Monday, February 8, 2016

Do You Dare Enter? Part Seventy-One: September/October 1976

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The DC Mystery Anthologies 1968-1976
by Peter Enfantino and
Jack Seabrook

Leo Duranona
House of Mystery 245

"A Talent for Murder!"
Story by Coram Nobis (David V. Reed)
Art by Leopoldo Duranona

"Check the J.C. Demon Catalogue Under... Death!"
Story by Bill Parante and Guy Lillian III
Art by Alex Nino

Peter: Deep in the woods outside Shakopee, Emmy Poole's son, Vernon, wants to know why his mother hoards catalogs when she never buys nothin'. One catalog, from J.C. Demon, catches Vernon's eye and he flips through its pages, revealing a sample pack of "magic seeds." Vernon dissolves the seeds in water and then hits the sack, musing how foolish magic is but how great it would be to play a joke on the rubes in town. The superstitious residents of Shakopee have always thought ol' Emmy Poole was a witch and when snow falls the next day (in July!), talk of a lynching makes the rounds. When Emmy and Vernon come into town for provisions, they are met with derision and hate. Later that day, one of the townsfolk is found dead of fright. A woman who had confronted Emmy disappears, as does her entire house!  And that's the straw that broke the camel's back. The villagers head out to Emmy's place and string up the old woman and her son. Vernon is buried with one of the seed packs and a huge creature emerges, swallowing the entire population of Shakopee.

While "Check the J.C. Demon Catalogue Under... Death" has one of the dumbest titles ever and features several well-worn plot devices (old witch on the edge of town, anyone?), I thought it was one of the best stories we've run across in a long, long time. It's full of goofy energy and, most importantly of all, packed with Alex Nino's stylish flair and creepy nuances (the jack o' lantern atop the pole for one); it's the perfect showcase for Nino's Lovecraftian visions. I loved the twists and turns Bill Parante and Guy Lillian III subject us to and their dialogue is crisp and avoids most of the "swamp witch" cliches, as when Shakopee's judge inquires as to the whereabouts of Agatha Fround, the woman who had belittled the Pooles:

Judge: Gone? Impossible! Where'd everything go?

Townie: You got me, judge. Only thing I found this morning when I came by was this mutt! Agatha was gone... house and all... disappeared.

Jack: I'm glad you followed what was going on in this story because I couldn't make heads or tails of it. I was so dazzled by Nino's art that it really didn't matter, though, except for what seemed like too many word balloons and captions getting in the way. We haven't been treated to a story by Nino in quite a while, so it's an extra special issue. I also enjoyed the first story, "A Talent for Murder!" though I thought Duranona's art seemed a bit unfinished.

Leo Duranona
House of Secrets 141

"You Can't Beat the Devil!"
Story by Bill Finger
Art by E.R. Cruz

"Exit Laughing"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Ernie Chua and Bill Draut

Peter: House of Secrets returns after a six-month hiatus, jettisoning its one-issue experiment with the Patchwork Man and reverting back to what it does best: presenting mediocre horror stories. While the lone installment of the Patchwork Man didn't light up my life it was, at least, an attempt by the powers-that-be to stir a rancid stew. Another file story from Bill Finger (at this time two years deceased), "You Can't Beat the Devil!" is an inane "bargain with the devil" story, at least somewhat redeemed by E.R. Cruz's art. There are some nasty, misogynistic bits in here and a "twist" you can see coming a mile away, but what sinks "You Can't..." is Finger's reliance on a plot that really needed (and still needs) to be put out to pasture.

Nicely evocative of the 1950s DC mystery stories?
Worse is "Exit Laughing," wherein Matt Sawyer returns to the site of a nasty college prank he played on the timid Ernie Cass and runs into... you guessed it, Ernie Cass! Cass was dared to spend a night in a haunted house and had his entire future altered when he was confronted by an axe-wielding ghost. Sawyer confesses that it was he, Matt, who was disguised as the ghost and Cass whips out a knife and stabs the practical joker to death. A pair of police conveniently pull up (as Cass is stabbing Matt) and explain to Sawyer's weeping widow that Ernie Cass had escaped from a mental institution the day before and had been living the last twenty years babbling about ghosts. There's nothing of Ernie Chan showing through Bill Draut's awful inks but Frank Frazetta couldn't have helped a groaner like this one. My favorite sequence would have to be the climax, where we see the two cops calmly exit their patrol car as Cass butchers his tormentor!

Jack: I enjoyed "You Can't Beat the Devil!" Finger's script is fun, especially in the way Stryker banters with the demon, and Cruz's art is sharp, including a Jerry Robinson-like splash page with an outsized Stryker looming over the city. That guy lives in an apartment building with an array of nasty folks! As for "Exit Laughing," I got a kick out of it! It's funny that House of Secrets makes its big return with 1) a deal with the devil story and 2) a spend the night in a haunted house story! I did not see the end of "Exit Laughing" coming, but then I'm not as old and wise as you are. Plus, I love any story involving an escapee from an asylum.

Ernie Chua
The Witching Hour 65

"A Handy Way to Die"
Story by Jack Phillips (George Kashdan)
Art by E.R. Cruz

"The Loathsome Loner"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Ricardo Villamonte

"Laugh? I Thought You'd Die..."
Story Uncredited
Art Uncredited

Jack: Rolf, "The Loathsome Loner," mugs a beautiful girl named Elise Vaughn in an alley late one night but lets her keep her money when he discovers that she's blind. His subsequent crimes against other poor victims result in a change in his physical appearance so that he resembles a gruesome hunchback. The only good he does is to give some of his ill gotten gains to the pretty blind girl. She uses the money to have her blindness cured but, to Rolf's dismay, once she can see she agrees to marry Charlie, who is either a policeman, a security guard, or a doorman, judging from his outfit. As luck would have it, Charlie turns out to be a cop, and Rolf turns himself in without confessing to Elise that he's her sugar daddy. To top it off, once he's in prison, his good looks return! Shades of Charlie Chaplin! Leave it to Carl Wessler to rip off the classic City Lights, mix in some Jekyll and Hyde, and bake a loaf of confusion--all in a tidy five pages!

Peter: The opener, "A Handy Way to Die," by Jack Phillips, serves up the usual tasty art by E.R. Cruz but  disappoints with its inane script. We're introduced to Frank Crosley, a lucky guy who survives a tenement fire and, as one would do, visits a fortune teller to find the reason for his good luck. The old crone tells Frank he's got a blessed "time line" across his palm and that will enable him to live to be a "hunnerd." As most people would do, Frank takes this news at face value and plans a daring money-making scheme. He kidnaps a mobster for a perceived big ransom but the plan goes awry and the cops show up at his bell tower hideout. When Frank slides down the bell's rope, he burns through his time line and falls to his death. We're continually told Frank is a loathsome, nasty dude but, until the very climax, we're not shown any evidence of such. He's just a poor guy who lived through a blazing fire. We do know he's not that bright though since all it takes is a word from a swami and Frank's convinced he's invincible.

Luis Dominguez
Unexpected 175

"The Haunted Mountain"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by E.R. Cruz

"Long Arm of Lunacy"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by Buddy Gernale

"Mad Hacker of Kingston Row"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Teny Henson

Jack: Little Hans fell to his death from a mountain, so the villagers think it must be the work of Countess Freida Von Koerner, who admits she inherited a witching curse but claims she never used it for evil and certainly never harmed the child. Villagers being villagers, they drag her partway up the mountain and toss her into the boiling sulphur spring, but she does not die. Instead, she becomes a skeleton with raggedy clothes and blond hair, informing her tormentors that she will haunt them forever. In the days that follow, the mountain is covered in swirling mist that soon parts to reveal that the countess has used her witchcraft to carve a giant skull in the side of what is now "The Haunted Mountain." Unable to blow it up with dynamite, the villagers catch the countess alone on the mountain and try to kill her. She falls off and a lantern she carries ignites an underground gas pocket, blowing mountain, villagers and village to bits.

I really enjoyed "The Haunted Mountain" up to the end, which was a bit of a disappointment. I certainly liked seeing the countess come out of the boiling sulphur spring as a skeleton, and E.R. Cruz does a terrific job portraying her and the skull face on the side of the mountain.

Peter: Since "Long Arm of Lunacy" and "Mad Hacker of Kingston Row" are so gawdawful, "Haunted Mountain" wins Best Story this issue by default but it's by no means a good story. Nice, atmospheric art by Cruz is the only saving grace this time out. Well, that and the dynamic cover by Dominguez, which gets my vote for Best Cover of the Year.

Ernie Chua
House of Mystery 246

"Death-Vault of the Eskimo Kings"
Story by Michael Fleisher and Russell Carley
Art by Mike Vosburg and Sal Trapani

"Tomb It May Concern"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Jess Jodloman

Peter: Two Arctic explorers stumble upon the mythical "Death-Vault of the Eskimo Kings" and the vast treasures uncovered in the cavern turn the men against each other. Boring art and cliched characters. Stop me if you've heard this one before. Slightly better (in the slightest sense) is "Tomb It May Concern," about Chester Foyle, a bed-ridden and money-bagged old sleaze who needs to rid himself of his wife before curvaceous young nurse Peggy will marry him. Chester may be old but he isn't blind; he knows Peggy only wants his money but there are a couple things Peggy's got that he wants (way up firm and high, as Bob Seger would say) and money means nothing to a feeble old codger. Chester lays the groundwork of an alibi by letting on he's fearful of burglars and, one night, he heads for his wife's room with a long, sharp knife. He never gets there though as he's clobbered from behind with a hammer. Next thing he knows he lying on a slab in the morgue. Has Chester Foyle really shuffled off or is he in some kind of death-like paralysis? Though the outcome is disappointing, at least Jack Oleck didn't stray down the path I feared he was heading with the subtle hints of the classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "Breakdown," dropped in the opening panels. We discover, in the end, that the hammer-wielder was nurse Peggy, but did the curvaceous caretaker whomp the old perve by accident or...? That's left to the imagination. Jodloman's art is just the right kind of sleazy for the subject matter but, at times, the word balloons threaten to blanket the visuals. Not a great story but for this issue it's about as good as it's going to get.

Jack: You're right to call Jodloman's art the right kind of sleazy. His nurse reminded me of one of Robert Crumb's women. It's too bad Fleisher's stories took such a nose dive. A few years earlier and the idea of an issue of House of Mystery with stories by him and Oleck would have had me looking for a classic. Instead, the DC Horror line has about dried up by this point.

Ernie Chua
Ghosts 49

"The Ghost in the Cellar"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Lee Elias

"The Dead Came Calling"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Pit Capili

"The Haunted Hoard of Gold"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Fred Carrillo

Jack: On a Caribbean island vacation, Chick Cahill and Georgie August encounter a cantankerous old man fishing from a dock. Chick pushes him into the water but Georgie saves him from drowning, so the old man relates the story of hidden pirate treasure and hands Georgie a map. Chick bashes the old man's skull in and then pushes Chick off a precipice to his death. When Chick finds the treasure, he is confronted by the ghosts of a pirate, the old man and Chick, though he thinks the latter two are still alive. Chick spins a tale about sharing the loot and the old man lets him go, but when Chick finds "The Haunted Hoard of Gold" he ends up buried alive in sand and drowned in water.

Chick is not very bright.

It was not easy to decide which of the three stories in this issue to write about, since all three are by Carl Wessler, all three have weak art, and all three are mediocre. I chose the final tale because Chick is such a jerk and the ending is so ridiculous. Why does he suddenly get buried in sand and then drowned? Wessler provides no explanation. It just happens.

Peter: "The Ghost in the Cellar" is about as juvenile a story as we've encountered on our long and arduous journey, Jack. From Lee Elias's seemingly unfinished art (stick figures might have produced better results) to Wessler's typically overblown captions and dialogue (They waited with bated breath for long, endless minutes... an eternity. Tension and terror took their toll... As they trod down the stairs, fear lashed them to the depths... gripping them with the shuddering dread of the unknown...), "The Ghost in the Cellar" is a sad commentary on just how far the DC horror line had slipped by 1976. Elias's idea of a terrifying specter is along the lines of the cheap sfx creature from Outer Limits' "Behold, Eck!"

Holy Bronze Star!
Can Sgt. Rock and the French kid escape?
Tune in on February 15th!
Same Easy time!
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