Saturday, April 30, 2011

The House of Mystery: I, Vampire Part 2

by Peter Enfantino
            With #304 (“The Night Has Eyes”) artist Ernie Colon steps in for a two-issue stint. Colon’s most notable credit at the time was probably the DC sword and sorcery comic Arak, Son of Thunder. Colon’s art was dreadful, with several panels looking rushed and unfinished, characters resembling stick figures on bland backgrounds. The art fits the story though, as Bruce Jones seems to be on cruise control already, just four installments in, perhaps sensing a brick wall with the Andrew Bennett character. Where else could this story go since every conceivable vampiric plotline had already been played out in Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula.
            “The Night Has Eyes” concerns Mary’s efforts to kidnap the granddaughter of a millionaire. I repeat my silly question “Why would a vampire have to stoop to petty crime to get what it wants?” The plan itself is worthy of a Donald Westlake Dortmunder novel: the vampire and her goons intend to kidnap the girl form a high rise building and toss her onto a nearby ferris wheel. Andrew gets wind of the high concept crime and thwarts the efforts of Mary and her minions. There’s a laughable stop on his way to the theme park when Andrew needs to fill up on blood from an ambulance. He flies in as a bat and comes out of the vehicle as a man, just in time to be interrogated by a cop:
Cop: Okay fella! What’s going on? Where’s the bat?
Andrew: Bat? Uh…it flew off that way, officer! If you hurry…
            The beauty of the panel is that the vampire is very clearly holding a dripping bottle of blood in his left hand and wiping the liquid from his mouth with his right! Jones changes a bit of the vampire mythos in that when Bennett is staked by Mary he doesn’t turn into a skeleton or dust or a rotted corpse. He can still think and feel and when, later in the story, the stake is removed, Bennett feels only a bit weak. In the “I,Vampire” universe, a wooden stake seems to be nothing more than a nuisance.
            That’s a Mike Kaluta cover by the way. Kaluta would contribute 13 snazzy covers to the series (Well, actually 12, but we'll discuss that in a bit).

            “Blood and Sand” (#305) finds Andrew Bennett traveling to Egypt, hot on Mary’s scent. A scientist has discovered a cure for cancer but for some reason the serum transforms human blood into a deadly cocktail for vampires. Once in Egypt, Mary convinces Andrew to search for two ancient rings that will transport them back to a time before they were vampires. Bennett, still hopelessly in love with the evil vampires, falls for the woman’s cooing. He finds the rings, but is tricked by Mary, who uses her ring to transport back to 1880s London.  Andrew is left to battle with a mummy, guardian of the rings, not much of a guard dog it seems since it’s dispatched in three panels with a simple rock. Bennett uses his ring to follow Mary to London, where he arrives at the scene of her latest slaughtering. Colon’s art this issue shows a marked improvement over the last, though it’s still not great. Andrew Bennett looks like a different man from panel to panel, in some cases he’s Chris lee, in some Robert Quarry.
            An interesting note (just about the only interesting thing about this installment actually) is that “Blood and Sand” is tied into the previous story in the issue, “The Rings of Kur-Alet,” also written by Bruce Jones (with an assist from wife April Campbell). The story tells the origin of the rings and the mummy bodyguard.

            In “Rip in Time” (#306), Andrew Bennett comes face-to-face with Jack the Ripper. As is the case with most Jack the Ripper stories, Bruce Jones feels the need to give him another cover story. This time, Jack is  kindly doctor Jonathon Kelsey, who stumbles across a depleted Andrew. His time travel has taken its toll on him and he needs blood fast. For reasons known only to Bruce Jones, Kelsey knows Bennett is a vampire and nurses him back to health. The fact that Kelsey is Jack is kept a secret until the story’s final panels even though any reader worth his horror IQ knows right from the start. Mary has zapped herself back to 1880s London to try to stop the birth of the doctor who has cured cancer. Mary fails at her task when she murders the wrong girl. It’s, in fact, the victim’s sister who is the mother of salvation. Tom Sutton is back but it’s a double-edged sword: it’s Sutton but it’s rushed Sutton. Some of his panels stand with those classic Charlton horrors but quite a bit of it looks unfinished.

            Since the rings are cursed to follow each other, Andrew finds himself transported to 1964 Maine in “Lovers Living, Lovers Dead” (#307). What he can’t deduce is why Mary wants to be here in this time and place. Even when he meets a cute little redhead girl named DeeDee near her cliff house, the vampire is obviously too dense to figure it out (even though, again, we can very quickly). Turns out that little DeeDee is actually Bennett’s human romantic interest, Deborah Dancer (DeeDee??) and Mary has come to trade Deborah’s life for the vampire’s ring. Mary’s become weary of hiding from Bennett and she’s ready to toss the little girl to her death. Andrew relents and hurls his ring out to sea. Never one to keep her word, Mary drops DeeDee off the cliff. Andrew is able to save the girl but is impaled on a tree branch. While all this action is going on, the adult Deborah is being hypnotized to see if she can find where Andrew is (they seem to have a psychic bond). She watches in horror as the vampire is run through but is able to exert mental power over her younger self and the little girl, in an impossible show of strength, frees Andrew.
            Whew! I’m tired from just typing about all that action. Unfortunately, this is one of the only times you’ll see my loopy synopsis topping Bruce Jones’ story. This story literally begins nowhere and ends nowhere. In addition to the story problems, the page count is padded with two pages of “what has come before.” Easy money for Mr. Jones. As for the art, Sutton seems to be easing into a high level of mediocrity. Andrew Bennett now resembles the 2011 incarnation of Aerosmith’s guitarist, Joe Perry. Sutton must have been prescient. The wise thing here would have been for Bruce Jones to set up  a battle between his vampire and  Cthulhu. We know Sutton would be up for that task.

            With story pages down to 12 (and 2 of those taken up for the obligatory recap), there’s not much that Bruce Jones can do to drum any suspense, horror, or even a tad of excitement. A synopsis of “Mirrors That Look Back” (#308) might summarize the story as “Andrew Bennett, Vampire fights Nazi skeletons at the bottom of the ocean” but since that battle only lasts for about a page and a half that would be misleading.
            It’s revealed that the ring Andrew hurled into the sea found its way onto the skeletal finger of the remains of a Nazi sailor. Yep, there’s a Nazi U-boat right there off the cliffs of Maine. The ring resuscitates the crew and, as noted, Bennett has his hands full for a few panels but manages to steal back the ring and is teleported to the home of a pre-vampiric Mary. Now, here’s where it gets complicated. Vampire Andrew bumps into pre-vampiric Mary on the morning of their engagement costume ball. As he’s kissing her, his non-vampiric self rides up on a horse. Not up for a long expository, he pats Mary on the fanny and tells her to get ready for the costume ball. He then kidnaps his younger self and steals his clothes, masquerading as himself! On the way back to Mary, Bennett is distracted by a group of witchfinders who ask him to rate their abilities. Not one to pass up a good dunking, he agrees. Meanwhile, a vampiric Mary swoops in and conks her pre-vampiric self on the head. What she’s got in mind will have to wait until our next installment.
            I haven’t lavished enough praise upon Joe Kubert’s covers for House of Mystery. These gems are the saving grace of this dying money-grabber. Kubert’s Andrew Bennett is evil and suave at the same time. There’s good new and bad news to the Kubert cover for #308. Bad news is that it’s his last for “I, Vampire.” Good news is that he hands the reins over to the more-than-capable Mike Kaluta the rest of the way.

             Well, actually those fabulous Kalutas would begin next issue. We get a Kaluta this issue, but it’s not among the artist’s best work. Young Andrew resembles a very effeminate Prince Valiant (complete with dove) and vampiric Andrew is a dead ringer for Bea Arthur. As for the insides of Issue #309 (“Witch Hunt”): The vampire hangs around the dunking long enough to save the accused (which comes back to haunt him later) and then hoofs it to the masquerade ball. There he discovers that vampiric Mary has captured young Mary and taken her place at the party. Why she does this is not explained. She just does it. As the two vampires dance, their moment of bliss is disrupted by the gang of witch finders, now searching for Andrew. The girl he rescued has ratted him out. As with most of these stories, the climax sees Mary invoke the secret words of her ring and disappear. Each chapter grows increasingly bare of any kind of plot twists or characterization. We merely get a synopsis of our story thus far, a few pages of Andrew chasing Mary and then Mary pulls a vanishing act. 

            According to “Cain “ in the letters page, “I, Vampire” is a “red-hot hit among the readers of the House.” Not sure why it would be such a favorite but I’ve a feeling that HOM’s editor, Karen Berger, might have been doing some cherry-picking among the few fan letters the title would receive. It’s also noted that House of Mystery, with the recent axing of Unexpected (with its 222nd issue), was left as the only title in the DC “mystery line” to remain standing during the big comics recession of the early 1980s. Also gone were House of Secrets (after 154 issues), Ghosts (112), The Witching Hour (85), Secrets of Haunted House (46), Weird Mystery Tales (24), and the line's bastard stepchild, Plop! (24 issues), which melded horror and humor in a very nice package. House of Mystery would follow them in just over a year.


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Fredric Brown on TV Part Five - Star Trek: Arena

by Jack Seabrook

Fredric Brown’s classic science fiction story “Arena” was first published in the June 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.  There is some controversy over whether it was a source for the “Fun and Games” episode of The Outer Limits (see my February 8, 2011 post on this site, along with the responses), but there is no disagreement that it was acknowledged as a source for the “Arena” episode of Star Trek, which was broadcast on January 19, 1967.
Briefly, the story concerns Bob Carson, an Earthman in space, who is whisked off to a strange planet to fight a representative of an enemy, alien race.  The planet has blue sand and the battle occurs beneath a blue dome; Carson is naked, and his opponent is a red, rolling sphere with tentacles that can retract when not in use.  An invisible barrier separates the combatants, and Carson must use his ingenuity to cross through the barrier and kill the enemy.  As a result, an omnipotent alien destroys the entire race of the loser, thus avoiding a catastrophic interspace battle.
According to the producers of Star Trek, Gene L. Coon handed in the script for that show’s adaptation of “Arena” unaware that it was similar to Brown’s short story. This time (unlike on The Outer Limits) the source was identified and permission was sought and granted by Fredric Brown.

Star Trek was hitting its stride by this episode and the characters had already fallen into familiar patterns.  This required considerable revision of the original short story.  The show begins as Captain Kirk & co. visit an outpost, “isolated, exposed, out on the edge of nowhere.”  They beam down to the planet, only to find that the colony of Cestus 3 has been destroyed.

Kirk, Spock and McCoy are joined by three expendable crewmen.  As they explore the ruins of Cestus 3 they come under attack, as does The Enterprise, which is orbiting the planet in space.  Kirk does some nice serpentine running (reminiscent of Alan Arkin in The In-Laws), before getting the upper hand and driving the attackers back to their spaceship.  Kirk and crew return to their ship as well and he decides to act as space policeman and chase the enemy ship into a “largely unexplored section of the galaxy.”
The chase proceeds into deep space at high speed, until both ships approach an unknown solar system, where they are scanned by an unknown entity.  It is here, almost halfway through the episode, that parallels with the short story began to appear.  A race known as The Metrons holds both ships in place and announces that they will take each ship’s captain and transport them to a planet where they can engage in a fight to the death.  The winner’s ship will be spared; the loser’s will be destroyed.

Unlike the short story, where Carson finds himself on a strange planet and the alien voice tells him what is going on, the Star Trek crew gets the news in advance but cannot do anything about it.  Also, instead of destroying an entire race and preserving another, only the spaceships will be destroyed.  The Metrons say that they want future ships to stay away from their area of space; the omnipotent alien in the story has more altruistic goals, wanting to ensure that the surviving race is left strong enough to develop to its full potential.
Television special effects in 1966 (when “Arena” was filmed) did not allow for a rolling red ball with retractable tentacles, so Kirk’s enemy is one of the Gorn, who looks like a man in an alligator suit.  He has shiny silver eyes and wears a tunic, and he moves about as quickly as a zombie, which makes it hard to believe that Kirk is racing for his life to defeat the creature.
Kirk’s interior monologue is provided in two ways—through voiceover, and by means of a hand-held “microphone” that is supposed to preserve a record of the events.  Kirk speaks into the microphone and talks about what he’s doing, not realizing that the Gorn can hear every word he says through his own device.
Kirk and the Gorn throw some rocks at each other, as in the story, but on Star Trek there is no invisible barrier between them.  This removes one of the key plot points in the tale and makes the televised contest a bit silly, as Kirk runs off into the rocky hills and the Gorn lumbers around.  The Gorn actually appears to be more ingenious than Kirk, when it sets a trap for him and appears to play dead, much as Carson does in the story.

However, Kirk finally discovers various minerals and other items on the planet that allow him to construct a makeshift cannon and shoot the Gorn.  In the middle of all of this, the program takes a turn that reflects a mid-sixties, Vietnam-era sensibility.  In the short story, the battle between Carson and the Roller can be interpreted as an allegory of the US versus Japan in World War Two.  The enemy is totally alien and Carson does not hesitate to kill it when given the chance.
On Star Trek, Kirk learns that the Gorn may not have been the cruel invaders he had first thought them to be, and he suspects that they may have been natives defending their planet from what they saw as human invaders.  When given the chance to kill the Gorn captain, he refuses, announcing to the omnipotent alien that “you’ll have to get your entertainment someplace else.”  This is a clear reference to the anti-war feeling that was brewing in America in 1966, as some people began to question whether the war in Vietnam was justified. 

The Metron appears at the end of the episode and allows both ships to depart in peace.  He is surprised by Kirk’s demonstration of mercy and states that “there is hope” that our race will mature.

“Arena” takes the general theme of Brown’s short story and adapts it for a television series with recurring characters, whose personalities must be included and who must share screen time with the original, limited number of characters.  It is hard to believe that Gene L. Coon, the author of the teleplay, had not read Brown’s story, but it is also hard to believe that he was not familiar with The Outer Limits episode, “Fun and Games,” since the Metrons allow the crew of the Enterprise to watch the events unfolding on the planet below on their giant view screen, which looks an awful lot like the big-screen TVs of today.  In “Fun and Games,” the omnipotent alien broadcasts the competition for the inhabitants of his planet to watch as entertainment.

Gene L. Coon lived from 1924-1973.  He wrote 12 episodes of Star Trek (including the infamous “Spock’s Brain”) and was also the show’s producer for a portion of its run.  He also wrote many other TV series episodes.   Joseph Pevney, director of “Arena,” lived from 1911-2008 and began his career in vaudeville.  He directed movies in the 1950s, including Man of a Thousand Faces, before moving to TV, where he directed many episodes into the mid-1980s, including 14 episodes of Star Trek.
The cast of “Arena” is well-known.  William Shatner is North America’s Greatest Living Actor, and Leonard Nimoy recently came out of retirement to appear as a cartoon on Fringe.   The Gorn was played by Bobby Clark, a stuntman who has been appearing at Star Trek conventions.  Ted Cassidy provided the Gorn captain’s growls and chuckles.

Was there ever a more exciting time to be a kid than the 1966-1967 television season?  This was the first year that most of the shows were in color, and the colors were exploding off of the screens!  “Arena” is awash in reds, blues, yellows and greens, and it is clear that, to the designers at the time, the advent of color TV was an excuse to stuff as many colors as they could into a frame.  A quick look at the TV schedule for September 1966 reveals that the following shows were all available for the young viewer who liked adventure and excitement:
Sunday-Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
Monday-The Monkees
Tuesday-The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. and The Fugitive
Wednesday-Batman, Lost in Space, I Spy
Thursday-Batman, Star Trek
Friday-The Green Hornet, The Time Tunnel, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Saturday-Get Smart, Mission: Impossible
Had I been older than three in 1966, I doubt I would ever have left the house!
    Finally, if anyone has a copy of “Curtains for Me,” by Anthony Gilbert, please let me know. I need to read this story to write about the last episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that Fredric Brown worked on, “A True Account.”  The story appeared in the London Evening Standard on October 3, 1951, then in John Creasey Mystery Magazine for February 1958, and finally in The Mystery Bedside Book, 1960, edited by John Creasey.

"Arena." Star Trek. 19 Jan. 1967.  Star Trek: The Original Series, Season One, Disc Six.  CBS Paramount International Television, 2004.  DVD.
Brown, Fredric. The Best of Fredric Brown. Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday, 1976.
Galactic Central. Web. 23 Apr. 2011.
The Internet Movie Database . 23 Apr. 2011. 
Wikipedia. 23 Apr. 2011. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Annotated Index to Gunsmoke Magazine

by Peter Enfantino

            Gunsmoke featured gritty, realistic western stories written by the most respected writers of the day. The content mirrored that of its sister publication, the ground-breaking crime digest, Manhunt (1953-1967). Despite, or maybe because of, its darker edge, the digest was not successful enough to warrant more than a two-issue run. Based on the contents of the two issues published, that’s a shame. This could have, eventually, become the most respected western digest published.
            Another highlight carried over from Manhunt was Gunsmoke’s use of colorful biographies of its featured writers. It’s hard to imagine in today’s world of “reference at your fingertips,” but there probably weren’t too many places a reader could turn to find information on their favorite western writers. These short, often humorous (Bill Gulick admits that he’s fond of vegetable gardening but his agent hates it), bits filled in some of the blanks.
            After the two issues were published, many of the leftover copies were bound together and released as Giant Gunsmoke. It’s not clear whether a third issue was planned and then scrapped, but it would seem the reasoning behind Giant Gunsmoke might have been to attract more readers. Whether or not that was the case, the plan didn’t work. At least we have two issues of a magazine that gave us several solid, and in a few cases classic, western tales.
            Can’t ask for more than that.

Vol. 1 No. 1 June 1953
144 pages, 35 cents

The Man with No Thumbs by Noel Loomis
(7500 words) ***
            Jonas Marson is the no-nonsense leader of a bunch of Apache scalpers. The men kill Apaches and sell their scalps to the Mexican government. One night, Al Hobart, a former comrade of the bunch, staggers into camp with a tale of Indian torture. The fact that Al has shown up minus both thumbs convinces every man but Marson, who never liked Hobart in the first place and may have, in fact, fed Al to the Indians. Hobart offers up his tracking expertise to the gang and, despite warnings of a trap from Marson, they take him up on it. Turns out Marson is right and Hobart leads the men right into the hands of the Apaches. The finale finds Marson, staked naked across an anthill, the Apaches slowly skinning him alive, while Hobart watches gleefully.
            Gruesome revenge yarn would have found a perfect home in Joe R. Lansdale’s equally gruesome anthology of western horrors, Razored Saddles. “Thumbs” is liberally spiced with beheadings, disembowelments, and descriptive scalpings of women and children:

            Hooker was down, scalping bodies. He yanked off a long, black-haired scalp with a loud pop, and held it up in the moonlight. “There’s a woman here!” He screamed at Marson.

            A door opened. A shot sounded. A groan. The door crashed in. Its rawhide hinges shrieked as they gave away. A woman screamed and there was another shot. Then children shrieked, and there was silence for an instant.

            Jeff Sadler, in his entry on Noel Loomis in 20th Century Western Writers, says of the author: “Violence shapes the work of Noel M. Loomis. There is a savage force at work…evoking the atmosphere of a harsh, untamed land. His writing captures the taste and scent of another time.” Indeed there is a gritty edge to Loomis’ short stories, be it “Thumbs” or “When the Children Cry for Meat” (found in Greenberg and Pronzini’s The Texans, Fawcett, 1988) or “A Decent Saddle” (from Zane Grey’s Western Magazine, August 1953). Loomis also found success with such 1950s western novels as Johnny Concho (Gold Medal, 1956), North to Texas (Ballantine, 1956), and The Leaden Cache aka Cheyenne War Cry (Avon, 1959). Sadler sums up Loomis: “In the field he chose, he has yet to be surpassed.”

Rock Bottom by Nelson Nye
(5000 words) ***
            Bank robber Jeff Faradine knows his obsession can get him killed. With a posse hot on his trail, Farradine hits the town of Rock Bottom, searching for the girl who has haunted his every waking moment, a girl he only caught a glimpse of months before. Convinced she’ll drop everything to ride off into the sunset with him, Farradine spends hours scouring the town until he finds her. Of course, he’s a bit surprised when he finds she’s the town’s favorite hooker at the local brothel. Convincing the girl (and attempting to convince himself as well) that her way of life will not hamper their relationship, they leave the cathouse, only to be confronted by the posse. Farradine is mowed down and his true love returns to her profession.
            Interesting character study has the hardened bank robber/lifer criminal who truly believes he can drop his evil ways for the love of a woman. The author nicely counters with a hooker who doesn’t necessarily want to  leave her “tainted” life behind. In fact, she’s very comfortable with her path.
            Nelson Nye was an incredibly prolific western novelist during the four decades he wrote, with such classic paperbacks as Rafe/Hideout Mountain (Ace Double, 1962), Bandido (Signet, 1957), and Iron Hand (Ace, 1966) under his wide belt. Nye also served as the initial president of the Western Writers of America in 1953, won the coveted Spur Award for Best Western of 1959 (Long Run, McMillan, 1959), and edited the fine anthology, They Won Their Spurs (Avon, 1962).

The Crooked Nail by Frank O’Rourke
(5400 words) *
            Dan Morgan returns to the town where he and four of his buddies stole thousands of dollars worth of bonds. Dan never saw a penny though because it disappeared, along with two of his partners. Seeking answers, and his share, he coaxes the truth from the man who was once his best friend and is now his betrayer.
            Very slow, with an expository (involving the titular hardware) that defies logic and instead invites chuckles. O’Rourke wrote a batch of baseball novels and short stories in the 1950s. Some of his short western fiction was collected in Ride West (Ballantine, 1953) and Hard Men (Ballantine, 1956).

Thirst by John Prescott
(5000 words) **
            Reakor assists two bank robbers in their getaway. Sensing a double cross, he murders them first and hightails it into the desert. Hot on his tail is the town’s sheriff. Though the story itself is nothing to get excited about, the author manages to spice it up with some fine writing:

            It was long after sun-up when they came upon the bodies at the hole. The buzzards and coyotes had been at work and it was not a pretty sight. The deputy was a hardy man, but his stomach was sometimes weak. He nearly vomited.
            “Gawd almighty,” he said, blanching, with the muscles in his face drawn tight. “It always gets me when I see them eyeballs that way.”
            “Good food for the buzzards,” the sheriff said. “I don’t know why it is, but they always seem to like them eyes.”

            Prescott wrote several western novels in the 1950s, including The Renegade (Bantam, 1956), Wagon Train (Bantam, 1956), and Guns of Hell Valley (Graphic, 1957). He won a Spur for Best Historical Novel for Journey by the River (Random House, 1954). Two of his short pulp western novels, “The Longriders” and “The Hard One” were reprinted by Tor in their Double Action Western Series in 1990.

Gunsmoke Selects: A Six Gun Salute by Parke Dwight
(500 words) a non-fiction feature about Mutual Broadcasting System’s “Western Week.”

Newcomer by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.
(3400 words) ***
            For some reason known only to himself, the town’s black sheep Chilter just doesn’t like the new school teacher, Mr. Ellenwood. Chilter makes this apparent several times until inevitably things turn violent and Mr. Ellenwood has to prove that even a school teacher can reach a breaking point. To protect his son, Lonnie and himself, Ellenwood beats the man down. Our final glimpse at Ellenwood is not of a man satisfied, proud and boasting, but saddened at the turn of events.
            Ellenwood would have been played by Gary Cooper and Jack Palance would have been a natural for Chilter, but Shane had just been made (and would be previewed in the following issue’s “Gunsmoke’s Movie of the Month”.) Sure, it’s the same kind of story, but I enjoyed it just the same. Again, a familiar story is invigorated by sharp writing and visuals:

            Mr. Ellenwood was stepping forward, not back, stepping into the wicked whistle and cut of the quirt, his head up and his eyes fixed. There was a terrible rightness about him, a rightness so terrible and fated that for a minute Lonnie couldn’t bear to look, thinking of Stephen stoned and Christ dying on the cross – of all the pale, good, thoughtful men foredoomed before the hearty.

            Ironically, the following year Guthrie would win an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay for, you guessed it, Shane.

The Killing at Triple Tree by Evan Hunter
(5250 words) ****
            The posse’s ready to lynch the scum that raped and murdered the sheriff’s wife. So why won’t the lawman let the town have its fun? Evan Hunter shows that he’s just as good at depicting violent life in the West as in the East. The final few paragraphs come fast and furious like a load of buckshot to your face, leaving an unforgettable vision in your mind. “The Killing at Triple Tree” could just as easily have been placed in Manhunt and fit in nicely.

Old Chief’s Mountain by Bryce Walton
(5320 words) **
            The only survivors of an Indian massacre roam the desert in search of water: three soldiers and a scout. The scout is convinced that water is only a mountain away. His endless dronig, “Cool water, cool sweet water” reminded me of the old I Love Lucy episode with the actor who repeatedly says “Slowly I turned, step by step…” Though the story didn’t do much for me, it does contain some harrowing descriptions of what days in the desert without water will do to a man.
            Bryce Walton isn’t widely known for his westerns (in fact, there is no listing for Walton in 20th Century Western Writers), but published several dozen science fiction shorts (under his own name and several pseudonyms) in such digests as If, Fantastic, Vortex, and Future, and dozens more crime stories in Manhunt, Mike Shayne, Alfred Hitchcock, and Pursuit. The Long Night (Falcon Digest, 1952) is the only Walton novel I can find reference to.

Judd by Jack Schaefer
(6800 words) ****
            Judd Birkett sits on his porch and watches as all his neighbors pack up and move away. Only old Judd wants to stay and fight the state men who plan to flood the valley once the new dam is built. Judd’s little shack stands smack dab in the middle of progress. He won’t give in even after his property is condemned and law moves in to remove him. “Judd” works as both a nicely told morality play and as an analogy of the old west herded out by the new. The story concludes with the chilling images of the water flooding the valley and an old man who’s left with only one way out.
            Schaefer’s claim to fame lies with his novel, Shane, perhaps the most acclaimed and influential (certainly, to this day, one of the most-borrowed western storylines of all time) western of the 20th Century. Shane was, of course, made into the equally acclaimed 1953 flick starring Alan Ladd and the viciously evil Jack Palance. Brian Garfield once wrote “(D)espite its pretensions Shane codified the essence of the Western, and it remains one of the few altogether towering movies of the genre.”

Great Medicine by Steve Frazee
(11,650 words) **
            A Blackfoot Indian named Little Belly believes he can become all-powerful if he steals the “great medicine” from a risky adventurer. Though this is one of Frazee’s most reprinted stories, it’s one of my least favorites. Surprisingly (for a Steve Frazee story, that is), it’s slow-moving and uninvolving.

The Gunny by Robert Turner
(3200 words) **
            Fred Maurer is a professional assassin hired to pick fights and win them. After his latest job is completed, the past seems to catch up with him and he’s haunted by visions of the men he’s cut down. Very ambiguous and confusing, and ultimately unsatisfying. Robert Turner (aka Roy Carroll) sold hundreds of mystery tales to the pulps and over 60 stories to crime digests such as Manhunt, Pursuit, Hunted, and Guilty, including my favorite Turner title, “Frogtown Vengeance,” in Hunted #2 (February 1955). Manhunt’s bio on Turner states that he was an agent and an editor before turning to full-time writing because it “made less ulcers.” Eleven of the eighteen stories collected in Shroud 9 (Powell, 1970) originally appeared in Manhunt. Novels included The Tobacco Auction Murders (Ace, 1954), Woman Chaser and Strange Sisters (both Beacon, 1962), and The Night is For Screaming (Pyramid, 1960). Turner wrote a short piece on “The Not-So-Literary Digests” for Xenophile #38 (1978), wherein he opined that Gunsmoke died a quick death “probably because the typical western story fan didn’t go for off-trail stories.”

Gunsmoke’s Movie of the Month: Ambush at Tomahawk Gap
(100 words) Non-fiction feature.

The Boy Who Smiled by Elmore Leonard
(5000 words) ****
            Mickey Segundo has carried a man-sized chip on his very young shoulder since the day he watched T.O. McKay and his men lynch Mickey’s innocent father for no reason other than to watch him swing. Bad mistake on McKay’s part leaving the boy to live. Mickey grows up enough to exact a terrible revenge ala Charles Bronson’s character in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.
            Engrossing tale switches viewpoints at various stages. You can see the beginnings of a wonderful storyteller emerging from Elmore Leonard, and while he makes millions from such crime novels (and millions more from the inevitable films and TV) as Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Stick, and Fifty-Two Card Pick Up, he cut his writing teeth on the western. The Bounty Hunters (Ballantine, 1953) and Escape from Five Shadows (Dell, 1957) are every bit as dark and exciting as his crime fiction. Leonard’s complete western short stories were collected by Morrow in 2004, tales perfect for those who shun the genre because their idea of a western is Little Joe and Hoss.

Blue Chip Law by Bill Erin
(1500 words) ***
            Effective short-short about a mysterious poker player and the appointment he must keep at noon. The reader doesn’t learn a lot in four pages (though there are several characters, we learn only the bartender’s and the visitor’s name) but the writing keeps it intriguing.

Vol. 1 No. 2 August 1953
144 pages, 35 cents

Final Payment by Frank O’Rourke
(10,500 words) ****
            Bill McKay has gone from troubled youth to murderous bankrobber in record time. During one of his raids, he murders the father of his boyhood friend, Henry, now a bigtime lawyer/politician in Washington. McKay is captured but escapes a few years later and begins his bloody campaign anew. Collapsing under public outcry, Hanry and the Governor concoct a plan: offer McKay a full pardon if he turns over the rest of his cutthroat gang to the law. McKay, festering the wounds of years of imprisonment and Henry, equally bitter over the loss of his father, finally meet face-to-face. Henry feels that there is something in Billy to be saved, but McKay’s last laug is to turn the lawyer over to his gang and bullets fly in a tense, exciting finale.
            Unlike his previous Gunsmoke effort, “The Crooked Nail,” “Final Payment” is every word a gripping, satisfying story (one told thousands of times in the western story) about two men whose hatred for each other threatens to engulf both of them. The reader can tell who wears the black hat and whom the white belongs to:

            I was never over-possessed with courage and never foolhardiness; but I had inherited from my father and mother those principles of right and wrong they had lived by, and a stern, unbending belief in the fact that a man could not kneel to something false and cruel, and ever be a man again.
            Sometimes I think that is the reason for all war, I don’t know for sure, but it seems to have a grain of truth in its shell. I looked at Billy McKay and thought, “You poor, damned fool!” and remembered my father as he had been in life, unbending, often wrong, but never a coward.

The Hairy Mr. Fraily by Jack Schaefer
(7100 words) **
            The ballad of Baldpate Frailey, the barber, and his two sons, Greenberry and Lenader. Not that this is a poorly-written fable, it’s just that it doesn’t belong in Gunsmoke, but rather a more vaired digest like Zane Grey’s Western Magazine or Street & Smith’s Western. It’s a change of pace but, for me at least, not a welcomed one.

Homecoming by Nelson Nye
(4500 words) *
            Nor is this story, which belongs in Ranch Romances. Dode Rogers heads back to his hometown to clear his name and win back the love of his life, Tara Lord. Unlike Nye’s “Rock Bottom” in the first issue (which is essentially the same story), the narrative of the story is driven into the ground by the weight of its own clichés, including this final exchange between the hero (picture James Brolin) and heroine (how about – think low budget here – Lindsay Wagner):

            Tara said “Let’s talk about us.”
            And Dode said, taking her into his arms, “The hell with talk.”

No Guns by Louis Trimble
 (4750 words) ***           
 Beeck and Herne are the Ali and Frazier of the town known as Vigilance, duking it out for years over the smallest of differences. But after two decades of blood and battles, Herne has an idea for a less combative relationship with Beeck. Humorous tale very much reminded me of Steve Frazee’s short story “The Bretnall Feud” (first published in Argosy in 1953 and reprinted in the Bill Pronzini-edited The Best Western Stories of Steve Frazee), but with a much lighter tone and a “happier” ending. Trimble also wrote many mystery novels (The Virgin Victim, The Corpse Without a Country) and dabbled in science fiction as well (Guardians of the Gate,The Bodelan Way). Jon Clute, in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martin’s, 1993) calls Trimble “extremely competent.”

Owlhoot: Who’s Who by T. W. Raines (1000 words)
Gunsmoke’s Movie of the Month: Shane (100 words)
Both are non-fiction pieces.

Killer by H. A. DeRosso
(10,750 words) ***
The Big Die-Up by Steve Frazee
(5400 words) ****
            My two favorite “vintage” western writers are DeRosso and Frazee. I had heard a lot of good things about Frazee for years so picked up the novel He Rode Alone and found it engrossing, a noir western without the western trappings we’ve all become familiar with after watching way too many hours of The Big Valley and Bonanza. He Rode Alone is, in fact, a great Gold Medal revenge suspenser (ranking right up there with the best of Dan J. Marlowe, Peter Rabe, and all the rest of the Gold Meddlers) that just happens to take place in the Old West. Frazee could just have easily changed a few things and produced a contemporary crime novel.
            Frazee’s greatest strength is that his characters can make the staunchest Western detractor forget the western tag on the cover. He’s also dark as hell. A lot of his characters don’t end up better for their journeys and some don’t make it at all.
            “The Big Die-Up” offers up Jim Heister, a no-nonsense (but fair) rancher who’s stacked plenty of hay in anticipation of a long and nasty winter. The other ranchers who make up the town hadn’t been as foresighted and ride to Heister’s door to demand he share the feed. Heister refuses, citing his own personal welfare, and the refusal touches off a series of events that opens Jim’s eyes to the neighbors around him and personal responsibility to the community.
            Frazee wastes no lines and packs a novel’s worth of characterization into a dozen pages. Here’s a sample (the first two paragraphs of the story):

            With the warmth of the fireplace pressing against his back, Jim Heister looked east along the snow fields and saw them coming. They rode through the drifts like men with defeat upon them, and that could make them savage. Six of them. There might have been twelve, but some of the Great Park ranchers were too full of pride and some of them hated Heister too much to come begging.
            He was a lean, tall man with a look of sharp assurance on his snow-burned features. He stood in the warmth of what was his and watched the snow trail away in streamers from the legs of the laboring horses that were carrying men to Whispering Pines on a futile mission.

            If Steve Frazee dims the lamp a bit, then H. A. DeRosso shuts it out completely. Outside of Frazee, no one wrote gloomier tales of weak humans and the moral dilemmas they face than DeRosso. Take the story included here for instance. “Killer” concerns ex-sheriff Dan Baxter, who receives word from the town’s new sheriff that Jesse Olivera has escaped from prison. Years before, Dan had hunted Olivera down for rustling and, in a violent shootout, had wounded Olivera and killed the rustler’s wife. Olivera had sworn revenge on Baxter and was now obviously heading for town. Not one to wait for danger to find him, Baxter heads out in search of the fugitive. When he finds him, he gives the man the chance to avenge his wife’s death, only to beat the man in a draw. As Olivera lies bleeding to death, he thanks Baxter for the chance. Bill Pronzini calls “Killer”: “a quintessential deRosso noir vision.” I agree with Bill that shades are dark, but to fully appreciate DeRosso, seek out “Vigilante,” (originally from the September 1948 issue of Best Western and reprinted in the excellent DeRosso collection Under the Burning Sun), possibly the darkest western pulp story I’ve ever read.

Scalp Dance by Bennett Foster
(6000 words) **
            Jebs Farnford is caught between the savagery of his wife’s Sioux family and the law-abiding “decency” of his own. When his ranch is hit hard by rustlers, Jebs must choose which tact to take. Strange, meandering narrative never quite involves the reader.

Behind the Badge: Billy Tilghman by M. L. Powell
(1000 words) non-fiction piece

Snowblind by Evan Hunter
(3500 words) **
            Gary finds his son Bobby sparking up a smoke, toting his guns, and anticipating a ride into town to get himself some sack time. Not ready for middle age and the sudden maturity of his offspring, Gary does the only thing that comes to mind: he grounds the kid. This doesn’t sit well with the teen rebel and he grabs a hunk of the highway, just in time for one of those damned blizzards to hit. Feeling guilty for clipping the kid’s wings, Gary sets out to track Bobby and is kidnapped by three ornery cusses wanted by the law for… something. In the eye-opening (for Gary at least – the rest of us know what’s coming, right?) finale, father is saved by his gunslingin’ son. The lesson here, of course, is that in the Old West you grew up faster and old people just had to accept that. The final paragraph finds the two-unit family looking forward to a cup of Joe, a roll-yer-own and, presumably, a threesome with Madame Kitty.

The Courting Feud by Bill Gulick
(5500 words) ***
            Judd Kimbrough and Henry Hooker are engaged in a game of one-upmanship while courting Molly Rankin. Light and humorous, very much like one of those 1950s western romances, complete with musical interlude.

Incident at the Bar W by Robert Turner
(3250 words) ***
            Esther Womble has only her dog to protect her when a stranger comes riding into her ranch. When the rider decides to take more than just the water he’s been offered, Esther shows him how women survive in the West.

Showdown by Charles Beckman, Jr.
(1250 words) **
            Dave Segel has waited over two years for August Lehman’s bullet to take him down. He can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t rest. He lives in constant fear. Then, finally, one night Lehman catches up to him, or does he? In one of those O. Henry type twists that might have been fresher when the story was first published, we find out that Segel actually killed Lehman years before and, plagued by guilt, turns to booze and sees his victim everywhere he turns. We learn this in the clichéd finale at the climax.

(1) Manhunt issued thirteen of their Giant Manhunt omnibus editions (some of the volumes contained four issues bound together). Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine issued several volumes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Sampler, which bound together two uncirculated copies of AHMM. The difference between the bound copies of Manhunt and those of AHMM is that the publishers of Hitch would bind random copies! I’ve heard stories from collectors of innumerable combinations of issues. It’s not all that far-fetched since three of the four Samplers I have in my collection all contain non-consecutive issues.

(2) Bill Pronzini has done more to bring vintage western writers to a wider contemporary audience than anyone else. His “Best of the West” series for Fawcett in the 1980s reprinted over a hundred western stories formerly languishing in moldy pulps, including work by authors discussed in this piece. Bill is also responsible for a series of books reprinting the best of H. A. De Rosso: Under the Burning Sun (1997), Riders of the Shadowlands (1999) and Tracks in the Sand (2001), all published by Five Star.

Garfield, Brian   Western Films (Rawson Associates, 1982)
Sadler, Geoff (editor) 20th Century Western Writers, 2nd Edition (St. James Press, 1991)
Pronzini, Bill   The Best Western Stories of Steve Frazee (Southern Illinois University Press, 1984)

DeRosso, H. A.   ,44 (Lion, 1953)
            Under the Burning Sun (Five Star , 1997)
Frazee, Steve   The Gun-Throwers (Lion, 1954)
            Pistolman (Lion, 1952)
Gorman, Ed (editor) The Fatal Frontier (Carroll & Graf, 1997)
Loomis, Noel   Heading West (Leisure, 2007)

This article first appeared in Bare Bones Vol. 2 No. 1 (2000), still available from Deadline Press for $10 postpaid. The issue also includes an in-depth, book by book critique of the first 17 Parker novels by Richard Stark/Donald Westlake, The Top Ten Movies and Books of the 1990s, and lots more. 70 digest pages. Drop us a line if interested at

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The House of Mystery: I, Vampire Part 1

by Peter Enfantino

DC's horror comics (often referred to as "the mystery line") have always fascinated me and issues of House of Secrets, Weird Mystery Tales, and House of Mystery provided hours of pleasure as a pre-teen. A lot of the stories from these titles still hold up today. The following is the first in a long series of articles on the DC Mystery Line. We'll take a look at each title individually in the future. For now, you'll meet DC's answer to Marvel's long-running Tomb of Dracula.

            By the time 1981 had rolled around, House of Mystery’s best days were years behind it. Beginning in 1951, HOM had bided its time, presenting the kind of 1950s science fiction and fantasy comics that prevailed in its day: giant radiated turtles, alien encounters, men with occult powers, and rampaging robots. Viewed from a comic collector’s eyes, it didn’t look any different than the material being published by Atlas (Tales of Suspense, Strange Tales, and Tales to Astonish being the prime examples).
            For 17 years, HOM continued to showcase mostly unmemorable material (with the exceptions being the title’s brief flirtations with series characters in J’onn J’onzz and “Dial H for Hero”) until Joe Orlando accepted the editor’s reins and shook up the “DC Mystery Line” consisting of House of Mystery, House of Secrets, and Tales of the Unexpected. Jim Warren was enjoying success with Creepy and Eerie so, sensing a coming trend, Orlando brought in new talent and shifted the focus from SF and fantasy to horror.  Neal Adams, Bernie Wrightson, Gil Kane, Alex Toth, Wally Wood, just to name a few.

            Once Wrightson and Adams left for other projects, the quality fell and the title became a mirror of its 1950s self, only now readers were inundated not with men who became giant Totem poles but with men who found out their wives were werewolves or vampires (themes that had already been worked into the ground in the 1950s by EC). From the mid 1970s then, HOM just chugged along, losing more readers each month.
            Back to 1981: Then, as now, vampires were the hottest thing around. Everyone was doing them. Warren had added the phenomenally popular Vampirella to his magazine roster, Marvel had Dracula’s Daughter (a ridiculous cross between superheroine and monster), and the movie studios were churning out vampire flicks at a maddening pace.
            So it was inevitable that DC would introduce a vampiric “hero’” and the responsibility for the chronicles of this vampire fell to J. M. DeMatteis, who had recently begun writing Marvel’s The Defenders.
            Handling the art chores was Tom Sutton, an artist, much like Bernie Wrightson, who excelled when it came to horror comics. Unfortunately, “I, Vampire” was not a highpoint in Sutton’s career. As perhaps best exemplified in Sutton's work for Charlton in the 1970s, no one could touch Sutton when it came to Lovecraftian creatures, but the artist had his problems with human characters. Put some tentacles, leprosy, or the plague on a body and Sutton could create the image without peer, but the same could not be applied to the artist’s renditions of Bruce Wayne, for example.

            Andrew Bennett is a “cheerful Lord of Queen Elizabeth’s Court” when he runs afoul of a nasty vampire in our first episode (HOM #290, March 1981). Bitten by the monster, Bennett tries to keep the secret from his love, Mary Seward, but Mary discovers the truth and begs Andrew to let her join him in eternal life. Unable to say “no,” Bennett converts Mary to vampirism, but rather than try to conceal the curse as Andrew does, the vampire revels in her new condition and heads out into the night, seeking fresh victims. Andrew spends centuries tracking down Mary (now known, I guess to vampires and vampire hunters across the world, as Mary, Queen of Blood) and finally catches up to her as our premiere installment opens. Bennett has enlisted the aide of  Deborah Dancer (who loves the vampire) and Dimitri Mishkin (who conversely loathes the vampire but might be sticking around for the shapely Deborah). The two assistants strongly echo, not coincidentally, I’m sure, the characters created for the VAMPIRELLA series.

            Bennett learns that Mary has aligned herself with a terrorist organization known as “The Blood Red Moon,” and as chapter 2 (“Night of the Living Undead” HOM #291) opens, we find the vampire attending a nightclub known as “The Gates of Hell.” Along the lines of the classic story “Midnight Mess” (from Tales from the Crypt #35), the club’s only partygoers are “creatures of the night.” Here, Andrew overhears two patrons discussing “The Blood Red Moon.” Bennett and his two cohorts go undercover to bust up a drug-smuggling ring led by the seedy Emil Veldt (at one point, child molestation is more than hinted at), a vampire selling heroin to finance the Moon’s devilish deeds. Undone by both his heroin addiction and the rays of the sun, Veldt is dispatched with great ease by Bennett.
            During his battle with Veldt, Bennett comes into possession of a diary written by Mary, wherein she divulges her evil plan for world domination, nicknamed “Operation: Interior.” Why a vampire would have to set down a plan for world domination in black and white for all to see is beyond me. 

            Bennett and his dynamic duo head off to investigate Project: Interior in “The Burning” (Chapter 3, HOM #293), and find themselves involved with The American Freedom Party, a racist cult headed by the deranged Q. B. Stonewall. Suspecting Stonewall to be a vampire, Bennett follows the man and his associate, the mysterious Miss Smith. While en route to a fire started by the cult, Andrew is attacked by another vampire bat. Cornered, the bat resumes human form, that of Miss Smith. Moving in for the kill, Andrew is stopped by Mishkin, who allows the woman to escape. When pressed, Mishkin offers up that the vampire is, in reality, his mother.

            The full back story of that astonishing admission becomes Chapter Four (“Mother Love! Mother Hate!,” HOM #295). We learn why Mishkin is a vampire hunter in the first place. During childhood, his mother is attacked and infected by Mary in front of the youth and the boy makes a promise to track down his mother and put her out of her misery. It’s also revealed that the boy made that promise to Andrew Bennett and they’ve spent all these years searching for their respective vampires. So why Mishkin didn’t stake his mother when he had the chance is not explained. Though I’m not fond of Tom Sutton’s work on “I,Vampire,” I must say that the series of panels on the final page of “Mother Love…” are very atmospheric.

            As Chapter 5 (“Zen Flesh! Zen Bones,” HOM #297) opens, Bennett, Deborah, and Mishkin are following up on another of the sects mentioned in Mary’s journal, The Temple of the Ineffable Tao. There they meet Billy Kessler, a young man who spins a yarn about his Chinese mentor, Master Shoju. Kessler and Shoju are the latest victims of Mary’s insatiable lust. The quartet hunt down Shoju, only to find out it is Kessler who is the monster. After staking Billy, the newly formed quartet (including Shoju) seemingly walk into the sunset, off to another unholy adventure.

            “Zen Flesh” was to be J.M. DeMatteis’ final “I,Vampire” installment (he jumped ship and wrote the final issues of the first incarnation of one of Marvel’s supernatural titles, Ghost Rider), and Bruce Jones took over scripting chores for the series. Jones had become, arguably, the best horror writer in the business over at Warren and had lent his services to DC’s mystery titles in the past as well (one of Jones’ stories, “Fetched,” appeared in HOM #298). 

            Not one to cruise along on the coattails of previous series writers (he would prove this yet again two decades later with his controversial run on The Incredible Hulk), Jones sets out on his own journey with Andrew Bennett (“The Sun Also Burns,” HOM #299). While traveling down a stretch of highway, Bennett and his crew (minus Master Shoju, without explanation) are forced off the road by Mary’s minions. Just as they are going to expose Bennett to sunlight, an earthquake opens up a fissure and swallows the whole bunch of them. Bennett, Deborah and Mishkin are safely deposited into a fissure with enough air to hold them until help arrives. During their imprisonment, Andrew very nearly succumbs to his unearthly desires and, fearing for his friends’ safety, decides to go it alone once they are rescued. Andrew hitches a ride, but is once again set upon by Mary’s monsters. The climax of the story sees Andrew taking on the life of the man he had hitched with, hoping that the assassins will believe the vampire had perished in the car wreck. He heads off to start a new life alone (again, ala Jones’ Hulk).

            In Chapter Seven (“Blood Ties,” HOM #302), Andrew journeys to the home of Matt Kitner, the man who had given him a ride and perished. Kitner’s wife agrees to rent a room to Bennett and the vampire attempts to settle down to a life of peace and sheep’s blood (one of the opening panels shows an entire flock of sheep drained of blood). Of course, the Moon won’t allow that to take place and, after tracking Andrew to the Kitner farm, they make quick work of the widow and her young son (the boy is dispatched in a nasty manner and I’m surprised it escaped the wrath of the Comics Code). Andrew, much like a vampire version of The Fugitive, shambles off to the next town. With this installment, “I, Vampire” began appearing in each issue of HOM.

            From the farm to the carnival (“Carnival of Souls”, HOM #303), Andrew finds himself once more facing Mary and her slaves. The Queen of Blood is using the sideshow as a front for white slavery to further fund her conspiracy for world conquest (why would a vampire have to stoop to such levels for money?). With the help of reporter Margo Jennings, Andrew attempts to shut down the slavery ring, but is once more thwarted by Mary. The monthly schedule obviously didn’t help Tom Sutton’s art jobs. “Carnival of Souls” looks like bad Ditko.