take him to achieve his goal, is a good way of doing it. Dark lords often do not make for scary villains because the threat they pose is on such a grand scale it’s hard to imagine them coming after the reader and lurking in the hallway. Malevo though, you can easily imagine doing that. He’s in it for sheer sadistic pleasure, even though he could presumably conquer the world easily with the legion of monsters he has at his disposal, and with the Dark Phantom dead, he would presumably have even more power over various supernatural beings.
 Then there’s the lovers’ lane sequence itself.

 Consider for a moment that this story was published in 1948. Today, stories of couples being killed in lovers’ lanes or stalked by some monstrous figure are a staple of the horror genre, with at least two major urban legends (The Hook and The Boyfriend’s Death) attached to it, each with dozens of variations that someone will insist is the one true version. However, most of the research involved in those two legends pinpoints their origins in the early 1960’s, with possible precursors in 1950’s oral tradition (which has proven impossible to date), long after this story was published. What is interesting about those earliest mentions of the legend is that they were in a true crime context, and not a spooky context. This story does provide a spooky context for the murder, and it is not hard to see the outré character of the Living Ghost morphing into the comparatively believable escaped maniac or hook-handed man in retellings.

 Of course, a popular theory is that such “lovers’ lane” legends have their roots in the Texarkana “Moonlight Murders” of 1946, which eventually inspired the film The Town that Dreaded Sundown (soon to be remade). Perhaps Long knew about the crimes and was thinking of them when writing this story, tasteless as that would seem.
 Then again, maybe Long was just remembering 1933’s The Invisible Man, where not only is a car flipped off a cliff, but a train is derailed too. Claude Rains’s “Murders of big men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction” would have made an excellent Malevo line.
 And finally, what are we to make of this bizarre quote from Fredric Wertham when referring to Law against Crime #3 (also published in 1948)? “The wish to hurt or kill couples in lover’s lane is a not uncommon perversion”. Maybe he really had encountered multiple patients who had thoughts of doing so, or maybe he just got the idea, as he would say about his own patients, from reading too many comic books. If he did, this may have been one of them.
 Getting back to the story and away from the world of not-quite-true stories, we also have the enigmatic character of Dr. Vandyke. It’s easy to write him off as a plot device for Tony to receive magical items from, but where did he get all those items? Wouldn’t he be a regular target for various cults? How does he know so much about creatures so obscure they apparently aren’t known in mainstream folklore? Why does he question the existence of the Dark Phantom although he knows of Malevo? Then there’s his passive, sometimes cold and unfeeling attitude, rarely leaving his desk even though he could have easily become part of the action.

 There’s an awful lot in these stories that revolve around Vandyke, but he himself doesn’t appear in them much. One has to wonder if future stories would have repeated the formula of the first two, or if there would be some sort of revelation involving him. He’s one of the more interesting Van Helsing figures in comics, in any case.

 Also, just one more time, the “monster rally” sequence is awesome, distractingly cute though those bats may be.

 Compared to other villains and monsters who had their own series during the 40s, The Living Ghost doesn’t quite stand up to The Claw, Madame Satan, The Black Widow, Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein or The Heap. I don’t even know if I can say he rivals Landor, maker of monsters! Still, he could have done worse….ACG could have brought him back in the 60’s just to get bopped with a lollipop by Herbie Popnecker.
 Let the final fate of Malevo, Tony, Gail and Dr. Vandyke remain a mystery. Long, if he ever even thought about it, probably would have wanted it that way.
"Here I am like a kid out of school, holding hands with a god..."

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