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. We hope that you will agree with our decision and enjoy the stories in these altered formats. -Jose and Peter
It's tough to say you enjoy a story set in a concentration camp, centering around a couple of deviates who skin prisoners for their whims, but this is a nasty, queasy, dirty little classic of the sub-genre with a (literally) explosive climax. Both the writer and artist of "Out of the Grave" (from #11) go beyond the realm of good taste when they depict scenes such as the one showing the cobbler unrolling the skin and displaying his own son's prisoner number. As I've said before (when reviewing the similar "Corpses of the Jury" back in Voodoo #5), the Ajax-Farrell horror stories appeared less than ten years after the atrocities of the Nazis were unveiled. Was this enough time for healing or was the attitude, "Ah, it's just a funny book"? The twist, the dy-no-mite boots, almost allows us to let out that breath we'd been holding while taking in the sheer vileness of the first five pages and laugh out loud. The art has that crude look that would become a staple of the underground comix a decade later; it's perfect for the visualization of a very nasty story.
It’s tough to resist a well-told tale of haunting love. There was a small but considerable run of “supernatural Southern soaps” that cropped up in a few of the pre-codes, and “Screams in the Swamp” (from #10) can certainly count itself a member of that noble tradition. Though its lurid title seems to hint towards a ghastlier affair at its heart, “Screams” is a somber ghost story that draws its power from the moral/emotional conflict at its center, that of a possible-man-out-of-time facing the harrowing decision of choosing between the woman he knows and loves and the shadow of the one he feels destiny has drawn him back to. Ajax-Farrell attempted to tackle (and exploit) the man-with-multiple-lovers theme a few times—the apotheosis in ridiculousness of which has to be the howlingly misogynist “Fear of the Witch” from #15—but “Screams” never seems to be winking at its audience and approaches the text with the serious tone of a doomed romance. And for that we are thankful.
One of the most famous of the Ajax-Farrell horror stories... and for good reason. The truly nasty "Experiment in Terror" (from #13, reprinted in Tales from the Crypt V.1 #10) has a tightly written script (there's no fat or wasted pages in this one) that delves deeper into the human psyche than most pre-coders. Here we have yet another example of how mean-spirited these comic book writers could be, doling out injustice to the innocent. Bob's not a bank robber; Mary's not an adulterer. The future of the loving couple is hijacked simply because they needed enough dough to get hitched. I'm not complaining, mind you; I prefer my horror stories with a bite and "Experiment" provides us with a few of those bites. Chief among them is the climax, where we witness Chadwick falling prey to his subjects and having his legs gruesomely chewed off. Well, at least that's what we picture in our minds as the artist wisely limits what we see to the professor's face and anguished "M-my legs! EEEEEEYOWWWWWW-" The most terrifying take away from "Experiment", to me is that, chances are good, no one will find the three poor souls trapped in that cage. Artist Carl Burgos loved his contorted figures (Chadwick is a hunchbacked dwarf) and he pulls yet another wonderful visualization out of his magic hat; in Burgos' hands, Bob and Mary go from vivacious, loving couple to fierce-eyed wharf rats in a matter of panels. Bill Schoell, in The Horror Comics (McFarland, 2014) calls this one "a mini-masterpiece." I can't argue with that.
“Terror Below” (from #12) is without a doubt one of the handful of non-E.C. pre-code tales that came closest to successfully emulating that company’s treasured house style. A conte cruel whose gears of vengeance hum smoothly and audibly from the first panel, “Terror” remains on point throughout the entire duration and builds grandly to its inevitable but oh-so-righteous finale. It reads like a costume drama seasoned with a bit of the Grand Guignol to spice up the action. (Slow and gradual consumption by critters of sea and land is a staple of the pulp tradition, and this counts as one of the most squirmy variations of the theme.) Sir Giles is the pompous, utterly vile villain we all love to hate, and his punishment sits right along with with the best poetic-justice endings to come from the hallowed halls of horror comics.
No, this doesn't contain the deepness displayed in "Experiment in Terror", but "Web of the Widow" (from #16 and reprinted in Weird V.1 #11) is a heck of a lot of fun. Matt seems to be one of the biggest chumps in the history of funny books, thinking that bringing home a babe from Egypt won't rock the boat. Then, opening his incinerator and emitting a puzzled "A human skull! F-freshly burned! But who - and why?" and confronting Suthina with "What the heck is going on around here? What's that skull doing in the furnace? Where is Molly?" Bright boy. Then there's the siren, Suthina (think Gale Sondergaard), who hasn't thought out her master plan beyond eating Matt and then setting her sights on a vacuum cleaner salesman named Christopher Fly ("His name is Fly! Oh no! This is too good! This is terrific!"). Suthina explains to Matt, just before she dines on him, that she's come to America to escape her enemies but what kind of enemies could a human spider fear (a giant wasp?)? Has she come to conquer America with her army of twelve spiders? And why does her body transform (into that rarest of spiders, the six-legged variety) but her head remain human? Don't ask me any of these questions because I... don't... care! Sometimes all you need from your pre-code horror stories is a sultry babe who can hide her stinger under a Dior.
The biggest thing that “Devil’s Bride” (from #16, reprinted in Weird V. 1 #10) has going for it is Jack Burch. So many times in the pre-code horrors (and contemporaneous comics in general), the leading man fell into one of two categories: the Lysol-clean hero of unassailable virtue, or the unremitting, typically-lusty villain with a heart of mold. Those rare instances when writers were able to strike that happy middle ground—and, you know, make their characters seem a little more like people—would yield some beautiful results, and Jack is surely one of them. As our narrator, Jack comes off as a stereotypical wiseguy at first, even a little bit heartless for the small remorse he feels for taking Liza away from Gregor and his flippant attitude towards the suicide of same, but as the story goes on Jack proves himself as a caring lover with an impressive resourcefulness and fiery attitude that saves everyone’s bacon. (“Go on! Get in there!” he chides the demonic Gregor. “Wet your chops on some of that nice blood! My blood!”) The unknown artist renders the slobbering fiend as an ample match for Jack, two suitors fighting for the hand of Liza, and the writer’s addition of the old myth about suicides turning into vampires upon their death breathes a little refreshing air into the hoary creature. But it’s Jack Burch that we come away rooting for in the end. If only the folks at Ajax-Farrell could’ve given him his own series. I would’ve bought that for a nickel!
Hardboiled detective meets inhuman monster in "Fanged Terror" (from #18), a nicely illustrated noir standout from the final issue of Haunted Thrills. More than anything, "Fanged Terror" resembles an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, with its Kehama creature and the driving narrative. Amazing that, on a whim it seems, Bill visits a library and exits with the solution. What would send Bill into the library in the first place and what card file indexes "mythological flesh-eating creatures" (Bill's boss asks the man: "Huh! You mean you can read?")? The art here is top-notch for a pre-coder, with some panels right out of 1950s film noir. Though the finale, where Bill/Kehama lets the reader in on his secret, brings a smile ear to ear, I'd have liked to see a couple more panels depicting the monster jotting down the story in his notebook, attempting to hold a ballpoint with his giant three-fingered hand!
“Blade of Horror” (from #16, reprinted in Weird V. 2 #4) may seem a tad slight clocking in as it does at a lean five pages, but its short length gives the tale just the right amount time to deliver its final bite with a quiet power. It’s a fairly uncomplicated story, but it’s told with the assurance and grace of practiced hands plying an old trade, much like Tom does himself. Though Tom is depicted as a bit of a lummox, his anger over Cynthia’s romantic slight and the insane turn his machinations take come off as natural and even induce a touch of sympathy. The story really earns its stripes for the interesting manner in which Tom’s supernatural punishment is delivered. The elegant forms of the swans is an unexpected juxtaposition of beauty and horror, their seemingly-harmless appearance making their act of blinding Tom and leaving him to stumble through the rest of his life in complete darkness all the more cruel. For once in the pre-codes, death seems to be the more preferable of the options.
The very last story in the final issue of Haunted Thrills, "No Place to Go" is a deranged variation of It's a Wonderful Life but much funnier. From his hellacious marriage to his rejection from St. Peter (poor Peter can't even remember the man's name, calling him Wilbur Cummings and Wilbur Stevens in successive panels!) to his hilarious short time in Hades ("... you poor excuse for a sinner!"), Wilbur is comicdom's Saddest Sack, receiving satisfaction only in the final two panels. Nice touch leaving Wilbur's decision up to the reader's imagination. I know what I'd do.
Deviations from the standard issue vampires and zombies and mad doctors were at times few and far between in pre-code land, so a tale along the lines of “Monster in the Mist” (from #17) always manages to come as a gentle respite from the same tired rehashings. It’s a rather gentle story when compared to some of the grue-splattered yarns that filled the pages of Haunted Thrills and others, and almost reaches into high fantasy territory with its depiction of the swords’n’sandals action. The injection of some historical background and mythology does much to enliven the intrigue and action, and the writer pulls a nice switcheroo when he shows us that the would-be saviors of the tale are just as bloodthirsty as the beast they have slain. Dr. Fenn himself isn’t the coolest (or entertainingly ineffectual) paranormal investigator we’ve seen so far, but the artist renders him and the rest of the cast with a rough, not-quite-finished style that adds a bit of charm here to an already smart and handsome tale.
|War is Hell|
The vast majority of the stories I've picked over the last twelve chapters of Dungeons of Doom for "Stinker of the Month" have been tales that have put me to sleep or scripts so inane they defy description. Not so with "Badge of Glory". Oh, it's not a very good story, make no mistake, but my main objection to the story is that it has no business in Haunted Thrills. Yes, I'm well aware of the "horrors of war" and all that but if I want to explore that aspect of man's inhumanity to man, I'd pick up Our Army at War or Battleground. There's not one panel here that justifies its inclusion in a horror title. I assume "Badge of Glory" was actually slated for appearance in one of Ajax-Farrell's five war titles but all five had been axed prior to its appearance in Haunted Thrills #12 so the editors naturally dumped it into the first slot available. Not only does "Badge" come equipped with a cliched script (with stereotypical Asian soldiers), but it's also saddled with insanely ugly artwork and a baffling final-panel about-face from the main protagonist (after spending eight pages bemoaning his new medal, the light suddenly comes on in his head as if he's received a telegraph from the Ajax editor informing him his time is up). I've read a lot of stories for the DC War blog and this is not the worst I've ever slogged through but it deserves its "Instantly Forgettable" status.
Jose: Henry Cravens gets some bad news from the doctor: he has a malignant disease which he will soon die from. (Henry, not the doctor.) Henry bemoans his terrible diagnosis and savors all the beautiful nuances of life on his way home from the office. Now he’ll never know how really good that novel he never finished would have been. Alas! Henry writes out a meager last will and testament before bedtime and naturally suffers a vivid nightmare of his own death once asleep. The entire process from discovery and bereavement to interment and purification are seen in "vivid" detail. Henry awakens from this night terror only to give himself a heart attack from fright. But alas! Henry kicked the bucket too soon to see the note from the Doc that Henry’s test results were mixed up with some other poor sap’s and that he’s actually A-OK. Henry’s departing ghost doesn’t take kindly to the late notice and tears the Doc’s throat out as punishment.
|The horrors of eczema.|
“If I Should Die—” (from #18) already has a tired plot working against it for starters, but the uncredited writer and artist proceed to let the reader down even further by failing to put anything into the story resembling effort. The script plods along for the duration without so much as a twinkling of excitement, and during the two crucial parts when you really expect some steam to pick up, the nightmare sequence and the vengeful ending, the art department blows the job in a big way. Not only are the illustrations throughout several rungs below coloring book-pedigree, but the juiciest bits of the story are completely weenie-fied so that the shot of Henry being “consumed” by hundreds of ravenous worms turns into him squeezing invisible pimples on his face and the gory finish for the doctor is communicated through an exterior shot of his office building and a speech bubble of his delirious pleas. It’s just as exciting as it sounds. If you should die before finishing this story, consider yourself luckier than Henry Cravens.
|Dan was recognizable from his accent.|
- "Murder on the Moor"
"John Adams was a law-abiding man. When the authorities banned black magic rites on his small island, he thought out his duty very carefully and then decided his action. Long had he suspected old Yvonne of witch practices, and besides she was careless about paying her rent..."
- "Witch's Horror"
“Like ripe black fruit the figures dangle from the tree…”
- “Blood in the Sky”
“Colonel Eric von Grimm and his wife Helga were a loving couple—they loved to inflict pain, to hear the dying screams of those poor unfortunates who were not of the master race!”
- “Out of the Grave”
“Women! I’ll never understand them! Just because Gretchen has a lampshade of human skin—Helga must have one! While I—I haven’t even got a decent pair of boots!”
- “Out of the Grave”
“Allow me to introduce myself! I am the Cruel Cavalier—and I will kill you!”
- “Death Laughs Last”
“For the first time he feels fear stir in him—a feeling like cold worms moving in his entrails…”
- “Rendezvous with Doom”
"For the first time I touched her! She seemed to enjoy being petted, and watched me with her limped brown eyes..."
- "Death Do Us Part"
"Goodbye, Tasha! Thanks for everything! And when I hear people talking about dumb animals again, I'll tell them about you!"
- "Death Do Us Part"
|-"Web of the Widow"|
- “Frigid Fear”
“A simple, routine business of opening a bank vault for the day’s work… and out popped the Devil!”
- “Wheel of Terror”
"Ohh, please hurry! The Merchants' Bank. A robbery..."
"Don't get so excited, lady. We'll be right there... But did you say the devil held up your bank?"
- "Wheel of Terror"
|Even ghosts like Haunted Thrills!|
- “Trumpet of Doom”
"Looks hopeless! We'll never get to him! Guns are no good against those - (ugh) - things!"
"We're licked! Licked by a lot of corpses!"
- "Trumpet of Doom"
“I see no hope in exorcising this succumbus [sic], Mr. Farson!”
- “Fear of the Witch”
Reed: …Except that I’m going to kill you, too! You were a little too greedy! Now you neither get my body or my wife!
Doctor: No! Stop! You’re insane!
Reed: Hah-hah! Maybe I am! But you’re dead!
- “The Devil Collects”
“This is a crazy story! Or maybe not so crazy after all, maybe it’s just ghoulish and horrible and sickening!”
- “Devil’s Bride”
“Y-you pick a spider up and fondle it! You’re insane!”
- “Web of the Widow”
"Strange! We've got an incinerator for burning rubbish! And there's something I don't like about this smell! It seems vaguely familiar - like the burning ghats by the Indus River! I know - scorched bones!"
- "Web of the Widow"
|Nannette the Tiger says these quotes are greeeeat!|
- “Blade of Horror”
"I know a way that might work, Jim! And it -- it isn't murder! But we might get rid of her!"
"Tell me, baby! I'll listen to anything -- except actual murder!"
- "Mirror of Madness"
“A foul smell fills the night! Fangs glisten and a long forked tongue licks out! Fire and smoke belch from the fetid mouth of the beast from the past! The constable never has a chance…”
- “Monster in the Mist”
“But when you monkey around with psychic phenomena, Wendy, you’ve got to be ready for anything!”
- “Monster in the Mist”
Vanya decides to shed her current lover.
"How could I have loved him? He is ugly to me now! And he dances like a cow!"
- "Devil's Ballet"
Sam Dexter was afraid! Sam Dexter had reason to be afraid! Because Sam was pretty sure he was going crazy! Insane! Every time he looked in a mirror he saw himself - as Napoleon! Was he Sam Dexter? Was he nuts?
- "Die Screaming"
"It's not only the mirror! I find myself reading battle maps, panning campaigns, things like that! And when anyone mentions Waterloo, I scream out loud!"
- "Die Screaming"
|Peter's parents knew something was wrong after|
he finished reading the final issue of Haunted Thrills
So the ancient Roman camp once more sleeps beneath the blood red moon! The dank night mist rises and curls over the ruins like an ever-changing shrowd [sic]!
- "Monster in the Mist"
"My work! The novel I'll never finish! It all seems so unimportant now! And it would have been a good novel, too!"
- "If I Should Die -"
"Poor Henry! Tough to die in your prime like this!"
"Yes, he was a good man! A good writer, too, but he didn't live long enough to really write anything good!"
- "If I Should Die -"
STORY OF THE MONTH
Peter: Sometimes it's very hard to explain why certain stories resonate the way they do. With nearly forty terror tales to choose from each month, it's extremely hard to narrow it down to just one example. There was no such anguish this month. When I read the camp classic known as "Die Screaming" (from #17), I immediately knew this had to be my Story of the Month. A quick read through might evoke "What crap!" from the majority of our readers but I implore you to read deeper into the context. I sincerely believe that our uncredited writer put his tongue firmly in his cheek and took the Mad Magazine fork in the road, offering up a parody of the type of story Haunted Thrills (and, indeed, all the pre-code titles) stuffed their zines with and a wrap-up worthy of a hardy WTF?!. Go ahead, tell me I'm wrong. I've read five hundred plus horror stories in the last ten months so I may be ready for a strait-jacket of my own (I just hope mine is as easy to break out of as our protagonist's). Campier than a pink parasol, I give you:
Jose: My picks for “Story of the Month” have generally fluctuated between “uppers” and “downers”. There’s been just as much corny goof-offs here as there has been bleak horror. Today’s selection is closer to the latter camp. Although it’s not quite near the soul-crushing despair of “Monumental Feat” or “Corpses… Coast to Coast”, “Trumpet of Doom” (from #14) certainly has its share of shocking frissons, not to mention a good deal of originality. Taking the standard zombie-master-out-for-revenge plot as its template, “Trumpet” gives it a fresh twist by incorporating elements of Biblical mythology. And in more ways than one, as the late appearance of a mysterious, unnamed character seems to testify. If “Trumpet” didn’t already send your eyebrows flaring with its depiction of a full-on revolt of the undead, then the holy-punishment-from-the-heavens conclusion (after the villain has revoked his sins to boot!) is sure to blow your mental gates wide open.
Haunted Thrills #10-18
"Death at the Mardi Gras"
"Screams in the Swamp"
"Murder on the Moor"
"Blood in the Sky"
"Death at the Throttle"
"Dead Man's Chest"
"Out of the Grave"
"Badge of Glory"
"Death Laughs Last"
"Experiment in Terror"
Ar by Carl Burgos
"Rendezvous with Doom"
"Death Do Us Part"
"Wheel of Terror"
"Trumpet of Doom"
Art by Robert Hayward Webb
"Dying is So Contagious"
"The Devil Collects"
"Terror on Location"
"Fear of the Witch"
"Death is the Jury!"
"Web of the Widow"
"Blade of Horror"
"Mirror of Madness"
"Monster in the Mist"
"Tiger -- Tiger!"
"If I Should Die --"
"No Place to Go"