By Jose Cruz and
Note: We rely on the fine people at Comic Book Plus and Digital Comic Museum for public domain digital downloads. Unfortunately, a full run of Haunted Thrills isn't available yet so we've had to resort to reading several stories via their reprints in the Eerie Publication titles, similarly available for download at this essential site. Though we'd obviously prefer to use the original comic books, we can't afford to purchase these very expensive issues. We thought this the best avenue rather than missing out on so many terror tales but, of course, it necessitates representing some artwork in black and white (including the featured reprints). We hope that you will agree with our decision and enjoy the stories in these altered formats. -Jose and Peter
|The haunting finale|
What begins as perhaps just another murder/love triangle escalates into something disturbing and, ultimately, unforgettably tragic. Sadly, we don't know the true author or artist of "Hands of Terror" (from #5) so I can't heap praise upon them by name (or immediately seek out their other work) but I assume that they were employed by the ubiquitous "Iger Studios." The script (and art) do an abrupt left turn on page five (I find it hard to believe that the same artist is responsible for the splash [above] and that exquisitely creepy finale. Natalie is still alive as Vincent carries her into the fetid water and I can't imagine her drowning death was very pleasant but then I guess that was the woman's wish in the end anyway, wasn't it? The scene is reminiscent of the equally downbeat climax of the Universal film, The Mummy's Ghost (1944). Our unnamed writer adds the unsettling "And so they slept..." as the epitaph to a powerful tale that will remain with me for quite some time.
|Sweep for your life!|
Even with its unconventional finish for the monsters, “Nightmare Mansion” (from #3) manages to be a bittersweet drama with a concentrated focus on character sorely lacking from many of the pre-codes. Brian’s humiliation at facing the derision of his peers is especially poignant and handled with grace, the impotence he feels as an aging policeman forced to work a dull beat made immediately potent in the opening panels. Brian has our sympathy from the word “Go” and the rest of the tale succeeds in keeping interest high with its constantly morphing threats. We think they’re vampires at first, but that’s only part of it. They're also ghouls too. And they travel dimensions. And cats hate them! It’s a credit to our anonymous writer that they manage to keep the delivery of all these elements effortless without the story ever appearing too stuffed on its concepts. You gotta love that sweet, wholesome artwork too; it’s reminiscent of DC’s early Silver-Age Flash stories.
Peter: Heartless skipper Jeff Bolden runs a tight ship and when he discovers that cholera has broken out onboard while the ship is at sea, he naturally clams up even though the men are dropping like flies. Worse though, is the sudden proliferation of giant, hungry rats that rise up from the bowels of the ship to strip flesh from bone. Very soon, it's down to Capt. Bolden and his first mate stranded high on the mast but, when the rats learn to gnaw through the rigging to get to the men, push comes to shove and the captain literally shoves his mate to his doom. The ship runs aground and Bolden dives into the drink, swimming to the nearby island, believing himself safe. That false sense of security lasts about forty seconds before the mangy little disease-harbingers learn how to build a bridge with their bodies and follow the captain onto the island. The rats chase Bolden all the way up the isle's tallest mountain but the captain shakes his fist at them and, swearing they'll never take him alive, commits suicide by jumping into a deep hole. The last panel, a page out of the Haunted Thrills atlas, informs us that the little piece of rock Bolden had swam to is known as "Rat Island!"
Another spin of the grindstone for the old “accidental cannibalism” saw ala Sweeney Todd, “House of Chills” (from #5) is one of those comfortably pleasing horrors that, despite all its goopy gore, can’t help but warm you in its familiarity like a pleasant fire. If the story were totally unimaginative, it’d likely be a thundering bore, but a few light innovations in the script and the game, uncredited art keep this one running at a smooth, brisk pace. Without seeing the original layout of the story in its Haunted Thrills premiere, it’s hard to tell if some of the blood on display in the reprint was added in by the Eerie Publications staff to “touch up” the artwork, but “House of Chills” is one of the few stories where its (possible) addition feels of a piece with the drama on hand. The sloppy spurts of black ink add a nice touch of delirium to the proceedings, and “House of Chills” looks like it actually benefits from its black and white printing in Weird V. 2 #9. Whichever way you slice it, the original author should certainly be commended for their decision to leave that final, stark panel free of text and allow the audience to get their fill on the implications of the image for themselves.
Peter: Loner Edwin Broode works in the mannequin department of a major department store, creating a fantasy world all of his own. Edwin is in love with a particularly lovely dress dummy named Laura and, in his dreams, she returns that love. At night, Edwin sneaks Laura out in his case and spoils her with champagne in his apartment. One night, as he's about to leave, Laura calls out to Edwin, begging him to stay with her. Astonished, Edwin asks how this could be possible and the woman tells him that one night a year all the dummies come to life and celebrate. Just then, a horrible scream comes from the department store and, when Edwin investigates, he finds the other dummies beating the night watchman to death. Laura explains that the security guard has always been mean to her and the other mannequins and so, he deserves what he gets. Laura kisses Edwin and they're both transported to another dimension, where all the dummies in the store are partying. At dawn, they explain that it's time for them to return to their perches and wish Edwin well. Knowing he'll be blamed for the guard's murder, he begs Laura to help him and she explains that there is only one way for Edwin to accompany her to her world. The harried little man quickly agrees and a "dummy minister performs a dummy ceremony - for a dummy and Edwin Broode." Having crossed over, Edwin Broode takes his place among the displays and the police never find him, unaware he's right under their noses.
"Dear, Deadest Dummy" (from #6, and reprinted in Weird V.2 #6) provides us with a rare happy ending in the Ajax-Farrell Universe, one that some will find sappy but I find charming. A brilliant decision to portray Laura's world in hazy shadow since it gives the story's mid-section a dream-like quality and sows a seed of doubt in the reader's mind about what's really going on. Edwin is obviously a disturbed man when we first meet him and his isolation only increases his break with reality, so might he be imagining the whole thing? Well, we don't know until the climax when Broode finally finds that little bit of happiness in some other dimension/world. At last, we can put a name to the art and the name is a very familiar one to those interested in the pre-code horror comics of the 1950s. Carl Burgos is perhaps best known as the father of the original Human Torch and for his art on the Torch, Captain America, and Sub-Mariner strips of the 1950s. He did tons of gorgeous covers for Atlas pre-code horror titles like Astonishing, Spellbound, and Mystery Tales and, bringing it all full circle, served as an editor for Myron Fass on his Eerie Publication books in the early 70s. His work on "Dummy" is superb, ranging from calm to tragic to ghostly all in the same tale.
Jose: Eminent surgeon Alex Harding puts in a long day at the OR before stopping by the seedy offices of his friend Bernie, a private investigator. Bernie doesn’t have good news for the doc and the medico’s worst suspicions are confirmed: his wife Catherine is seeing another man. There is some relief found in the fact that the Lothario has skipped back to his home in South America, and Alex now hopes that his wife will eventually forget the affair. But as soon as Alex has left, Bernie pours himself a few congratulatory drinks and calls Catherine up to let her know their ruse has worked. As Alex and Catherine kiss hello and think their own private thoughts, Bernie gets himself smashed before getting himself smashed in a horrific car accident. Bernie lives, but with a slightly arranged face. And who else should be called in for the emergency operation but eminent surgeon Alex Harding? The pain meds have made Bernie loose of tongue, so it isn’t long before Alex gets the full low-down on the scheming couple's tête-à-tête. This breaks Alex good and proper so, taking his trusty scalpel, the doctor gets busy on Bernie before heading back home for an impromptu surgery with Catherine on the kitchen table. His work completed, Alex makes a final stipulation in his will before taking a gun to his head. The stipulation? That Bernie and Catherine be married and live together forever with their brand new funhouse-ugly faces in order to enjoy his sizable inheritance.
There’s no denying a good, straightforward tale of revenge, and “Fatal Scalpel” (from #5) is all that and more in spades. From that gloriously trashy splash art that advertises the story as something from a weird menace magazine with the word “Spicy” in the title, “Fatal Scalpel” ably keeps things on a high boil without ever resorting to the kind of salacious cruelty that the first page seems to promise. There is only one actual panel in which we see blood, and it's a mere trickle at that. And yet the tale never feels like it's cheating. Instead it plays on the dualistic natures of the characters to propel the action forward and steadily increase the mounting tension. (You have to love that revealing bit of prejudice when Bernie tells Alex his wife’s affair was with an “Other”, in this case a Latino man, as if that explains everything.) The anonymous artist—who turns in some truly stellar work here, perhaps the best I’ve seen in Haunted Thrills thus far—channels images that unnerve the reader more than mere gore ever could. Just check out that shot of Alex’s unhinging moment again; though his expressions might get decidedly cartoonier over the course of the story, that ventriloquist dummy-smile of madness is the stuff of nightmares! A real highlight.
|We hope you didn't need to sleep tonight.|
No matter how many times we encounter it, the bleak pre-coder always manages to pack a punch, and “Trail to a Tomb” (from #7) is certainly no different. Though it reads more as a soap opera than a straight-up spookfest, “Trail” has all the trappings and impact of a true downer from its first caption. The story is especially uncomfortable for its focus on physical and spiritual deformity. In the tradition of Poe, the damaged psychologies of the characters are represented in the decaying infrastructure of their house, one that seems to symbolize the way in which Tom and Beth are both “broken”, he by his physical limitations and she by her untreated psychosis. It’s interesting to see the subtle hypocrisy at work in Tom’s revulsion of Beth and denial of her proposition. Though he has acknowledged the loss of his arm and come to grips with his handicap from the start of the story, Tom still sees himself as better than the impish sister, even cruelly musing to himself after Emmy has explained her sister’s condition to him that Beth is just simply “nutty.” The house's bubbling crockpot of emotional tension also corrupts Emmy (is her sleepwalking the symptom of some repressed guilt?) and even their pet Tiger, a dog whose loyalty is perverted into a rabid defensiveness free of reason or control. Is “Trail to a Tomb” then a haunted house story? In some ways, perhaps. It’s a story of people (and animals) haunted and twisted by their inner demons into vicious versions of themselves, pushed into corners by their own cruelty until they lose their minds and feel the urge to bite back at the closest person just to watch them bleed. You know, funny-book stuff!
"Screams in the Night" (from #7) is another example of why these pre-code horror stories are held in such high esteem sixty years on; the writers that crafted these little dramas had no conscience whatsoever nor any compunction about treating their characters so cruelly and sadistically. The panel of a limp Elsa is a genuine kick in the groin as is the fact that, as the last panel tells us, the guy you just passed in the street may very well be the 20th Century's most infamous mass-murderer. I love how, as with many of the stories we've been reading for this project, there seems to have been an almost "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" approach to the script. If the old man is actually a corpse, how did he keep himself together all these years and, more importantly, why did he wait so long to impart this vital information to the authorities? Rather than a downfall to the narrative, it provides a good jolt (old man to rotting corpse in one easy panel) to the reader even if there's a bit of head-scratching as a result.
|They really didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition.|
Come for the Tombs of the Blind Dead-lookalikes, stay for the depression. “Coward’s Curse” (from #8, reprinted in Weird V. 1 #10) ticks off all the items on our list of pre-code must-haves: spooky, Gothic landscape; moldering corpses of the reanimated persuasion; salacious torture; complete disregard for the notion of unharmed virtue; and a bleak, sock-it-to-ya finale. It’s true that Jim fleeing the scene with his tail between his legs marks him as prime poetic justice-fodder in horror comic book land, but yeesh, his wife impaled in front of raving spectators and a misery-driven, self-inflicted death seems harsh even by the pre-codes’ depraved standards. In looking back at the controversy stirred up by these works of entertainment, it’s easy for us to thumb our noses at the holier-than-thou, censuring public that called for the comic book’s execution but—while those folks certainly do deserve derision for all of their tactless fear-mongering—it’s stories like “Coward’s Curse” that allow you to appreciate the fact that there might have been some substance to the opposition’s argument. Of course, it could be posited that there’s a valuable lesson to be learned here, just as in the original grueling versions of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales. The moral here? If you are ever a coward, you and everyone you love will die a horrible death!
Peter: Engaged to be married, Tom and Gloria are looking for the perfect clock (well, actually, Gloria is the obsessive and Tom just goes along with it), when they discover a shop specializing in time-keepers of all shape and size. When Tom turns his back, Gloria and the shopkeeper seem to have a hushed conversation. The whispering is broken up by the arrival of a fourth person into this drama, the gorgeous blonde known as June Manners! Just at that moment, Tom clutches his chest and keels over, dead. Arriving on the scene is ace detective (and snazzy dresser) Bolton Baker, who quickly takes control of the puzzling case. Did Tom die of natural causes or was he murdered? After several incidents and dangerous shenanigans, Bolton uncovers the killers: the shopkeeper, who's a werewolf and Gloria, who brings him victims! Bolton shoots the monster dead after it goes on a rampage through the streets (dressed rather dapperly and clutching an automatic!) and all is well in the city again.
|Clockmaker by day, Werewolf by Night|
Jose: Some forty years after the boxing match against Big John Oakley that claimed his life, Red MacGowan returns as a ghost to balance the scales of justice by mentoring rising star Dixon to beat Big John’s own protégé Gordon in the ring. Why, you ask? “Who cares!” says the writer. Dixon’s gal Lily and manager Toppsy can’t account for the doors that close themselves or the way Dixon knocks himself out during training sessions, but they know somethin’ screwy is goin’ on. (“You’d almost think it was ghosts or something!” Lily helpfully surmises.) Come the night of the big fight, Dixon gets in the ring and ably K. O.s Gordon while Red makes up for forty years of simmering anger by knocking Big John’s molars in.
|Red tries to bring Jose back to his senses after reading "Ghost Gloves."|
It fares a bit better on the second time around, but “Ghost Gloves” (from #1; reprinted as “From the Grave Below” in Weird V. 3 #4) delivers a fatal right hook to comprehension on the first reading. The main culprit is the railroaded backstory of Red’s supernatural vengeance; his reappearance as a ghost happens so suddenly that we can’t be sure where he is or what he’s doing right away. It’s a similar case in the climax when Red delivers his punchy retribution… we only see the older, now-coach Big John for the first time in the panel immediately preceding this! Talk about your double-takes. And why did Red need to wait forty years just to slap Big John silly? Most Ajax-Farrell revenants get that done within minutes of being buried! Even the generous helpings of goofy “comedy” aren’t enough to distract us from the fractured storytelling. "Ghost Gloves" left me wondering if it had all really happened or if I was just starting to get punchy again.
|She did the Monster Mash.|
- "Skeletons Have Secrets!"
“Live souls to that horror, for dead gold? Colby, you’ve gone mad—mad to make such a bargain.”
- “Skeletons Have Secrets”
Pamela: I’m going to call Uncle Martin. He’ll know what to do…
Edwin: The famous ghost doctor?
- “The Witch’s Curse”
“Die—you murdering son of a murdering ancestor… die!”
- “The Witch’s Curse”
"G-get back! It's coming! K-killed all of them! H-horrible!"
"He's blood all over!"
- "Horror in the Mine!"
Prue: Poor father! When I think…
Tod: Go ahead and cry it out, baby!
- “Horror in the Mine”
“Hello! Police! I need help… I’ve been threatened… by a ghost!”
- “Blood of the Rose”
“Murder? Maybe. But so far all we have is a collection of bones. Was it a man or a woman?”
“I got an idea, chief. Let’s ask Doc Looney!”
- “Death Is Only Skin Deep”
|Paging Dr. Wertham!|
Palmer: Hello, what’s new?
- “Death Is Only Skin Deep”
“…And so into the night went Brian… The badge that he had worn so proudly for so many years was not there to cover the lonesome ache in his loyal heart…”
- “Nightmare Mansion”
Grimm: Thank goodness they came, or else...
Margo: There, there, no tears. It's all in the past now... Marie will never again recall the dead!
Officer: There'll be no seances where yer goin', girlie!
- "Music and Mayhem"
“Ayeeee—devil thing take young missy into jungle!”
- “Eerie Bones”
"I really feel like all this is some kind of nightmare!"
- "Ghouls (sic) Castle"
“Am I dreaming or have I lost my reason?!”
- “Ghouls Castle”
"Professor - I hate to have to tell you, but you are actually dead!"
- "Ghouls Castle"
|A man of talent and a brag!|
"Hmm... new clerk! Pretty, too!"
- "Portrait of Death"
“Carter, I don’t like death! I wish to live again for very important reasons!”
“Janet! Good heavens—you’re dead! Go back!”
- “Portrait of Death”
Memmy: Hello, my dear! What brings you to poor old Memmy's door? Some trouble, I vow!
Lucybelle: I want you to work a spell for me, you old hag! I'll give you gold!
- "Swamp Haunt"
“Finally Edwin Broode knows what he must do! There is only one person who can help him—a dummy…”
- “Dearest, Deadest Dummy”
“By the authority vested in me, as ministers of dummies, I make you man and wife!”
- “Dearest, Deadest Dummy”
"My name is Tom Phipps, and I was just out of the hospital, where I'd fallen under a train in the yards, and lost an arm! I was broke and bitter - and hungry! I'd bummed my way up into Georgia, but nobody wanted to hire a one-armed man..."
- "Trail to a Tomb"
“Even as she beat the dog away, I saw that she was pretty…”
- “Trail to a Tomb”
Emmy: I should have warned you about Beth! She had an accident as a child! She was badly burned and crippled! And, well, she is - retarded!
Phipps: (thought balloon) She means the old girl's nutty!
- "Trail to a Tomb"
George Morton was almost certain he had discovered a way to successfully transmit human brain cells...
- "The Corpse Who Killed"
|Forgetting there's no pool outside, |
Margo breaks her neck diving from the window.
Draft Board Member: I've seen your pictures. I think your absence from the screen is the best thing that could possibly happen on the home front.
- "Two on the Aisle... of Death!"
Pharmacist: Sure I can sell you some pills that will greatly lessen the beating of your heart so that even a doctor would think you were dead. But why?
Ronald: Don't ask questions. Just take this money and give me the pills!
- "Two on the Aisle... of Death!"
“Edwin Black had a secret… he hated his wife Erma! She alone was responsible for this, for Edwin was a mild-mannered man. But his wife was a constant sharp-tongued nag…”
- “Three in a Grave”
"This is Jenkins of the fencing crew, sheriff! You better come over to the old vampire estate right away!"
- "Three in a Grave"
"You really think that Black fellow murdered his wife?"
"Yes, like the sheriff said... who else would want to?"
- "Three in a Grave"
“But fate, and rats, play strange tricks…”
Jim: They’re gnawing at the thongs! Must l-like the taste!
- “Coward’s Curse”
“Suddenly, Jane Ransome sees—what?”
- “Horror Harbor”
|The wrong finger but you get the picture.|
STORY OF THE MONTH
Peter: True Lovecraftian horror (or at least a resemblance to such) was tough to find in 1950s comic books (probably because HPL hadn't become an icon yet), but "Horror in the Mine" gives us a monstrous helping of subterranean terror ala Cthulhu and his kin and (as you'll see in the Notable Quotables) lots of interesting dialogue. Giant monsters were also fairly rare for pre-code comics as writers seemed to prefer their monsters involved in one-on-one action rather than full-scale slaughter. The tentacled things our hapless frackers discover are torn right out of Lovecraft's fiction but one thing HP never saw coming was the tool of destruction the military uses to rid themselves of the menace. You've got to smile when Prue rests her head on Tod's shoulder in the final panel, mourning her father (who's been eaten by one of the creepy crawlies), and Tod nods and looks at the bright side: "But remember, we've still got the future!"
Haunted Thrills #1-9
#1 (June 1952)
“A Coffin Waits…”
“Skeletons Have Secrets”
“The Witch’s Curse”
#2 (August 1952)
“Horror in the Mine”
“Blood of the Rose”
“Death is Only Skin Deep”
“The Voyager of Death”
#3 (October 1952)
“Music and Mayhem”
“Monsters for Rent…”
#4 (December 1952)
“Portrait of Death”
#5 (January 1953)
“Hands of Terror”
Art by Joe Doolin
“House of Chills”
#6 (No Cover Date)
“Pit of Horror”
“Dearest, Deadest Dummy”
Art by Carl Burgos
#7 (March 1953)
“Trail to a Tomb”
“The Corpse Who Killed”
“Two on the Aisle… of Death!”
“Screams in the Night”
#8 (No Cover Date)
“Three in a Grave”
“The Vanishing Skull”
#9 (No Cover Date)
“Madness of Terror”
“Devil on His Shoulder”