Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Richard Matheson Part One: Ride the Nightmare [8.11]

by Jack Seabrook

In David Cronenberg's 2005 film, A History of Violence, a woman living peacefully with her husband in a small town discovers that he has a criminal past that was completely unknown to her. The catalyst for this discovery is a sudden explosion of violence, followed by the arrival of an old associate of her husband's.

Richard Matheson portrayed a similar situation in his 1959 novel Ride the Nightmare, a paperback original published by Ballantine and based on Matheson's short story, "Now Die In It," which had been published in December 1958 in the first issue of a digest called Mystery Tales.

Born in New Jersey in 1926, Richard Matheson served in the Army in WWII and began having short stories published in 1950. His first novel followed in 1953, and he began writing screenplays in 1957 with The Incredible Shrinking Man, based on his own novel. Teleplays were added to his body of work in 1959, and his many credits over the following decades included scripts for The Twilight Zone and the Edgar Award-winning teleplay for The Night Stalker (1972). Lauded with accolades in later years, he won the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement, and a place in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. He died in 2013.

Hugh O'Brian as Chris
Ride the Nightmare is a short novel that is divided into three sections: Wednesday Night, Thursday Morning, and Thursday Afternoon. The story begins as the telephone rings in the home of Chris and Helen Martin; the caller asks for Chris Phillips and Helen assumes it's a wrong number, but the caller tells Chris that he is going to kill him. Chris refuses to call the police and he and Helen lock the doors and windows, afraid for their own safety and that of their young daughter, Connie. A man with a gun breaks a window and enters the kitchen, where he and Chris struggle until the man succeeds in holding the couple at gunpoint. Helen learns that the stranger, whose name is Cliff, holds a grudge against Chris, who has a past about which she never knew. After another struggle, Chris kills the man with a kitchen knife.

Helen is shocked to discover that her husband has a criminal past; he confesses to her that he was the driver in a 1943 bank robbery gone bad and that, although he escaped, his three partners were sentenced to life in prison. Before they can clean up the blood, neighbors arrive to borrow some ice cubes, a mundane interaction made suspenseful by Helen's fear that Cliff's body will be discovered. After the neighbors leave, Chris and Helen take their sleeping child and drive toward the hills outside Santa Monica, California, intending to bury the body. Another tense moment occurs when they are stopped for speeding  by a policeman, but they manage to remain calm and he does not discover the corpse. They drive to Topanga Canyon, where Chris buries Cliff's body by the side of the road. Helen recalls how she and Chris met and fell in love; in retrospect she remembers events that she discounted at the time that might have suggested that he was hiding aspects of his past.

Gena Rowlands as Helen
In the morning, Helen tells Chris that she plans to take Connie to stay with her mother, but Chris is distracted when the telephone rings again and Adam is calling--he is another member of Cliff's gang. Chris agrees to meet Adam, who demands $3000 for his silence. Chris hides this from Helen, afraid of going to jail himself and concerned about preserving the music store he has spent years building into a successful business. Helen visits Chris at the store and tells him that Connie has been kidnapped. Chris visits the bank to withdraw the money and is impatient when he has to hide his sense of urgency, first from a woman who talks about an upcoming concert and then from the bank employees who are slow to release the funds. Chris drives Helen to Latigo Canyon, where he is intercepted by Adam, who reveals that the final gang member, Steve, is holding Connie in a shack. Chris and Adam fight, Adam's car goes off a cliff, and Chris forces Adam at gunpoint to lead him and Helen to the shack, where Chris shoots Steve in the shoulder before he is kicked unconscious by Adam.

The third and final section of the novel finds Helen returning to the shack to protect her daughter as Steve, badly wounded, begs for a doctor. Adam gives Chris 45 minutes to return with a physician and Chris must drive back toward Santa Monica; on the way, he is again delayed by a policeman who stops him for speeding. He visits his doctor's office but cannot convince the man to accompany him; he returns home to get Cliff's gun and is forced to bring Helen's mother back to the shack when she discovers him with the weapon. At the shack, Steve is near death and he and Adam fight over another gun as Helen and Connie run outside and escape into the bushes behind the building. Adam kills Steve and then chases the hostages into a small canyon, where Helen uses kitchen matches to set the dry brush on fire after she realizes that she is trapped.

John Anderson as Adam
Chris returns to the shack and, after finding Steve dead, he sees Adam running, consumed by flames. He locates Helen and Connie in the burning canyon and helps them climb to safety. Back at home, Chris tells Helen that he will finally go to the police and come clean, as she asks him to give her a chance to process their new relationship.

Ride the Nightmare is a short, suspenseful novel that benefits from attention to structure but shows some of the hallmarks of having been expanded from a short story. Matheson remarked that a few of the scenes have a British feel to them, such as the one in the bank where Chris must engage in small talk while feeling that he is working against the clock. There are three such scenes in all: the others are the neighbors' request for ice cubes and the trip to the doctor's office. Having Chris stopped for speeding by a policeman twice in the same book is once too many, and the segments where first Helen and then Chris reminisce about how they met and fell in love and how the business was developed seem like padding. The author's decision to confine the events of the story to a period of less than twenty-four hours serves to keep the action moving and the tale speeds along briskly from start to finish. It may be over-reading, but one might suggest that a cliff sets the story in motion (when Cliff telephones Chris) and another cliff ends it (when the Martins climb to safety up a canyon cliff to escape the fire). In between cliffs, they race through a valley of despair, created by an old crime and a long period of concealment.

Three years after the novel was published, Richard Matheson was hired to adapt it for an early episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Directed by Bernard Girard, "Ride the Nightmare" aired on CBS on Thursday, November 29, 1962. Matheson later complained about the difficulty of condensing a novel to fill an hour long television slot, and the episode starts out well but ends badly.

Opening with a point of view shot taken from the perspective of Cliff (Fred in the TV show) as his car approaches the Martin home, there is a dissolve to the interior of the house. The camera zooms in on the telephone as it starts to ring. The early scenes with Chris and Helen inside the house benefit greatly from high-contrast lighting and many shadows. It quickly becomes apparent that Matheson chose to delete the character of Connie from his teleplay; instead of a family of three, the Martins are a family of two. Rather than refusing to call the police, Chris pretends to call them and acts out his end of the conversation for Helen to hear. There is a nice, stylized shot of Helen's face framed by a shelf--she looks like she is on the outside looking in on something disturbing, i.e., the threat of violence that disrupts an otherwise uneventful evening.

At the end of the fight in the kitchen, Chris shoots Fred with Fred's gun, perhaps because this seemed more visually exciting than having the killing be done with a knife as it is in the novel. The cast of characters continues to be diminished when neighbor Bill visits for ice cubes; his wife from the novel is nowhere in sight. The scene where the policeman pulls Chris's car over for speeding is also gone, as are the recollections of earlier times by Chris and Helen. When Adam telephones, the couple are not cleaning up blood, nor does Helen plan to go to her mother's house; in fact, the mother has been eliminated. Chris works at "the plant" and does not own a music store. Since Connie no longer exists, Helen is the kidnap victim. One scene that does survive mostly intact in the transition from the novel to the small screen is the one in the bank; Matheson must have liked this scene, since he mentioned it in an interview years later.

The novel Ride the Nightmare was
based on the story, "Now Die in It"
Since Helen is being held hostage at the shack, Chris must drive there alone. After he shoots Steve, the TV show diverges greatly from the novel, as Chris and Helen run off into the brush together, chased by Adam. The chase continues into a canyon, where the couple are cornered and Chris sets fire to the dry grass. When Adam backs off and appears to be engulfed in flames, Chris and Helen climb to safety and return to their car, sitting quietly as fire trucks and a police car pass them by.

Matheson's teleplay jettisons nearly the entire third section of the novel, replacing it with a chase scene and a wildfire that makes little sense, since the way it is filmed suggests that Adam should have been able to back away from the flames with ease. In the end, Chris and Helen exchange knowing looks and that's all--there is no promise to go to the police and no discussion of a new life together. Director Girard fails to create a sense that the couple are trapped with no choice but to start the fire; this makes Chris's decision to start a brush fire in the dry hills of Southern California seem bizarre and inappropriate, especially when viewed from the perspective of more than fifty years later. It's unfortunate that the story is wrapped up so quickly and ineffectively in the TV version, because the opening scenes portray a good sense of menace and the novel is much more successful in creating suspense.

"Ride the Nightmare" is a rare miss for Bernard Girard (1918-1997), who wrote and directed movies and TV shows from the late 1940s until the early 1970s. He directed twelve episodes of the Hitchcock series and the other three reviewed so far in this series have all been very good: "The Matched Pearl," "Blood Bargain" and "Water's Edge."
Olan Soulé as
Bill, the neighbor

Hugh O'Brian (1925-2016) stars as Chris; born Hugh Charles Krampe, he was in the Marines in WWII and had a long career on screen from 1948 to 2000. He became famous playing the title role in the TV show, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp from 1955 to 1961; this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series. He wrote an autobiography and there is a website devoted to his career here.

A fine actress with a long career, Gena Rowlands shines as Helen in this episode. Her career on screen began in 1954 and continues today; she has won four Emmy awards and was seen on the Hitchcock series four times. She was married to John Cassavetes, who also acted on the Hitchcock series, and she appeared in some of his films.

As Adam, the leader of the gang, John Anderson (1922-1992) gives another in a long line of strong performances. His extensive credits on TV and in the movies stretched from 1950 until his death, and he appeared in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) as well as in three episodes of his TV series. Other credits included roles on The Twilight Zone, Thriller and The Outer Limits.

George Gaynes as
the bank manager
The other roles on "Ride the Nightmare" are all small and are filled with character actors. The most notable are Olan Soulé (1909-1994), who plays the neighbor who comes to borrow ice cubes, and George Gaynes (1917-2016), who pays the bank manager. Soulé was on the Hitchcock show eight times and is best known for his voice acting, which began in the 1930s on the radio and lasted through the 1980s, especially as the voice of Batman in several cartoon series. Gaynes is best remembered today for his roles in the Police Academy  movies, his starring role in the TV series Punky Brewster (1984-1988), and his role as a hammy soap opera actor in Tootsie (1982).

Unfortunately, "Ride the Nightmare" is not currently available on DVD or online. The novel is now available as an e-book and can be ordered here. It was remade in 1970 as Cold Sweat, starring Charles Bronson. Thanks to John Scoleri for providing a copy of "Now Die In It."

Sources:
Bradley, Matthew R. Richard Matheson on Screen: A History of the Filmed Works. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. Print.
"The FictionMags Index." The FictionMags Index. Web. 20 Nov. 2016. <http://www.philsp.com/homeville/FMI/0start.htm>.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com, Web. 20 Nov. 2016. 
Matheson, Richard. "Now Die In It." 1958. Matheson Uncollected, Volume Two. Colorado Springs, CO: Gauntlet, 2010. 57-67. Print.
Matheson, Richard. Ride the Nightmare. Rosetta, LLC, 2014. Electronic. 1959.
"Ride the Nightmare." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 29 Nov. 1962. Television.
Scoleri, John. "Richard Matheson--The Original Stories: The Mystery Digests." Blog post. Bare Bones E-zine. 10 Oct. 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2016. <http://barebonesez.blogspot.com/2010/10/richard-matheson-original-stories.html>.
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. "Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 20 Nov. 2016. <http://philsp.com/>.
Weber, Bruce. "Richard Matheson: Writer of Haunted Science Fiction, Dies at 87." The New York Times 25 June 2013. Nytimes.com. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

In two weeks: "The Thirty-First of February" starring David Wayne and William Conrad!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Star Spangled DC War Stories Part 93: April/May 1967


The DC War Comics
1959-1976
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook


Kubert
 Our Army at War 179

"A Penny for Jackie Johnson!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"Charlie's Castle"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Jack Abel

Jack: Sharkey is the newest recruit in Easy Co. and he's a mountain man who has no time for Black soldiers like Jackie Johnson, even though Sgt. Rock tells him that the only color in Easy Co. is "G.I." Jackie bears the insults quietly but Bulldozer does not, though Sharkey turns out to be a tough fighter. The new man says that he doesn't shake hands with Black men--so he drops "A Penny for Jackie Johnson!" in the G.I.'s hand as if it were a tip. Jackie says he'll hold onto it until Sharkey asks for it back. Suddenly, machine gun fire erupts from the underbrush and the men of Easy Co. are in battle once again.

"A Penny for
Jackie Johnson!"
Though both Jackie and Sharkey acquit themselves admirably in the hand to hand combat that follows, Sharkey still has no respect for Jackie, and the penny burns a hole in the Black soldier's pocket. Rock takes the men out on a night patrol and more close fighting ensues, but when it ends Sharkey still clings to his hatred. A shot from a tank gun hits Sharkey and the tank rolls toward his body; Jackie leaps off of the rumbling machine and rescues his tormentor, carrying him back to camp. Next morning, Sharkey admits he has learned his lesson and asks for the return of his penny, which Jackie gives back.

Even though I knew it was coming, the end of this fairly powerful tale still set off a chorus of "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" in my head. Once again, Kanigher uses a contemporary theme to deepen the meaning of a story set decades before. With all of the strife going on today, in 2016, it's a good reminder to see how similar problems were overcome in the past.

Peter: "Jackie Johnson" has a good, solid story right up until the sappy climax, where stone-racist Sharkey has an epiphany before our eyes. It's too bad real life isn't that easy. I could have done without all the reminders that the penny was "burning a hole through Jackie's palm" but, still, the best Rock in quite a while.

"Charlie's Castle"
Jack: Raised in an orphanage, Charlie Carter joins the Army and feels at home for the first time. Each time he stops somewhere in Europe, he turns his temporary resting place into a cozy getaway. Charlie also happens to be a terrific soldier, though his motivation seems to be to locate good real estate and make it his for however long he can stay. When he finds himself alone and defending a pillbox formerly occupied by Nazis, no amount of enemy tanks or guns can dislodge him. Injured in the fighting, he makes his hospital bed his latest home.

A slight but enjoyable tale, with passable art by Jack Abel, "Charlie's Castle" is fun to read but goes nowhere in the end.

Peter: Seeing that Howard Liss wrote "Charlie's Castle," I was hoping for a little more psycho-analysis about Charlie's almost OCD-like complex, but the tale quickly devolves into Howard Chapman-esque redundancy about cleaning houses and a Hollywood happy ending. Even my heroes have feet of clay at times. In "Readers--Sound Off!," Big Bob gives over an entire page to the critiquing of recent Kanigher work by future film editor Paul Seydor (author of one of my all-time favorite film books, Peckinpah: The Western Film--A Reconsideration). 


Novick/Kubert
 Our Fighting Forces 106

"Trial by Fury!"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Jack Abel

"Hunter's Hellcats!"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Jack Abel

Jack: Capt. Hunter and Lu Lin finally find Hunter's brother, Phil, in a Viet Cong hut, awaiting transport to Hanoi for "Trial by Fury!" Capt. Hunter is captured and both brothers are taken through the jungle in cages strapped to elephants. Lu Lin helps fashion an escape but Phil is injured; Capt. Hunter isn't about to leave his brother behind now that he's found him. A final battle with a North Vietnamese soldier ends well for our hero, and the Hunters return safely to base, where their father shows them his new book: Lt. Hunter's Hellcats.

Welcome home, son!
A bizarre way to end this series, but welcome nonetheless because neither Peter nor I will miss Capt. Hunter and his Vietnamese kewpie doll. The first of a series of stories supposedly taken from Lt. Hunter's book follows, and it tells the tale of "Hunter's Hellcats!" Back in WWII, Lt. Ben Hunter enters the prison stockade and goes knuckle to knuckle with a soldier nicknamed Brute, defeating him and showing the other prisoners who's boss. Brute is joined by five other volunteers in forming the Hellcats, who follow Lt. Hunter on a mission to blow up an air base located inside a mountain on an island held by the Japanese.  After being let off near the island, the Hellcats fight their way through the jungle to the hidden base, where they con their way in, blow the place sky high, and get out safely.

Meet the
Hellcats!
Uh oh! This story is filled with more references to "Nips" and "Japs" than you can shake a stick of TNT at! It looks like DC's Vietnam experiment went down the drain and editor Bob Kanigher decided to give us more WWII hokum, based on the best-selling 1965 novel, The Dirty Dozen. Perhaps he knew a movie adaptation of the novel was coming out in June? Whatever the case, this series is off to a dreadful start and hopefully will improve over time.

Peter: Both "Trial by Fury" and "Hunter's Hellcats" prove that Howard Liss couldn't come up with the kind of magic he usually presented when saddled with the restrictions of a regular cast. Both stories are chock full of the usual Kanigher motifs: the unbelievable coincidences, cliched dialogue, and recycled plots. My favorite scene in any of the war titles this month would have to be Lu Lin and Hunter digging a pit and whittling several sharp stakes, all while running from the Cong. It was a foregone conclusion that Hunter's twin would be in that hut as he's been in most every village Hunter has traveled through on his Vietnam tour. My elation that Hunter's search has come to an end dissipated when I realized we were going to get yet another Hunter series, this time starring the pinnacle of DC war dads, Colonel Hunter. How about a Father of the Year award for the supportive Colonel, welcoming home his POW son in a most peculiar way: "Call this Kindergarten a war? Read about my war, boys!" And, holy hell, just like that, we're going to have to read about his war. For the next two years and a total of seventeen installments, unfortunately (the first eight of which are assigned to the same Liss/Abel team), we'll doubtless be subject to the same kind of "impossible mission" as the James Bond-esque adventure the Seamy Seven tackle this issue. Every Kanigher series has a mantra and HH is no exception; expect that Brute will be endlessly reminding Hunter that, when the war is over, he'll get "another crack at him" and Hunter will be looking over his shoulder at the miscreants following him.


Heath
 G.I. Combat 123

"The Target of Terror!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath

"Sausage Pilot!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Irv Novick

Peter: Commander Jeb Stuart receives an important message from his CO that Mademoiselle Marie requires the assistance of some big guns pronto, so he instructs his men to make short work of the German tank that has its sights on them at the moment. Nazis in the grave, the Haunted Tank heads for Marie's coordinates but, along the way, Jeb (the Commander) gets some of the usual philosophical, but vague, advice from Jeb Stuart (the ghost): "The mission you go on will be veiled in smoke to all--" Jeb thanks his ghostly bodyguard for nothing and heads into the unknown. When the boys finally roll up to the lovely Marie, she's taking out a Panzer with a machine gun but finishes her work in time to tell Jeb that she has a form of amnesia and can't remember "The Target of Terror!" they're looking for. No problem for Jeb, as he fires up the tank and heads into several skirmishes, hoping to find the right target. Marie pooh-poohs each and every one as "just not right," until the group happens upon a deserted castle in the forest and, suddenly, Marie knows that "thees ees zee one, Jeb!" Sure enough, the courtyard is full of terror-rockets aimed at London (don't ask Jeb how he knows that). Jeb and Marie arm the explosives and blow the castle to hell. Jeb begs Marie to come back to civilization with him but Marie insists that the underground is where she belongs.

I can just imagine how happy Jack is to see his favorite character, Mlle. Marie, back in action, and I have to admit that the pretty little ball of fire adds some needed pizzazz to the proceedings. It's lucky the Jeb ran across the castle or this "Terror Tour" might have made it all the way to Berlin before finding a target worthy of Marie's faulty memory. As usual, Russ Heath makes the entire thing much more bearable; his men are gritty in that Kubert way but his Marie is soft and lovely and the action scenes are filled with immediacy and realism. But, seriously, why would you summon a ghost who gives you nothing but riddles if, in the end, the information never helps you in your task?

Jack: I am thrilled to see Mlle. Marie back in action and drawn by Russ Heath! Described as the "beautiful babe who carries lipstick and a tommygun as standard equipment," she mangles the English language and adds something new to the Haunted Tank series. Vive Mlle. Marie!

Peter: Poor Kelley dreams of being a World War I ace but he's stuck being a "Sausage Pilot!," in an observation dirigible. Matters become worse for Kelley when Matt Miller, his hometown rival for sweetheart Suzy, arrives on the scene and mocks Kelley for writing letters home about being a war hero. But the worm finally turns and Kelley gets to show his true manliness, destroying the entire German Luftstreitkräfte and saving Miller's sausage in the bargain. There are only two reasons to waste your time with "Sausage Pilot!": Irv Novick's spot-on imitation of Joe Kubert and Hank Chapman's Ed Wood-worthy dialogue. I wonder if any soldier crammed his speech as full of lunacies and unintentional double entendres as a Chapman character. Would anyone on a battlefield be able to follow what was being said?

"I've got to shishkabab that high-flying liverwurst fast--before my punctured wienie starts dropping!"

"My sausage is beginning to lose weight and altitude! Now I'll have to put all my TNT eggs in one basket!"

"I'm launched and gaining altitude like an eagle on the hunt for a big, fat sausage!"

"Big cooking in no-man's land. The Jerries are boiling out of their trenches like sauerkraut!"

Is there any funny book writer who penned scripts as deliciously odiferous as Chapman?

Jack: Like a "sausage on a hot griddle," Chapman's prose left me overcooked and dried out. Welcome back, Hank! Kanigher and Liss can't write all the stories by themselves!



Kubert
 Our Army at War 180

"You Can't Kill a General!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath

"Frogman Roulette!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

Jack: Sgt. Rock takes three new recruits out on patrol in the desert but is unable to protect them from harm as, one by one, they are killed by Nazi gunfire. Rock manages to take a Nazi general hostage and march him back to the Allied lines, despite crippling heat, brutal thirst, and a series of attacks by Nazis on patrol who are looking for their general.

"You Can't Kill a General! features outstanding work by Kanigher and Heath, who turns in what is surely his best work yet for the Sgt. Rock series. Kubert makes a cameo, providing what I think is an early nominee for cover of the year, and Heath conveys a tangible sense of heat and dust as Rock trudges through the desert with his cocky prisoner.

Eli Wallach as Sgt. Rock?
Peter: Bob Kanigher takes one of his most cherished plot lines (the brothers at arms) and actually does something a little more interesting with it this time. Rather than make the brothers the focus, Kanigher uses them as the launching pad to something more complex: will Rock avoid giving in to his murderous urges and mow this General down for his role in the killing of two of the kindergartners? Well, really, we know the answer to that after reading 98 issues of Our Army War, but the suspense is well played and Heath seems to be coming around to this Rock-illustrating thing after struggling through his first few installments (although that panel of Rock at the bottom of page nine must be Eli Wallach rather than our storied Sergeant, right?).

Jack: On a U.S. sub in WWII, a frogman named Regan learns that Death always wins when you play "Frogman Roulette!" He spins his spear in a game on board the sub and is assigned what seems like an easy mission, but one of the two frogman with him is killed when they encounter resistance from a Japanese sub. Regan's second mission also ends in another frogman's death so, to relax, he goes for a night swim. Encountering enemy frogmen, he is captured and manages to blow up a Japanese sub and get away safely.

Another buck-toothed Asian,
courtesy of Jack Abel
As good as the lead story is in this issue, the backup story is average. The return of Hank Chapman means more corny writing and by the numbers plots, and if I never saw another story drawn by Jack Abel I'd probably sleep just fine.

Peter: "Frogman Roulette" is mediocre but that translates to better-than-average when we're talking about a Hank Chapman story. Hank goes a little overboard on reminding us of the title but there's no denying the author works up a bit of excitement towards the conclusion. And no one draws bucktoothed-Asians like Jack Abel.





Heath
Star Spangled War Stories 132

"The Big House of Monsters!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath

"Nest of the Hawks!"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Jack Abel

Peter: Young cop Jackie Blane is escorting murdering hood Nick Tarty to the slammer when the train they're riding in derails. Turns out Nick's men planted something on the tracks and then they plant dough in Jackie's pocket, setting him up for the frame and for disrespect. War comes and both are drafted; coincidences happen and both land in the same POW camp, joining forces to break out. The duo end up on a rubber raft, drifting through an eerie fog that lands them on "The Big House of Monsters!"

"The Big House of Monsters!"

"The Big House of Monsters!"
At each other's throats constantly (Nick swears he'll never go to prison and Jackie's one goal in life is to clear his good name), the Allied enemies end up pinballing from one encounter with a terror monster from the dinosaur stone age to another until Jackie and Nick decide it might be safer on the water after all. Huge tentacles reach into the raft and take Jackie away; the man screams for help as Nick laughs and asks, "Help you to take me back to the big house?" With his adversary dead, Nick rows back to the island and realizes he's alone and it's only a matter of time before he runs out of grenades and meets the same fate as Jackie.  As you'd expect in a series this limited in scope that's been chugging along for seven years, plots will be recycled (Big Bob lifts not only the main thrust of "The Big House of Monsters!" from "The Killer of Dinosaur Alley!" (SSWS #121, July 1965), but also from The Fugitive) but, thank goodness, "Big House of Monsters!" at least avoids the cliched conclusion, going instead for a major surprise. I would never guess this finale was penned by Kanigher; Heath is stellar here, his dinos are fierce rather than silly, his lines are precise, his men far from the sketchy doodles we're used to with most of the other artists. The best WTTF installment in many years.

Jack: I thought the prior issue's story with Tommy the bird man ("Revenge of the Big Birds!") was the best WTTF story I could remember. This one has too many recycled Kanigher plot points to work for me. On the other hand, the art is once again stellar, with many panels looking like they could have been drawn for the cover of a men's adventure magazine. I blew right past the ending, thinking there were more pages to the story, then had to turn back and realize that was it.

"Nest of the Hawks!"
Peter: When an American WWI ace crashes, his German captors set up an elaborate ruse to convince him that the war is over and Germany has surrendered. If the ace is convinced, he'll surely lead the Germans to a secret air base and a huge blow will be dealt. A slip of the monocle leads to our hero's figuring out something ain't right. He warns the air base and his escort is blown out of the sky, saving our secret base and many innocent lives. When the American lands, he's told an armistice is to be signed--the war is over! While nothing earth-shattering, "Nest of the Hawks!" is a pleasing page-turner with above-average Jack Abel art and an ironic final panel twist. The letters page is once again given over to a full-length rant from Paul Seydor, this time extolling the excellence of the off-beat WTTF entry, "My Brothers with Wings!" from SSWS #129. Oddly, Bob thanks Paul and promises a second Bird-Man story soon, a story that appeared last issue!

Jack: Seydor also has the gumption to ask if he can have Heath's original art pages from the story he likes! Kanigher tells him that the pages are "unavailable." Liss's story starts out boring but takes an interesting turn when the pilot is hospitalized and the Nazis pretend that the war is over. Above-average Abel art is still not very exciting, though.

"I Was Trapped on Dinosaur Island!" from
the imaginary Men's Dinosaur Tales #1

Next Week...
An Early Valentine's Day Gift
From Ghastly and the Gang!
On Sale at Your Local Netstand.




Thursday, December 1, 2016

Bullet Gal: A New Novel by Andrez Bergen

A new novel by Andrez Bergen has just been published. Titled Bullet Gal, it is a narrative reimagining of Bergen's 12-issue comic book series of the same name that came out in 2015. Roundfire Books describes the novel this way:

Teenage gunsel-cum-aspiring-hero Mitzi (last name unknown) breezes into Heropa with twin 9 mm pistols blazing - only to be targeted for recruitment, betrayal and assassination. French femmes fatale, an out-of-touch super-powered elite, and one hell of an underlying mystery, figure heavily in this fusion neo-noir, science-fiction dystopia. Interweaving the scrappy one-liners is a story much more than the sum of its parts, concerning questions about grand creative process.

I reviewed the comics for barebones last year:

Bergen is onto something new here, yet it's something old at the same time. This novel is a prequel of sorts to his 2013 novel, Who Is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa?, but... another influence that goes unmentioned is T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, in that Bergen is taking scraps of popular culture from decades past and juxtaposing them to help tell a story. The story concerns a young woman who becomes a noir-like hero in the city of Heropa. I won't give anything away, yet Bergen is definitely inventive and the book looks great. You don't need to have read any other Bergen books to enjoy Bullet Gal, but if you pick it up you many want to find out more about the worlds Bergen has been developing. My favorite book of his so far was One Hundred Years of Vicissitude (2012), followed by Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat (2011). He also does other comics from his home in Tokyo, though with the flavor of his native land of Australia. Give Bullet Gal a try. It's not like much else you'll see these days! 

For more information on the novel, visit the Roundfire Books website here. The paperback is listed at $15.95 and the e-book costs $6.99, though Amazon lists it at $5.38 as of this writing.

--Jack Seabrook

Monday, November 28, 2016

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic! Part 20: March 1952




Featuring special guest host, John Scoleri!


The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
20: March 1952


Feldstein
 Shock SuspenStories #1

"The Neat Job!" 
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"Yellow!" ★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"The Monsters!" ★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

"The Rug!" 
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

Eleanor married Arthur three years ago even though she didn't like him all that much; she was afraid of being an old maid. He bought a big old house for them and she soon discovered that he had a mania for keeping things organized. After years of being emotionally abused by her nut of a husband, things boiled over one day when a picture fell off the wall and she tried to find a nail to hang it back up. She made a mess of his precious workshop and he really let her have it when he got home. Eleanor learned all too well how to do "The Neat Job!" and killed Arthur with an axe. When the cops arrived, they found that she had chopped him up into bits and organized the pieces in neatly-labeled jars on the workroom shelves.

"The Neat Job!"

The first issue of Shock SuspenStories is off to a bang-up start with a surprisingly good story from Feldstein, Gaines and Kamen. The setup is perfect and, while the pages of Arthur insisting that everything be organized may go on a little too long, the payoff and final panel are worth the buildup.

Colonel Henderson is in a fix--the Germans are surrounding his position and they have cut the phone lines. When a report comes in that his son, Lt. Henderson, is thought to be "Yellow!" by his men, the colonel orders that his son lead the mission to repair the lines. The mission fails and his son comes running back, but a survivor reports that he deserted his men under fire. A court martial is held and father sentences son to death by firing squad. Visiting his son in his cell, Pops tells him that all of the firing squad rifles will be loaded with blanks, so sonny boy just has to pretend he's dead and he'll be left behind. When he's brought before the firing squad, the son seems brave, but when he is shot to death his father comments that he had a feeling his son would meet his end bravely.

Two in a row! We already knew that Jack Davis could deliver fantastic art in war stories, but this is the first outstanding battle tale we've seen written by someone other than Kurtzman. Feldstein and Gaines deliver an exciting tale with a tough ending.

The first spaceship to land from outer space attracts a carload of scientists, but as soon as the Earthmen arrive the aliens announce that they're leaving. When the scientists ask why, the aliens tell a story of horribly deformed mutants being born after exposure to radiation. They take off for outer space and leave two of the mutants behind--surprise--they're human beings!

A swing and a miss! Al and Bill bore us with the oldest sci-fi cliche in the book and Joe Orlando's art continues to puzzle me. After his first few EC stories were so impressive, more recent ones have shown him struggling. If this issue is a microcosm of the EC line as a whole, it's not surprising that the weakest of the first three stories is the science fiction one, since the two science fiction comics are consistently the weakest of the line.

"The Monsters!"
Wealthy socialite sportsman Conrad Cartwright brings his reluctant friend Reggie on a hunting trip and promises to shoot and kill a grizzly bear to give Reggie a bearskin rug. Reggie thinks the whole thing is disgusting. Conrad succeeds in killing and skinning a huge bear, but Reggie wants no part of "The Rug!" That night, Conrad hears what sounds like a grizzly outside. He goes out to explore and is confronted by a massive bear wielding a hunting knife. One thing leads to another, and soon Reggie is shocked to discover a new rug in front of the fireplace--the skinned corpse of Conrad!

Ghastly does his best with a ludicrous script and, though the payoff is obvious from early on, the sight of the human skin rug provides a memorable final panel. But how did the grizzly skin Conrad and display the rug in the cabin in the few moments between Conrad's scream and Reggie's rush down the stairs? That's one efficient bear.--Jack

Peter: I bought a few of the East Coast Comix reprints back in the early 1970s but their cover price (a whopping one dollar when mainstream funny books cost two dimes) precluded my collecting a full run of the series at the time. And I'm not sure I would have been interested in anything but what the Crypt-Keeper and his two cohorts were dishing out anyway. So my first exposure to Shock SuspenStories was when I stumbled over Russ Cochran's slipcased box set in 1981. Despite the steep price, I handed over the bills, took the gargantua home and devoured it. This led to my subscribing to the entire Cochran EC Library and becoming a second- (or third-) generation EC FanAddict. Though I love the horror and science fiction books, Shock, to me at least, is the pinnacle of EC, the most consistently excellent title. An experiment, really, on the part of Al and Bill, to create a variety title combining themes that would normally be found in one of the crime, sf, horror, or war titles. The genre carousel would be tinkered with over the next few issues ("Yellow!" will be the only war story to appear in Shock) and then jettisoned down the line.

This month's issue of Better Homes and Gardens.
("The Rug!")

"The Neat Job" would seem an odd choice for a big screen EC comic adaptation since it lacks excitement or anything resembling a shock until its final moments but Milt Subotsky does an admirable job capturing the gist of the story for Vault of Horror. Terry-Thomas portrays the stuffy and overbearing Arthur and Glynis Johns the frazzled Eleanor. The screenplay remains faithful right up to and including the big reveal (the only major departure is that Eleanor uses a hammer rather than a hatchet) and the scene where Arthur berates Eleanor for invading his work space seems torn right from the page ("Can't you do anything neat? Can't you? Can't you?"). The cops in the funny book seem a tad too restrained to me but one of them delivers what might be the first of the classic "Choke..." sign-offs. Both "The Monsters!" and "The Rug!" are silly exercises in themes that have been covered already. "The Rug," in particular, stretches the reader's patience with Reggie's seesaw emotions about hunting and the reader's guffaw mechanism with that final image of the skinned Conrad still in his hunter's clothes.The clear winner in the premiere is "Yellow," a story so infused with the horrors of war, the reader can be excused for assuming it's yet another Kurtzman masterpiece, rather than a rare foray into the war zone by Al. The story made for one of the better adaptations aired on HBO's Tales from the Crypt in its 4th season. Perhaps it's the comparative lack of sex and gore found in most of the other episodes or the presence of Kirk Douglas as the Colonel that made this one a cut above the rest. Though, as I've stated, Shock is my favorite title, the debut is anything but a stunner. It's going to take a couple issues to get cooking but when it does...

Jose: As the lead story, “The Neat Job!” inadvertently sets the standard for what Shock SuspenStories would become over time, as it would primarily adhere more closely to the treacherous and murderous activity of its “sister” title, Crime SuspenStories, rather than the speculative trappings of the science fiction or horror series, although SSS would retain the Old Witch to fill the final slot with gruesome helpings from her cauldron. It’s an effective tale that uses Bill Gaines’s own notorious OCD habits as its springboard to shape its retributive justice finale. I admit to actually preferring the filmed version to the original comic. Thomas and Johns are perfect in their roles, and the black humor rides high all the way through, including a “brief” bit where Thomas ends up slipping on his wife’s bloomers after she mistakenly places them in his undergarment drawer after doing the laundry! “Yellow!” also had a stellar transfer, this time to the small screen for the HBO series. Both of the Douglases, Kirk and son Eric, give solid turns and Lance Henriksen, as a grizzled commanding officer, is wild fun. The less said about “The Monsters!,” the better. And while the series’s first horror offering, “The Rug!,” might be fairly derided for a hilarious climax that recalls the similar coda of “Gone… Fishing” (VOH 22), it’s all worth it for that image of the towering bear gripping the hunting knife before it goes to town on Conrad’s butt.

John: Is it just me, or does this first issue appear to be assembled from stories cobbled together from existing E.C. titles? On the bright side, "The Neat Job!" is a nice way to kick off the issue with an unhappy housewife doing in her husband in a way that would make him proud. And while "Yellow!" might be more appropriate in one of the war titles, it's one of the better examples thanks to a great story and Jack Davis's art. "The Monsters!" is a lesser effort than we regularly see in the SF titles, and "The Rug!" is one of those tales that only becomes interesting in the final panel.


Feldstein
 Tales from the Crypt #28

"Bargain in Death!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"Ants in Her Trance!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

"A-Corny Story" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"The Ventriloquist's Dummy!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

For some reason, it's 1928, and medical students Sid and Mel decide that they'll need to dig up a fresh corpse to continue their studies. Across town, Alex convinces George to take a drug that will mimic death so he can be buried and they can split his life insurance proceeds. The simulation of death is carried out and George is quickly buried. Sid and Mel see the death notice in the paper and plan to dig him up. Alex collects $40K from the country's speediest insurance adjuster and buys a car to hightail it out of town. Now, bear with me here. George is buried alive and suffocating, waiting for Alex to come dig him up. Sid and Mel hire an idiot handyman for five bucks to dig up the corpse. When he does so and opens the coffin, out springs George, very much alive. Sid and Mel run away and across the street, right in front of Alex's speeding car, causing a fatal crash. When the students get back to their dorm, they find that the handyman has provided the corpse he promised by braining George with a crowbar and now he wants his five bucks.

Featuring Peter Enfantino as the handyman.
("Bargain in Death")
I don't know if Johnny Craig had a hand in inking Jack Davis on "Bargain in Death!" but some of the panels are much smoother than we've grown used to from Mr. Davis. Feldstein's story is heading in an obvious direction from page two but the ride is a lot of fun and the ending is a wee bit unexpected.

Famous hypnotist Leopold Monetti likes to perform at parties. His best trick is to put his wife Evette under and command her to stop her heart. He brings her out of it with the phrase, "snap out of it!" Leopold meets Selma Appleton at one of these parties and they begin an affair; she soon talks him into killing Evette by putting her under and using the wrong phrase to try to bring her back. Evette is dead and Leopold insists that Selma wait a year before they can marry. On the anniversary of Evette's death, Leopold takes Selma to his late wife's grave to pay their respects. Selma goes nuts with guilt and Leopold yells at her to "snap out of it"--uh oh! Evette's rotting corpse hears the magic words and emerges from her grave to scare the happy couple to death.

How to convince a man to commit murder!
("Ants in Her Trance")
Despite an awful title, "Ants in Her Trance!" has much better art from Joe Orlando than we saw in this month's Shock SuspenStories and Feldstein's story is a hoot. I may be a dope, but I did not see the end coming in advance.

Arnold Everette is a successful businessman who fires his long time employee Carlo Pietro for being too old. Pietro returns to his home in Haiti and mails Arnold a withered tree, which Arnold plants outside his window. Arnold begins to grow younger and more vigorous and the tree also shows signs of renewal. Unfortunately, the reversion does not stop for either Arnold or the tree; the tree ends up an acorn and Arnold passes through adolescence, childhood and infancy to end up a gleam of sunlight.

"A-Corny Story" indeed! The moral is that one should never fire an employee who comes from Haiti.

Larry Douglas is the entertainment director at a resort hotel. He tracks down Charles Jerome, a famous ventriloquist who hasn't worked in ten years, and offers him a job performing. Larry recalls how Charles's career had ended after a dancer had been found killed. Now, Charles agrees to come out of retirement and his act is a hit all over again. That night, a woman is killed near the resort, and Larry tracks Charles down, only to find that "The Ventriloquist's Dummy!" was really a hollow body and the head was a grotesque creature that had grown in place of Charles's hand. Charles cuts off the head/hand and is killed by the sharp-toothed severed head.

You really can't un-see this once you've seen it.
("The Ventriloquist's Dummy")

I knew it was going to come eventually, but this story is the first one in our trip through the EC comics that crossed the line from "fun" to "disgusting." I have a feeling it won't be the last. I seem to recall reading that Ingels had a real problem with some of the stories he was assigned to draw, and ones like this make me see why. --Jack

Jose Cruz on a pleasant Saturday.
("A-Corny Story")
Peter: "The Ventriloquist's Dummy!" has some nice art but suffers from an overlong expository; "Ants in Her Trance" is a tad bit obvious ("Snap out of it!" screamed right over Evette's grave) though it's got a very risqué (for 1950s) bit of fun when Selma nibbles on Leopold's ear; and the hook of "A-Corny Story" was already done before (and I'm sure one of my younger colleagues will name that story) but much better. That leaves the lead-off, "A Bargain in Death," which shows just how much insurance companies have changed in the last sixty years: Alex is paid the full 40K in benefits on the day of the funeral! "Bargain" was very faithfully filmed for The Vault of Horror, starring Michael Craig as George (here rechristened Maitland) and Edward Judd as the conniving Alex.

Jose: This issue seems to be one of several significant firsts, at least to my eyes. With lucky number 28, it feels like all of the artists on hand are really beginning not only to nail down their aesthetics but also show a marked level of polish and sophistication. You could essentially go down the line and say that “Story X” is a classic example of “Artist Y,” a work that could be offered up as a fair representative of all the illustrator’s other pieces for the company. “Bargain in Death!” has the deranged energy and kooky humor that Davis would trade in for many of his opening slots in future issues of Tales from the Crypt, his new nasty niche. “Ants in Her Trance!” finds Orlando transitioning from early scenes of romantic glamour (including some frank sexuality that involves not only that kinky ear-nibbling but a shot of our lovers smoothing out their clothes in an obviously post-coital moment) to melty climaxes overrunning with goopy grue, a trademark particular to his horror stories. “A-Corny Story!” might be just that and feature the fittingly bloodless premise that Kamen was always handed from Feldstein—that other age regression story from the artist that Peter alludes to would be the extra-Freudian “Second Childhood” all the way back in Weird Fantasy #16—but here Kamen’s art looks to be taking on a level of dimension, briskness, and vitality not formerly seen in his static images. My compatriots are correct in noting the extra-dark flavor of “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy!,” a conte cruel that aims to be cruel just for the halibut, but its seedy and visceral power can’t be denied, and it’s impressive all the more that that power can still be felt considering how free of physical violence it really is. This is not the in-your-face stuff of snuff that EC would later dabble in—see the header image of this series nabbed from “Foul Play” for an example—but a carefully composed piece by Ingels that leaves most of its nastiest bits (the “rat-gnawed” victims, the severing of the ventriloquist’s hand) strictly to the shadows. Ingels seems to have intuited that showing that horrible, cancerous, fanged face would be enough for the reader to fill in the rest of the gaps. Boy, was he right.

John: "Bargain in Death!" is a bit of a fun twist; one part insurance scam, one part grave-robbing for fun and profit. Not that we haven't seen them before, but it was an interesting amalgam of the two concepts. No ants in "Ants in Her Trance!"? Sacrilege! Fortunately, the story is fun despite the title. I would have preferred someone other than Orlando handling the art—his shambling corpse leaves something to be desired—but it doesn't get in the way of enjoying the story. We get another bad title in "A-Corny Story", and this time a story to match. "The Ventriloquist's Dummy!" is surprisingly not what readers might reasonably expect it to be. It's not perfect, but it earns points for giving us a unique twist to the ventriloquist dummy sub-genre.


Craig
 Crime SuspenStories #9

"Understudy to a Corpse!" 
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"Medicine!" ★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"Cut!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"A Tree Grows in Borneo!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels




Oh my God!
An antique trunk!
("Understudy to a Corpse!")
Brad and Alice have just bought a lovely new home but, while exploring in the attic, they make a horrifying discovery: a skeleton in a trunk! Eleven years before, bedridden Cyrus Klitch had cut his miserable nephew, Jeremy, out of his will. Jeremy, for his part, needs his uncle's donations to pay for his own acting classes. When Cyrus reveals that Jeremy has not only been excised but that the handouts end immediately, the enraged nephew hatches a plan. He'll make himself up like his uncle and have Cyrus's lawyer revise the will, leaving everything (naturally) to Jeremy. The old goat isn't too much trouble to suffocate with a pillow and Jeremy replaces Cyrus in the bed, summoning the lawyer for a new will. After the attorney leaves, Cyrus's nurse enters and gives "the old man" his nightly glass of milk. As Jeremy grips his burning throat, the nurse informs "Cyrus" that she'd overheard him one night telling his attorney to make the woman his sole beneficiary and she's tired of waiting! Good, ironic twist (Musical Wills?) caps off the so-so "greedy relative" saga known as "Understudy to a Corpse!" Young Jeremy actually  elicits a bit of sympathy (something most greedy relatives can't seem to buy) from the reader since he genuinely believes he can make the big time with a little help from stingy Uncle Cyrus; for a change, the guy is not a gambler or womanizer. Seems a bit of a stretch that no one emptied the attic in eleven years or smelled some really awful odor. We never get back to poor Alice and Brad but I assume they're not still in that attic as well.

Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, and Dr. Howard diagnose.
("Medicine!")
Nora marries Dr. Luther Haines (world-renowned for his skull splinter operations!) for his money and prestige but the doctor's ever-present assistant, the lovely Miss Doyle, has the woman's radar activated. Could this pretty young thing be Nora's replacement someday? Nora decides that no one will be replacing her and so vows to get rid of them both by poisoning her husband's "Medicine!" (he has a kidney condition that dictates a teaspoon of the stuff every day at four sharp and Miss Doyle is always there to deliver the dosage) and pinning the crime on her competition. With the deadly deed done, Nora heads into town for some celebratory shopping but a truck hits her head-on and she wakes up in the hospital in a semi-comatose state. Nora can hear what's going on but she cannot communicate. Once her identity is discovered and her skull splinter diagnosed, the doctors scramble to notify Luther, who shows up quickly with Nurse Doyle in tow. His loving words of comfort and Miss Doyle's concern convince Nora she'd been barking up the wrong tree. As the doctors are wheeling the newly-relieved patient into the operating room, Dr. Haines is reminded to take his daily dose of kidney medicine and, as ether is administered, Nora realizes she won't be waking up. Though Al gets points for not winding it all up with the cliched finale (the doctor and nurse have been planning to kill Nora), he gains none for the silliness found throughout "Medicine!" What kind of assistant is Miss Doyle, anyway? We see her prepping patients, assisting in operations and, perhaps most importantly, taking dictation! Perhaps my favorite moment in this nonsense is when Nora is being examined by three doctors (three doctors!) after her accident:

"Medicine!"
Doctor #1: Good lord! She's paralyzed! With a skull fracture, that means only one thing...
Doctor #2: Skull splinter! Probably frontal lobe!

What are the odds? Kamen does what Kamen does best--people in stock poses. Most of his characters sneer rather than show anger, sadness, or joy. In fact, if you took the dialogue away from the final eight panels, you'd could easily be fooled into thinking Al had ended with the cliched tryst. Rather than the compassion Luther and Doyle express in their monologues, both characters are sneering as if there's something afoot.

Self-propelled justice.
("Cut!")
John Hammond is the idol of millions, an actor who can do no wrong, but his stand-in, Russel Slade, finds that jealousy is eating him alive. After a make-up man comments that Russel could become a star if anything happened to Hammond, Slade decides to change his luck. When Hammond takes a couple weeks off from stardom to vacation at his country lodge, Russel follows him up and confronts him while the movie star is mowing the lawn. Slade shoots the actor and flees but trips and falls, knocked unconscious. He awakens just as the mower "bears down on him." "Cut!" is a simple little potboiler with not much going for it other than a delicious closing pun. Hammond's almost child-like curiosity about the lawn mower ("Often wondered how those things worked!") is charming and a spot-on but subtle put-down of Hollywood life. Davis isn't given much to work with other than talking heads but it's certainly more interesting than, say, Kamen's "Medicine!" job.

Scared? Try petrified.
("A Tree Grows in Borneo!")
In the jungle of Borneo, explorers George and Amos discover a temple topped with a roof made of solid gold. Though the men are there working for a platinum company, all thought of the job at hand flies out the window when faced with such riches. As they prepare to climb to the top of the temple, they stumble upon a gruesome sight: a skeleton of a man buried in the trunk of one of the huge trees. George explains that the natives buried their dead upright in the hollowed trees. Their pilfering is a major success and the two head back to the States, swearing that if one ever decides to return, the other will accompany him. Trust, however, does not seem to be either man's greatest character trait since they buy adjoining properties to keep an eye on each other. Amos runs out of money first but decides he doesn't want to share the wealth with George so he knifes him and shoves his corpse into a hollowed tree. Months after Amos's return from a second Borneo trip, he's wandering the estate when a storm comes up and he takes refuge under a tree. Turns out it's the Amos tree, whose branches reach out and tear George limb from limb. Another weak "greedy explorers" tale, "A Tree Grows in Borneo!" finishes off a rather weak issue of Crime. We've encountered these two exact characters before (only the names have been changed...); all that's missing is the vengeful natives. Even Al seems bored towards the end of the tale since he misidentifies Amos on page 6. --Peter


Thistle kill you.
("A Tree Grows in Borneo!")

Jack: I'm really surprised you were so blase about this issue. I thought it was a great comic book! Craig's cover is gorgeous and his story is, as usual, top-notch work. I'm sure that in all the years of scholarship on EC comics someone has explored the coloring; it is especially effective here, with certain panels rendered in a single color to highlight shadows and light. The Kamen story was surprisingly suspenseful and satisfying, but the Davis story is just plain silly, all a big setup for a ridiculous conclusion: a marauding lawnmower? Seriously? Ghastly's concluding tale is very finely drawn and, like his story in this month's Tales From the Crypt, it makes me wonder if EC was starting to edge into a more graphic and explicit direction.

Jose: This entry from the rogue’s gallery of Crime SuspenStories struck me on the whole as neither truly good nor devastatingly bad, just middle of the road. Craig recycles the “cadaver discovery” gimmick that he used to open “Seeds of Death” in HOF #5 to introduce the main narrative in “Understudy to a Corpse!,” but the results are slightly less engaging here. The story in total feels as if it’s a rehash of elements that the artist put to better use in earlier stories. “Medicine!” barely registers as a blip on the interest monitor, another Kamen soap opera that introduces a promising thread with Nora’s consciousness post-accident that is ultimately failed by the artwork which leaves the villainess’s predicament completely free of suspense. “Cut!” might be diverting fluff, but at least it’s fun, with the second appearance of the “actor assuming the identity of another” theme this issue. The strength of the issue is carried on the shoulders of Graham Ingels, who delivers on the unpredictable “A Tree Grows in Borneo!” The reader can never be entirely certain just what route the story is going to take and how Feldstein plans on returning to the springboard of the tree-entombed skeleton, so that the climax, albeit gruesome, comes as a genuine surprise that uproots our expectations.

"Medicine!"


Craig
The Vault of Horror #23

"A Stitch in Time!" 
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"99 44/100% Pure Horror!" 
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"Dead Wait!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"Staired . . . in Horror!" ★★★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

Ever meet-cute in a graveyard? Irma Leechman and Robert Hornsby do just that one blustery November afternoon when they both become acquainted after visiting the adjoining gravestones of their late husband and wife respectively at the town cemetery. The two lonely souls hit it off and, after a few dates, Robert pops the question to which Irma provides her enthusiastic answer. The ending to a perfect love story… if your idea of a perfect love story is a femme fatale’s plot to bump off her new sugar daddy just like she did with her last husband! That’s right; Irma’s a bad girl with a bad jones for Robert’s cool stacks of cash. She’s just looking for the right opportunity to seal the deal, like when Hubby #1 proposed a trek up to the balcony of an old lighthouse during an idyllic trip that ended with him getting a closer look at the ocean than he anticipated. Irma adopts a new tactic with her second marriage and proceeds to nag Robert to death, starting with her revulsion of the grand spiral staircase that adorns his mansion, one that is painfully reminiscent of the setting from her first marital crime. When she denies Robert the chance to visit his old wife’s grave, the little cuckold runs delirious to the cemetery one stormy night and dies from a heart attack upon the burial mound. The two cemetery occupants get to talking and comparing notes before deciding to go and pay Irma a visit. Needless to say, the lady is unprepared for entertaining her new house guests so the cadavers show their disdain by chasing Irma up the staircase—no hiding for her since she had all the rooms on the second floor boarded up in her delirium—and giving her a taste of the ol’ heave-ho over the banister.

Graham Ingels cheesecake: big, bad, and a little butch.
We'll take it!
("Staired... in Horror!")

“Staired… in Horror” is easily one of Al Feldstein’s and Graham Ingels’s best contributions to the EC horror line. It’s fair to say that Feldstein tosses a lot of ingredients into the pot, and that not every flavor comes through as clearly and strongly as the others—Irma’s mania about the staircase, for instance, feels like an element that could service an entire story and one that might warrant more breathing room here—but the writer uses clever and effective means of condensing the narrative’s extended timeline into seven easily-digestible pages. No mean feat, and the fact that Feldstein’s prose and characterization have only become sharper over the last year helps. (Gotta love that bit about the “things deep in the cold earth… whispering to each other.”) On top of all that we have the grandly expressive and Gothic imaginings of “Ghastly” Graham to round out the tale. His shambling corpses might be briefly glimpsed and his stab at cutting off a piece of cheesecake comes across as hermaphroditic at times, but it’s all part of the charm if you ask me. Skip the colored reprints and stick with the B&W hardcover compilation if you really want to see the art sing.

Paging Dr. Wertham!
("99 and 44/100% Pure Horror!")
Ernie Mattson is another in a line of homicidal connivers; the hunky young businessman was the perpetrator of a nefarious knifing that earned him the position of factory manager at the Hudson Soap Company. After years of toiling under the thumb of cigar-chomping Benny Anderson, Ernie decides to trade in the scrap meat-hauling and cake-rendering for a shot at something more supervisory in nature. While Ernie’s killing is common enough, it’s his disposal of the body that’s ingenious: dumping Benny’s remains in one of the giant rending vats, Ernie has his old boss reduced to a dozen soap cakes that he then stores in a locked cabinet at his luxurious apartment for the sake of nostalgia. When Ernie finds himself out of fresh soap and with a hot date on the agenda, he decides to use one of the Benny-cakes during his shower. But if Ernie had listened to Jerome Kern, he’d know that “Soap Gets in Your Eyes.” One thing leads to another, and soon the murderer has broken his leg and drowns to death in the scalding water of his walk-in shower after the Benny-cake clogs up the drain.

“99 and 44/100% Pure Horror!” (try saying that one five times in a row) might be a standard revenge yarn that deals in simple formulas, but I have a fondness for the choice of setting this time out and its inventive—and integral—use in the story. The string of mishaps in the shower leading up to Ernie’s comeuppance may seem rather generic and random, but I actually like them for that very reason. I prefer this type of payback, the kind where Ernie seems to be the victim of simple bad luck, rather than the contrived and literal route that other stories took in punishing their villains.

Zombie-eyed slaves of the starving class.
("A Stitch in Time")
Speaking of villains, few in the EC repertoire come any more one-note than the despicable Mr. Lasch of “A Stitch in Time!” The burly, cigar-chomping (natch) slave-driver of an early-century sewing mill is completely merciless and without an ounce of nuance to be found in his 300 lb. bulk. He maintains a vocal level no lower than screaming, he considers anything not involving sewing to be a waste of the company’s time up to and including breathing that he hasn’t given the OK on, and he thinks nothing of driving one old biddy out of her gourd when he assigns her to sort out scraps of thread after she’s injured her hand on faulty equipment before finally driving the mumbling broad out into the street where she’s run over by a hapless driver. Suffice to say, the other nine ladies under his employ don’t take kindly to this and show the boss their appreciation by sewing his lips and hands together and then leaving him to die in a fire.

“A Stitch in Time!” seems markedly un-Craigian when one compares it to any of the writer-artist’s other horror pieces. Even relative potboilers like “Midnight Snack” (TFTC #24) didn’t suffer from the bland repetitiveness of this sadistic little story. For eight pages we watch as the female employees of the sewing mill confront Lasch with one indignity or hardship after another and—surprise, surprise!—they reaffirm that their boss is a complete jerk with every one of his responses. Even though all this ends with the catalyzing death of the old woman that finally spurs the ladies to enact their brand of justice, the effect of each preceding event never really feels cumulative, as if it’s building toward something. The fact alone that the biddy dies from getting run down by a car literally seconds after Lasch throws her out where everyone can witness the travesty smacks of convenience, and it all boils down to a fairly vicious albeit bloodless climax that comes across as caustic rather than cathartic.

Rough way to treat a guy for dreaming of malted milk balls.

Filling out this issue’s middleweight division is Jack Davis’s second assignment, “Dead Wait!” Unlike what the title may imply, Feldstein’s script is lean and mean even if it doesn’t quite qualify as a fighting machine. We have a main, real-time plot concerning man of dubious morals “Red” Buckley—the way that Davis draws him, there can be no real question as to his ultimate motives, seeing as how he could pass for a GhouLunatic—assassinating former boss and Soelas plantation owner Pierre Duval in order to lay claim to the Frenchman’s priceless black pearl shot through with flashbacks leading up to current events. It takes years of wheedling and building false camaraderie for Red to get to his treasure, but at long last he gets it, along with some valuable getaway assistance from Red’s native manservant, Kulu. Come to think of it, Kulu has also spent years wheedling and building camaraderie as well. But what could he possibly want from Red? The sharpened edge of a machete has the answer after it severs the criminal’s head from his body, earning Kulu exclusive bragging rights amongst his tribesmen as he becomes the new owner of a one-of-a-kind red-headed gourd! As my compadres mention below, Davis pulling double-time on this issue leads to “Dead Wait!” looking a little rushed and rough around the edges at times, most noticeably the cramped delivery of that zinger ending. Still, it’s worth noting that even under those circumstances “Dead Wait!” still manages to come out ahead of some of its competition. Heh, heh, heh.--Jose

Peter Enfantino drowns in this issue's mediocrity.
("99 and 44/100% Pure Horror!")

Peter: Dismal offerings this time out, with the only highlight being Ghastly's nightmarish art on "Staired . . ." All four stories are built around well-worn plots and all four feature very lazy writing. Right from the title, you know what you'll get with the final "twist" in "Stitch." It's just another variation on the "heartless employee" skeleton that EC threatens to run into the ground; very rarely will this plot line work anymore (off the top of my head, I can think of only one exception, the upcoming "Blind Alleys," but that's about it) and the sheer nastiness of the villain becomes almost comical. Why in the world would the protagonist of "99 44/100% Pure Horror" leave the damning evidence locked up in his closet rather than putting it out into the marketplace for sale? "Dead Wait" has a nicely twisted closing but Jack's art is rather sketchy (perhaps because he had to contribute two stories this issue?) and the build-up ho-hum.

Paltry offerings leave Jack Seabrook speechless.
("A Stitch in Time!")

Jack: I love how Johnny Craig uses silent panels once in a while to convey tension. It's too bad his great art and storytelling skills are wasted on a mundane tale like"A Stitch in Time!" "99 44/100% Pure Horror!" has a big buildup but a weak finish; I was frustrated that every bad thing that happened in that shower could have happened with any old bar of soap. It's odd that Davis's art is so much weaker in "Dead Wait!" and it makes me wonder if an uncredited inker is at fault. The boring story is only partly  redeemed by a great finish, but EC is still being a bit coy with depictions of severed heads. Ghastly's story is dull and obvious and it's too bad he can't draw a sexy girl even when he tries.

John: I thought "A Stitch in Time!" was a disappointing use of a ladies' uprising. I guess I was looking for a little more exciting revenge than what they dish out. Jack Davis' art in "99 44/100% Pure Horror!" did nothing for me at all, thought I did it was much better used in "Dead Wait!" Clearly the standout in this issue is "Staired . . . in Horror!" with its amazing Ingels artwork, and not just of the shambling corpse variety. His lounging dame could give Kamen a run for his money!

In Our Next Issue...
We discover that, for some things,
fifty years changes nothing!