Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Dungeons of Doom: The Pre-Code Horror Comics Volume 11

Part Two

By Jose Cruz and
Peter Enfantino

Peter: Dr. Fisher is awakened from a sound sleep by Tabu, the servant of one of his wealthiest patients, Maxmilian, and ordered to travel to the old man's estate. There he finds the elderly eccentric on his deathbed,  asking an odd request of his doctor: upon his death, the doctor is to remove Maxmilian's brain! The grey matter in his head doesn't really belong to him; it's on loan from ancient high priest Vishnu and must be returned to the temple from which it was borrowed immediately. Vishnu had ben nice enough to lend it to Max but only with the proviso that it be used for the good of mankind. Fisher agrees to return the gift (in a handy casket prepared by Tabu) but his medical curiosity gets the better of him and he examines the brain, conclusively finding that the old man was telling the truth ("... the brain is extremely old... and the degree of convolution shows that it is highly developed and complicated!"). Thinking it would be ludicrous to return the curio to its rightful owner, Fisher swaps Vishnu's brain out for one taken from a random cadaver ("Abby Normal!") and explains to Tabu he's too busy to make the journey to Egypt. While Tabu makes "the long journey to Egypt," Fisher contacts Torks, the down-on-his-luck former brain surgeon turned skid row bum, and arranges a quick surgery. Soon the brain of Vishnu lies in the skull of Dr. Fisher! Meanwhile, halfway across the world, the doctor's switcheroo doesn't sit well with Vishnu and the half-skulled, bandaged ghoul rises from his tomb to throttle Tabu. The monster then makes that aforementioned long journey back to America, where he finds Dr. Fisher raking in dough from his new-found intelligence. Whipping a blade from under his bandages, Vishnu repossesses that which is rightfully his, leaving Dr. Fisher in a sad state.

Submitted for your approval:
the original splash

The first reprinting, with only minor additions...

And the reworking and retitled version
drawn by Nestor Olivera

"Skulls of Doom" (from #12) is so jolly in its mayhem, it's hard not to smile throughout its eight-page running time. From Max's whacky admission ("My brain is not really mine at all!") to Fisher's quick acceptance of the events ("Hmmm... it's an old brain, that's for sure, so Max can't be pulling my leg!") to the employment of an alcoholic for impromptu brain surgery in his own basement ("Hic... knit one, pearl two... hic!") to the murder of the unwitting pawn Tabu to the finale, where Vishnu explains to Fisher just why he's come all this way ("And now, please, I want my brain!"). The screams of the lecherous doctor, as Vishnu lops off the top of his skull ("Agghhhhh-- You're slicing my skull open!") are at once chilling and hilarious. The final panel, of the "topless" Fisher, is extremely unnerving despite the absence of gore.

The original finale

Olivera's re-imagining

An interesting side-note: As with most of the Ajax-Farrell horror stories, "Skulls of Doom" was reprinted several times in the Eerie Publications titles and provides a fascinating example of the workings of the Myron Fass crew. Eerie presented a very faithful reprinting (the only noteworthy additions are a bit of gore on the splash page and some drool on the lips of the dying Maxmilian) in Terror Tales Vol. 1 No. 7 (March 1969), but then had Nestor Olivera completely redraw "Skulls" for TT Vol. 6 No. 4 (August 1974) with gobs of gore strewn about the panels (credit courtesy of the indispensable The Weird Indexes of Eerie Publications by Mike Howlett). The contrast is, to say the least, startling and the effect will vary depending on the reader's taste.

Jose: Driven to the breaking point from regarding her own hideous features and watching beautiful sister Joy carousing around with her handsome dates, Agatha disguises herself and throws a pitcher of acid into her sibling’s face in a fit of jealous rage. Alive but horribly scarred, Joy occupies her days only with thoughts of avenging her disfigurement. Joy’s increasing obsession and hermetic lifestyle begins to shake cold-hearted Agatha who fears that her sis may eventually suss her out as the attacker from that fateful night. Joy even resorts to calling on Satan and the forces of darkness to aid her in her pursuit, finally revealing that she knows Agatha was the acid-tosser and promising to place “the curse of beauty” on her sister for her filial crimes. Agatha scoffs but then rejoices when the prophecy comes true and she is transformed into a dark, sexy vixen. Her victory is short-lived, however, when her gorgeous head grows to blue ribbon-pumpkin size and both her and Joy are consigned to lonely lives of hideousness once again.

"And now I'm full of candy, too!"
“Horribly Beautiful” (from #11) is a riotous eight pages of that particular comic book magic that marries delirium and absurdity in unholy wedlock. Whether from an author punching above his weight or from a scribbler savvy to the inherent silliness of the piece, “Horribly Beautiful” is a veritable howler that actually left me howling on at least one notable occasion. (For those interested, it was the “Satan” line quoted below.) Outside of the story’s ticklish delivery, the author actually manages to maintain a modest air of mystery as to just how the eventual confrontation between the sisters will pan out. We have the same derisive attitude as Agatha: just exactly how can beauty be a curse? We look on with growing interest, challenging the author to deliver on this intriguing bit of foreshadowing. The form Joy’s vengeance actually takes might strike some as utterly lame, but to my jaundiced eyes it reads perfectly of a piece with the looniness that has already been established. But then I guess beauty’s in the eye of the beholder.

Peter: Pearl dealers Larry Angus McCabe and Mike Dolan run into trouble when their small plane ditches on an uncharted island in the South Pacific. The men are rescued by natives and brought to the island estate of legendary soldier of fortune, Anthony Poindexter, a man who disappeared a decade ago and was presumed dead. Weary of big game sport, Poindexter has now taken to hunting the biggest game of them all... man. Larry and Mike are given knives and told if they can stay alive on the island for twenty-four hours, each will receive a boat ride back to civilization and fifty grand. Poindexter gives the men an hour head start but Mike only survives half that when he falls victim to a hidden bear trap and bleeds to death. Angus proves a bit harder to kill as he evades capture, killing one of Poindexter's henchmen in the process, and lays a bear trap of his own for his hunter. Poindexter walks right into the deadly jaws and pleads with Angus to get him to a nearby hospital. Sucker that he is, McCabe agrees and walks the man to a waiting boat. Once the men are boarded, Angus starts up the engine and the boat explodes.

You gotta love these heartless writers, dumping innocent characters into horrible situations, lulling the reader into a false sense of security once the menace seems to have passed, and then WHAM-O, lowering the boom on said character. Larry and Mike, the co-stars of "Torture Garden" (from #13) are complicit in no crime other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The whole affair is obviously lifted from Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" but then this wasn't the first time that plot had been "borrowed" nor was it the last. Mike's death is gruesome ("... my --- legs, broken! I -- crushed!") as is Larry's gutting of native nasty Mocambo ("Part payment for Mike, you heathen!"), but the biggest gasp for the reader is reserved for the final panel, where we learn that Poindexter had planned for any outcome, smiling just before Larry turns the key and sends the boat straight to hell! Sometimes a memorable climax or a particularly wrenching scene can make all the difference, transforming a variation on a theme into something quite a bit more.

Here's as good a place as any to bring up the splash pages. Perhaps I'm on the wrong track with my guess but I believe that possibly the writer would come up with a title for his story and an editor would replace the proposed title with something perhaps a bit snappier or hyperbolic. My theory rides on the intro to each and every story published in Voodoo, verbose (sometimes over a hundred words) and sometimes spoilerish run-ons that ended with bold-faced words like the one introducing "Torture Garden" which finishes with the sentence: It was indeed The Isle of Lost Men... Either title would fit this story, of course, but other tales in Voodoo cry out for their original titling. The best example being the mundane (in every sense of the word) "Assignment: Danger", a snoozer about a female reporter covering a fashion show who stumbles onto the murder of a runway model. Its complete intro reads: The ultra-exclusive fashion show was only a routine assignment to Margie, but she soon made the shocking discovery that there is nothing routine about "Murder in Style..."  Those last three words are indeed enclosed within quotes, suggesting it might be used in a real big font as the title.  Of course, then there are the others that merely repeat themselves:

The rantings of a man who's been reading too many horror comics? Perhaps, but while I'm on a rant: why did Ajax decide to follow up the above splash with the following issue's cover
(seen at left)? Did the artist miss his deadline?

And why are there so many doggone typos? A character in "Let Me Die Today" (#18) visits the lovely coastal town of Malibou; Issue #16 features a tale entitled "Horror Unlimeted"; and the whopper of them all is the cover of #16 which promises a thriller with the enticing title of "Death Was Her Shrowd!" And why did the Ajax scribes find inanimate objects like (Screaming) Shoes and (Dead Man's) Pajamas so frightening? Why was Voodoo's mascot, "The Old Hag" used so sparingly rather than as a frontispiece to each tale? I'll stop this journey down the rabbit hole before I get to the twenty reasons why you should avoid DC's Ghosts.

Jose: Low-time gangster Johnnie Grotz is just treating his gal Kiki to another shiny trinket when he gets word that long-time rival Tony Cardozo is back in town. Dumping Kiki for a tommy gun, Johnnie beats a quick path to Tony’s old digs and pumps the goons at the card table full of lead. Too bad Tony foresaw Johnnie’s pitiful attempt to rub him out and had the place filled with wax dummies ahead of time! Johnnie’s quickly put of commission and upon awaking finds himself in the fiery pits of Hell with Satan and his eager demons capering about him. Ol’ Scratch shows Johnnie that he was sold out by his “faithful” gal Kiki who is now busy mooching off Cardozo back on Earth. Enraged by the betrayal, Johnnie snatches Satan’s scepter before the imps can lay their claws on him, quickly finding out that he who holds the mighty pitchfork rules over the whole expanse of Hell. Johnnie makes his first order of business a return trip to topside where he sics his demonic hordes on Tony and Kiki and use his infernal powers to hypnotize the assistant D. A. into picking the pocket of his boss! Travelling back to Hell, Johnnie basks in his luxuries--like the installed AC unit and Satan shining his shoes—as the king of a different kind of underworld. But when Johnnie’s gloating leads him to let the scepter slip from his grasp, Satan reclaims his rightful throne and sentences Johnnie to a particularly grueling dip in the sulfur pits.

“The King of Hades” (from #11) reads like a genre parody one would expect to find in the pages of MAD or its various imitators. It just skirts the line of acceptable taste with its thinly-veiled innuendos and never for one second takes itself too seriously. The uncredited artist stuffs little details into the panels without compromising the story’s visual readability and instills his characters with frenetic life, accomplishing a commendable balance between cartoonish craziness and diabolical seriousness. With a logline worthy of The Twilight Zone and a sleazy, late-night bender mentality, “The King of Hades” is just what the diabolist ordered. Now give us a Kiki white kiss!

Peter: Eccentric millionaire Philip Wuxton builds a house in the shape of a shoe for his new wife, Jessie. While the townsfolk laugh with derision, Jessie keeps her thoughts to herself, agreeing with her husband that the new abode holds a certain charm. Not long after, Wuxton dies mysteriously and Jessie shuts herself into the shoe for years until one day... The local papers scream "Jessie Wuxton Weds Local Undertaker!", taking the entire town by surprise. The happiness is not long-lived though and neither is the groom. Another funeral leaves the local tongues wagging and when, less than a year later, Jessie weds yet again, a groundswell of rumors begin making the rounds. Could Jessie be a murderess? The years pass... and so do the husbands. After her seventh mate is buried, the ever-newlywed swears off the game for good and becomes a spinster, hiding away in her house for decades. One night, Jessie calls her lawyer and insists she has something he must see immediately. The young man races over to the big shoe and is ushered into the basement by the old crone. She bids him to open a door and when he does, his eyes behold an eerie sight: all seven of the woman's husbands, still alive and now nuttier than fruitcake, chained to a wall. Jessie offers up no explanation for her erratic behavior before she tumbles down the stairs, accidentally locking the basement door. Her lantern sets off a fire and the lawyer is burned to death. And so ends, our host informs us, "the true story of the old lady who lived in a shoe, and had so many husbands she didn't know what to do!"

If you were to ask me why I liked "Witch or Widow" (from #14), I'd throw up my hands and admit, "Beats me!" Could it be, much like "Torture Garden", it comes down to an admiration for writers who jettison the idea of a happy ending and introduce random innocents (in this case, the young lawyer), only to dispatch them with sadistic glee (burning alive is a really nasty way to go, even for a lawyer)? Or could it be the other attribute these writers have, the knack for throwing disparate elements at a wall and making things stick? What possible reason could Jessie Wuxton have for marrying and then chaining her husbands up in the basement? Perhaps I'm grasping for straws but I think it's an early attempt to demonstrate that lunacy comes in all kinds of packages, an idea that hadn't been run into the ground yet by 1954. I'm glad our unnamed scribe chose to keep the old woman's motives a mystery. Nothing like a pat ending (she was abused as a child - she was after their money - she was a werewolf) to ruin a good terror tale.

Riverdance has really changed since my last show.
Jose: “Over two hundred years ago” in old Bohemia, a gypsy named Canio is hung on the gallows in the town square of Munster, his final words a sworn curse that he will return from the grave to perform further mischief. The gallows are soon chopped into firewood by the burgher's men and another gypsy, Antonio, snatches two billets and makes off with them to make some puppets. Antonio is astounded when he sees his latest creation looks just like Canio, and the marionette shows it’s got a mind of its own when it stirs to life and dances on Antonio’s wife’s face before running off . Antonio follows the puppet to the house of the magistrate that passed the death sentence onto Canio. Looking for backup, Antonio explains his plight to the police but is instead thrown into the hoosegow for being a wood thief. Meanwhile, the Canio puppet is busy leering at the magistrate’s shapely daughter. After tying the lass up with thread (!), the puppet attacks the magistrate when he comes running after his daughter’s cries. The puppet blinds the magistrate with a sharp needle and prepares to work on the daughter next. The sightless magistrate knocks over a lamp and all three face a fiery death in the inferno that ensues. Antonio, for his part, is sent to the hangman’s noose, but after the execution no attempt is made to repurpose the gallows. Just in case.

Graphic literature at its finest.

“Gallows’ Curse” (from #13) seems representative of the prototypical pre-code horror story: savage, demented, and with a blackly comic streak a mile wide. You know you’re in pretty safe territory when animated puppets are on hand, and “Gallows” surely doesn’t disappoint in that regard. From the second he winks into existence by spreading a woman’s fingers in a manner that can’t help but appear suggestive to modern eyes, Canio the puppet proceeds to dance his way into our twisted hearts through the virtue of his remorseless sadism. The sequence of him terrorizing the magistrate and his daughter is especially boundary-teasing; focus is given to Canio poring over the daughter’s bound bosom and his imminent stabbing-out of her father’s eyes. There’s no doubt that if we were boys living in 1950s America our mothers would surely have whipped our hides something fierce for being caught reading this garbage. We wouldn’t have it any other way!

Sleaze factor at ten!

Peter: Late one night, crooked businessman Mike McCoy is visiting his office when he notices a light on. Fearing it's his partner going over the cooked books, McCoy heads up the stairs with murder on his mind. Before he can get there, however, a shot rings out and, upon entering the room, Mike finds his partner, Sol Cather, dead on the floor. Discovering an open window, Mike unwittingly picks up the murder weapon and heads out onto the fire escape, finding nothing out of the ordinary. When the cops get there, Mike becomes their primary suspect and he knows as soon as they find out he's been embezzling, his goose is cooked. Meanwhile, back at the McCoy residence, Mike's wife Eva is cozying up to the family lawyer, Bill Poindexter (obviously the brother of the big game hunter, Anthony Poindexter, from "Torture Garden") when she gets the call from the precinct that Mike has been arrested for murder. Seeing this as his way of clearing the deadwood, Poindexter agrees to defend Mike in court but does a less-than-exemplary job when the time comes (the shyster even leaks the embezzling angle to the prosecution) and McCoy is sentenced to die by the electric chair. Months later, as McCoy fries, the devious couple canoodle but the thrill may have already gone out of the romance thanks to the Mike McCoy affair. Back at the prison morgue, a whacky doctor, dabbling in things men were not supposed to know, injects Mike McCoy's body with a syringe of regenerating fluid. Mike's corpse reanimates, none too happy, and heads off to his old home, where he witnesses the aforementioned canoodling. He quickly rigs up heavy duty voltage to the chairs at the kitchen table and when the adulterers return, they get the shock of their lives!

A lot of interesting elements to this simple but powerful morality play. The three protagonists of "Sound of Mourning" (from #18) are introduced to us under one of the most outlandish splashes ever (see far above), a scene that only has a vague connection (pun intended) with the story we're about to read. The irony, of course, is that Mike fries for the one crime he didn't commit and we never do find out who murdered Sol Cather (the killing, in fact, is almost forgotten immediately except when it's mentioned at Mike's trial). I assumed we'd get a lame expository from Poindexter, confessing he set Mike up in the first place to get to Eva but (thankfully) we're spared one of those giant captions at the finale. Poindexter deliberately torpedoes Mike's chances for exoneration and then (again, ironically) once the trial is over, "both plotters realize that the thing between them has spoiled..." Guilt or a loss of excitement? A very adult moment for a kid's funny book. I love how Mike takes the time while the couple are, ostensibly, going at it in the bedroom (we see them emerge with their robes on) to hook a wire into the basement transformer and then hide the line under the carpet! Obviously a tidy home owner, even as a reanimated corpse.

Morbid beauty par excellence

Jose: Maintenance man Bruce is working late one night on the city’s underground water supply system when he finally emerges after hours of thankless toil only to be met by a rather thankless sight: the entire city obliterated, grey mist swirling all around, and not a living soul to be found. His immediate worry is to find his wife Becky, but the piles of bodies in the streets put a damper on his hopes. He goes searching through the foggy wasteland regardless, only to come upon a group of cadaverous mutants who are out hunting for any human stragglers. They spot Bruce but he manages to give them a slip, resolving that he must set up an observation point fitted with provisions to make it as long as he can in this new, mad world. From his hovel Bruce witnesses a violent battle between two warring factions of mutants, but what really catches his attention is the bedraggled form of a woman: Becky. Mindless of his safety, Bruce attempts to remind Becky of their relationship but the scarred wraith doesn’t appear to understand. The other mutants see Bruce and quickly bind him to a stake for later immolation. Becky returns and frees Bruce, unaware of what compels her to help him. Bruce grabs the necklace Becky has discarded as a token of their former love just as the sky rains down hellish fire and burns him alive. Bruce then awakens from his terrible dream and finds himself back in the sewers. Though relieved, he can’t seem to explain how he has Becky’s necklace in his hand.

Webb at work.

Though it might cop-out at the last second, “Fog Was My Shroud” (from #16) remains an incredibly gloomy entry from the pre-code horror books. This batch of stories from Voodoo featured some particularly nihilistic tales, “Fog Was My Shroud” and “Corpses… Coast to Coast” (see below) especially damning for not only their depiction of the death of innocents but of the entire world as we know it. Those convinced that our fascination with the apocalypse in popular culture is only a recent phenomenon should take a look at these two stories from sixty years ago to realize that the prospect of Armageddon has been a grim burden we’ve carried on our shoulders for generations (and will for generations to come). The art by Robert Webb is rough-around-the-edges, tattered, even a little primitive, but it’s a perfect fit for the story; his splash page is a thing of chilling magnificence. It’s too bad the story didn’t end with Bruce’s apocalyptic auto-de-fe. That way both the world and the reader’s heart could’ve been left in cinders.

Peter: Lost in Germany, newlyweds Joyce and Mark happen upon a spooky structure high in the mountains and Mark thinks it would be a kick to stay in the quaintly titled "Werewolf Castle" (from #18). Against her better judgement, Joyce goes along with the plan and soon Mark finds himself banging some big knockers and coming face to face with the castle's servant, a misshapen hunchback who tells them his employers, the Baron and Baroness, will be happy to see them. Introductions are made and the two couples seem to get on winningly. Joyce excuses herself and heads to her room while Mark listens in wonder as Baron Gotha explains the history of Werewolf Castle. Though she's feeling a bit spooked in the eerie guest room, Joyce turns in for the evening but no sooner does she lay her lovely nightgown-encased body down than the bed swings up into the wall and deposits her in another room, a "place of horror!" Meanwhile, Baroness Gotha spreads her vampire's winds and takes to the air, observing her husband and Mark downstairs. The Baroness is a bit perturbed at the Baron as he'd promised to surrender the visitor to her early. Finally, the Baron makes excuses to leave the room and the Baroness swoops in, draining Mark's blood and transforming him into a werewolf. Upstairs, the Baron reveals himself to Joyce... well, he lets her know that, in actuality, he's a wolf and she's on the menu. Once he's dined, Joyce is a vampire. The dazed and bruised couple meet up in the study just as the hunchback comes down to announce that they are the new owners of Werewolf Castle and will remain so until they can transfer their curses to another couple.

A deliriously fun ride, ala Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein at times, with its subtle humor (rather than the shredded clothes of yore, the Baron retains his nicely pressed suit after transforming into a werewolf) and playful art. "Werewolf Castle" jettisons all the werewolf and vampire lore we've learned over the centuries -- the species seem to cross-pollinate and co-exist. The expository suggests that these two creatures do not venture out and terrorize the countryside but, rather, lie in wait for the day that two wayward travelers may come knocking on the door. The panel of Joyce lounging in bed ("Afraid I'm not going to be able to stay awake until Mark comes upstairs!") made me think about all those silly out-of-context panels Wertham used in his attack on funny books and points out that Fred needn't have printed Batman's cowl upside down (signifying two vaginas, no doubt) to hammer his theory home.  The Old Hag lets her presence known in a witty bumper, designing a shroud for some unlucky soul. Though still an obvious rip-off of the EC hosts, The Hag has a bit more character than in the previous, throwaway intros she appeared in.

Jose: Newlyweds Richard and Sylvia are just starting their “long awaited” honeymoon along a stretch of lonely Malibu beach, the sweethearts the very picture of early marital bliss. While out walking along the shoreline, the couple comes across a crone-like woman writing a message in the sand with a stick. They introduce themselves but the crone responds only in cryptic tones, warning them not to look at her message as she flees from their sight. Richard’s perturbed but Sylvia finds it all amusing, even ignoring her husband’s fear of reading the script in the sand. What they see unsettles them even further: the crone has written Sylvia’s name along with her birthday and tomorrow’s date like the inscription on a tombstone. Shaking the episode from their minds, the couple heads out in their car for a picnic. As they wrestle through heavy traffic, a tanker truck swipes their car, triggering an explosion. Both the truck driver and Sylvia are killed instantly while Richard miraculously survives. The death of his wife heavy on his mind, Richard returns to the beach only to see the hag scrawling another message. Richard tries to speak to her but once again she eludes his calls. Looking at the message, his morbid hopes are dashed: the inscription informs Richard that he still has forty years to go before he passes away in 1994. Maddened with grief, Richard trudges into the sea to drown himself. As luck would have it though, a passing fishing smack nets Richard and hauls him out of the water. Once hospitalized, Richard is told by the befuddled doctor that no one could’ve lived through his episode, but Richard knows for certain now that the prophecy written in the sand has been set in stone.

This run of stories should come with a prescription for Prozac.

As Peter noted above, the probably-editorial decision to rename the stories in Voodoo were usually unnecessary and even wrong-headed, but whoever thought that the generic “Warning in the Sand” should be refitted to “Let Me Die Today” (from #18) was clearly more in tune with the writer’s work than the actual author was. The new title communicates the tragic arc of the tale much more effectively while also being an emotional grabber in its own right. It shifts the focus from the weird hag and her portents of the future to the real nub of horror at the heart of the story: the futility of life in the wake of a loved one’s death. The grand doomsday terror of “Fog Was My Shroud” is winnowed down to a more intimate level, but the soul-crushing atmosphere remains the same. Because I’m apparently an emotional masochist, I actually thought that the latter half of the story could've been longer. What would it have been like to live with Richard for those forty years? Would he find another love? Try to kill himself again? Spend his old age warning away other happy young couples from the crone on the beach, all the while wondering why God had done this to him? My cold, dark mind can’t help but wonder.

And the "Stinking Zombie Award" goes to...

Yer a what????
Peter: Dr. Lynn Willis and his nurse/lover Mary Hitchcock are out driving one night when their eyes behold an eerie sight: a gorgeous woman, lying in the middle of the road. The couple load the unconscious girl in their car and head off to Lynn's place, where he, luckily, has a fully functioning operating room in his basement. While Lynn goes off to search for his blasted rubber gloves, Mary prepares an IV of whole blood. Just then, two female claws reach out for the bottle. Dr. Willis returns only to find he needs to advertise for a new nurse. Believing it to be the work of a lunatic who's been prowling the area, Dr. Willis phones the police to report the death of his squeeze. The cops cart the body away ("Sorry about your little nurse!") and Willis turns his attention back to the babe on the operating table, who finally rouses. She relates a story of a man, a lunatic, who took her to a backwoods road and tried to kill her. When pressed, she reveals the man was her husband and he tried to drive a stake into her heart because... (spoiler alert) SHE'S A VAMPIRE!!!

I realize that the splashes published in Voodoo were not exactly surprise-friendly but they did tend to skirt around the issue most of the time. How can you have an entire story hinge upon the last-panel reveal that the stranger is a vampire when she's pictured on the splash, fangs a-blazin'? And who were we supposed to assume those lovely long-nailed hands (reaching for the bottle labeled "whole blood"!) belonged to way back on page three? And how did the vampire go from being half-covered with a sheet in one panel to comfortably snug in a stylish robe in the next? Never mind.

Jose: Mr. Scientist is too busy sciencing in his laboratory all day to pay any attention to his wife, Mrs. Wife, so naturally she strays from her marital vows and engages in an affair with Mr. Handsome Face, much to the hypocritical consternation of Mr. Scientist. Being a scientist—and an angry one!—Mr. Scientist naturally decides to exact Terrible Vengeance™ on them. How fortuitous that his colleague should send him news that very day that he’s perfected an Easy Bake-quick means of shrinking human heads, along with the formula to do so! Handsome Face and Mrs. Wife are duly injected with the formula, shrinking their noggins down to the size of my interest in the story at this point. Filled with the desire to exact their own brand of Terrible Vengeance™, the couple hog-ties Mr. Scientist and gives him a taste of his own medicine. The couple then kills themselves and leaves the gibbering, mutated Mr. Scientist to the police.

“Heads of Horror” (from #14), like other Stinkers we’ve seen in the past, commits the cardinal sin of being a thundering bore, falling into the grooves worn deep by the caravans of far better stories that came before it. The anonymous writer’s utter indifference (and probable contempt) for the assignment is not only palpable but contagious; if he didn’t give a damn, then why the hell should we? Not only is “Heads of Horror” a dully rote affair full of dialogue laughable on any level (see Quotables below), but the writer throws in a final panel showing a freak show pinhead being exploited to a gawking audience headed by the caption “So who, [sic] in the end was the freak?..” It's as if he were tying together a meaningful message about superficial virtue and inner hideousness; trouble is, that message doesn't comes up at any point in the preceding narrative. It’s a last-ditch effort to instill the story with a sense of literary resonance that feels more like a spoonful of bitter medicine flung right into the reader’s eye.

Your bullshit moral made-to-order!


Who would just leave a hit-and-run driver out in the road like that?
Joy: Stop it, George! I can hardly breathe! Don't you ever tire of kissing?
George: Not you, Joy! Gosh, you're beautiful! You were born to love!
- "Horribly Beautiful"

“If I’m ugly, Joy should be ugly too! I’ll throw acid into her insipid little baby-face!”
- “Horribly Beautiful”

“Hussy! I’m sick of your face!”
 -“Horribly Beautiful”

Joy: Revenge! I must have revenge! I live only for revenge!
Agatha: Please stop aggravating yourself, dear! You've got to resign yourself to your... your ugliness!
- "Horribly Beautiful

“Send him away, Agatha! I don’t want to see him… I don’t want to see anybody…except Satan!”
- “Horribly Beautiful”

"Lying snake! I know the truth now, you scum wench! It was you who threw the acid in my face!"
- "Horribly Beautiful"

Johnnie blinked his eyes open. There was a strange humming in his ears, like the sighing of a million broken hearts.
- "The King of Hades"

"We're alone, Kiki! How about provin' ya love me, huh? Give me a Kiki white kiss!"
- "The King of Hades"

“Don’t move! Don’t nobody move! Everybody die!!
- “The King of Hades”

“Th’ first bogeyman wot lays a hand on me gits this pitchfork rammed into him where it’ll do th’ most good!”
- “The King of Hades”

“There was hell to pay when Johnnie got back to Hades.”
- “The King of Hades”

"Air conditioning in hell! It's madness! W-we're freezing!
- "The King of Hades"

"My little what?"
- "Horror Comes to Room 1313"

“I’ve got an idea that if we follow the bloody trail, we might find something interesting!”
- “Castle of Fright”

“Like the demon he is, the puppet tugs at the door…”
- “Gallows’ Curse”

- "The Heads of Horror"

“Goodbye! We’re going to kill ourselves!”
- “Heads of Horror”

"Yowwwww- They did it! They killed themselves! Help Help! My head feels so funny-"
- "The Heads of Horror"

- "The Heads of Horor"

At last after 900 miles of trekking, Stanley's party reached the little town of Tabora... at last!
Stanley: It's Tabora at last!
- "Assignment Terror!"

"Those who attacked us have been attacked in turn by another party! Perhaps those they mistook us for!
- "Assignment Terror!"

"Awful! The b-bodies are piling up like cordwood! All funerals are cancelled! Cemeteries are sending all bodies back to us! What shall we do?"
"Hmmm- don't do anything, fathead!"
- "Corpses - Coast to Coast"

"Here's to tomorrow! Our tomorrow-- the tomorrow of the U.W.Z.!"
"Hail! The United World Zombies!"
- "Corpses - Coast to Coast"

"Vive le zombie!"
- "Corpses - Coast to Coast

Case of the Missing Midriff
"There is only one party - the zombie party! But it wasn't all peaches and cream!"
- "Corpses - Coast to Coast"

Suddenly from the doghouse there rushes a slavering, raving horror with long, needle-sharp teeth and jaws flecked with foam! The chain strains to the breaking point as it tries to get at Lucy...
Lucy: "A big rat!"
- "Nightmare Island"

"I'm an atomic expert! You can check on that easily enough! Recently I was in Alaska, working on an experiment - you can check that, too, but it's top secret stuff, so keep it in this room-"
- "Hammer of Evil"

"Fantastic! Utterly and absolutely fantastic! A prehistoric woman! I wonder who she was, what they called her? If only she could speak and tell us!"
"Well, she can't! She's been dead a long time - and even a woman can't talk when she's dead!"
- "Hammer of Evil"

"She's eating the dog! Raw, uncooked! But she doesn't know better, of course!"
- "Hammer of Evil"

"I do remember one thing! Those pajamas! I didn't want to wear them but Stella insisted. I had a funny feeling when I put them on... but I must be insane! A pair of pajamas didn't kill my wife... I did!"
- "Dead Man's Pajamas"

"This may sound strange, but I've decided to spend the night in this apartment, in that bed, wearing those pajamas!"
"What about our theatre date?"
- "Dead Man's Pajamas"

Thankfully Prince was one of those rare, six-legged dogs.

“Gray tatters of fog and mist, atomic mist, hang like funeral drapes over the desolate landscape!”
- “Fog Was My Shroud”

Mary: If she lives, she’ll be lucky! Lucky that you found her, darling, and that you live so close!
Willis: And lucky that I date my nurse after office hours, too!
- “Deadly Pickup”

"She murdered her husband there years ago, then went insane! Now she thinks her husband is still alive and living in that house! She always goes back to kill him! If other people get in the way -- well, you know!"
- "Night of Terror"

“The old castle hovered over the ageless Rhine like some great evil bat waiting to pounce on its prey!”
                                                                             - “Werewolf Castle”

"The moment you people took the wrong road tonight - and it was the wrong road, as you'll admit now - you were both doomed!"
- "Werewolf Castle"

Baroness: Aha—my teeth sink easily into your throat, my friend! Arrrrrrrgggg—
Mark: Owwww—owwww—
- “Werewolf Castle”


Peter: Logging in at a lean five pages, "Hammer of Evil" (from #15) is a whacky mixture of "Who Goes There?" and the age-old fantasy of the perfect woman/servant. Well, this perfect woman, the Amazonian Kulla, the Atavar, is a little more trouble than her man could hope for in the end. "Hammer" begins as a simple fairy tale but then quickly crosses the line of misogyny when Kulla attaches herself to Talcott Powers' leg and he drags her around the room by her hair ala his caveman ancestors. Yep, a guilty pleasure, indeed, and also a fascinating example of just how much our standards have changed in sixty years. That's sarcasm, by the way.

Jose: For sheer audacity and bleakness of vision, nothing thus far in our pre-code series has quite matched the unfettered intensity of “Corpses… Coast to Coast” (from #14). Though our undertaker narrator informs us from the start that his tale is nothing but a strange dream of his, this does very little to mollify the diabolical scope and imagination that ensues for the next six pages. “Corpses…” is as subversive as they come, depicting an alternate universe where the world’s living denizens are taken over and subsumed into the ranks of the walking dead in a grimdark New World Order that can’t help but echo with the recent and still-palpable horrors of Hitler’s fascistic regime and the concentration camps of the Second World War. Though the history of pre-code comics is so entrenched in the debate they stirred due to their graphic violence, it seems incomprehensible that a story so nightmarish in its depiction of a society turned upside down and literally ruled by Death incarnate could even be seen fit for print. Or, if viewed another way, it makes perfect sense: with the public so upset by the superficial grue of the comics, they were left completely blind to the truly unsettling material. “Corpses…” originally made my Top Five, but its power and madness is too great for a synopsis to do it any kind of justice. The most dangerous pre-code horror story ever produced? That’s up to you. But for my part, consider me “rehabilitated.”

The Comics
Voodoo #11-18

#11 (September 1953)
Cover Uncredited

“Horribly Beautiful”
Art Uncredited

“Ohhhh, Brother!”
Art Uncredited

“The King of Hades”
Art Uncredited

“Horror Comes to Room 1313”
Art Uncredited

#12 (November 1953)
Cover Uncredited

“Skulls of Doom”
Art Uncredited

“Fear Has a Name”
Art Uncredited

“Blood and Barbed Wire”
Art Uncredited

“Castle of Fright”
Art Uncredited

#13 (January 1954)
Cover Uncredited

“Torture Garden”
Art Uncredited

“Screaming Shoes”
Art Uncredited

“They Couldn’t Die!” (Reprint of "There's Peril in Perfection" from Voodoo #3)
Art Uncredited

“Gallows’ Curse”
Art Uncredited

#14 (March/April 1954)
Cover Uncredited

“Witch or Widow”
Art Uncredited

“Heads of Horror”
Art Uncredited

“Assignment Terror”
Art Uncredited

“Corpses… Coast to Coast!”
Art Uncredited

#15 (May/June 1954)
Cover Uncredited

Art Uncredited

“Dead Man’s Pajamas”
Art Uncredited

“Nightmare Island”
Art Uncredited

“Hammer of Evil”
Art Uncredited

#16 (July/August 1954)
Cover Uncredited

“Horror Unlimeted” (sic)
Art Uncredited

“Fog Was My Shroud”
Art by Robert Webb

“Deadly Pickup”
Art Uncredited

“Night of Terror”
Art Uncredited

#17 (September/October 1954) **MISSING**
Cover Uncredited

“Forever Dead”
Art Uncredited

“Creatures from the Deep”
Art Uncredited

“Ape’s Laughter”
Art Uncredited

“Cult of the Cruel”
Art Uncredited

#18 (November/December 1954)
Cover Uncredited

“Sound of Mourning”
Art by Ken Battefield

“Assignment: Danger”
Art by Robert Webb

“Let Me Die Today”
Art Uncredited

“Werewolf Castle”
Art Uncredited

There was, by the way, a nineteenth issue of Voodoo but since it featured adventure stories it falls out of our purview. An argument could be made, we know, that several adventure stories littered the pages of the first 18 issues of Voodoo but at least the predominance of material was horror-oriented.

Voodoo #19

Voodoo Annual #1

This over-priced ($2300 and up) reprint one-shot, published near the end of 1952, is simply three unsold issues bound under a new cover. Some sources claim that the three issues are also random so there are several different iterations of Voodoo Annual out there!


Coincidentally to our coverage of Ajax-Farrell, IDW, publisher of several top-notch pre-code horror reprints, has announced they will be reprinting the entirety of the Voodoo run, with The Complete Voodoo Volume 1 on sale in November. This is a boon to those of us who'd love to have physical copies of the pre-coders but don't wish to fork over a mortgage payment for the privilege (to be exact, a complete run of Voodoo, including Annual, will set you back $4525 according to the CBM Standard Catalog 4th Edition) . The volume will have an introduction by Mike Howlett, author of the indispensable The Weird World of Eerie Publications and collects the first six issues of Voodoo.

The 18th issue of IDW's  Haunted Horror hit shelves yesterday. HH typically reprints seven or eight pre-code stories from publishers such as Ajax-Farrell, Harvey, Superior, and Quality. Among the reprints this issue: "The Moon Was Red," "The Tattooed Heart,"  and "Murder Mansion"

Speaking of Haunted Horror, IDW continues its reprinting (a reprint of a reprint -- the mind boggles!) of HH in hardcover with Volume 3, Pre-Code Comics So Good They're Scary, out October 15th. The first volume sold out quickly and is now commanding $$ on eBay.

In four weeks, our first foray into the pages of Haunted Thrills!


Grant said...

I have a particular attachment for "Torture Garden," not so much for itself but because it was in the first Eerie Publishing magazine I ever had, WITCHES TALES, December ' 71. But the reprint story that stands out in that issue is a really strange and even "thoughtful" SF story, called simply "Deadman" (at least, that's Eerie's title for it - I'm not sure about the original one). I don't know if it's among the stories you'll be reviewing, but it's very unusual.

Jose Cruz said...

According to the Grand Comics Database, "Deadman" was a reworked version of Basil Wolverton's "The Man from the Moon" first featured in WEIRD TALES FROM THE FUTURE #5 from Stanley Morse. Peter and I haven't discussed Stanley Morse in particular, but chances are more than likely that we'll be getting to them eventually. They had some of the sleaziest art of the pre-codes, so it'd be hard to pass them up!

Grant said...

Even though I don't know it outside of your description, "Deadly Pickup" somehow sounds like it belongs in that notoriously "no frills" movie GALLERY OF HORRORS. When it comes to the ending, I keep imagining the female vampire revealing herself to the doctor, and the movie switching almost immediately back to John Carradine introducing the next story.