Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-James Bridges Part Eleven: Return of Verge Likens [10.1]

by Jack Seabrook

Over the course of the first two seasons of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, James Bridges had written three teleplays that dealt with characters in the American South: "The Star Juror," "The Jar," and "Bed of Roses." His teleplay for "Return of Verge Likens," the first episode of the series' third season, also takes place in a rural area, this time in West Virginia.

The story was written by Davis Grubb and published in the July 15, 1950, issue of Collier's. Grubb was born in West Virginia in 1919 and began his career writing for NBC Radio in New York City in the early 1940s. In 1945, he began selling short stories to a few popular magazines and his first novel, Night of the Hunter (1953), was made into a classic film in 1955. Grubb went on to write more novels prior to his death in 1980. Three movies and a handful of TV shows were adapted from his works; two of his stories were filmed for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. "Return of Verge Likens" was reprinted in his 1964 collection, Twelve Tales of Suspense and the Supernatural, which may be where the producers of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour noticed it.

"Return of Verge Likens"
was first published here
The story is set in fictitious Tygarts County, West Virginia, and begins as Verge Likens and his brother Wilford are summoned to the Airport Inn by Sheriff Reynolds to see the dead body of their father, Stoney, who has been shot dead by Riley McGrath, the "self-elected emperor of our state." Verge comments that Stoney had no gun on him, so there was no reason to shoot him. He and Wilford suddenly drive off "like wraiths."

Verge vows to kill Riley McGrath and thinks of nothing else from then on. Months later, Wilford asks his brother why he does not simply wait outside the Airport Inn and shoot McGrath, who "comes there all the time with that black-haired Mary from Baltimore Street." Verge replies that he wants McGrath to die slowly and to know who killed him. Worried about his brother, Wilford finds McGrath at the barber shop of Rush Sigafoose and accompanies him across the street to his office, warning the powerful man that Verge plans to kill him. McGrath tries to smooth things over by giving Wilford $500, which Wilford takes home and gives to his brother.

Peter Fonda as Verge Likens
The next morning, Verge Likens takes the money and leaves to take the bus to Charleston to attend school. He is gone for sixteen months and all Wilford hears from him is a single postcard, two weeks after his brother leaves.

One morning, McGrath is in the barber shop for a shave when the barber goes back to the storeroom for a few minutes and emerges to see McGrath, "his head strained back in the head rest as far as it would go, his face purple and livid by turns and his mouth shaping idiot sounds." Verge holds a razor to McGrath's neck and threatens to cut the man's throat if the barber comes any closer. Sigafoose sits down while Verge spends the next half hour shaving and talking quietly to McGrath. The young man had gone to barber college using McGrath's money and came back to pester Sigafoose for a job. Rush hired him and found he was a "natural-born barber." When the doctor comes later to see McGrath's dead body, he sees not "so much as a mark on his throat."

Robert Emhardt as Riley McGrath
Grubb's brilliant story of revenge uses a distinctly American location and vernacular to tell the tale of a poor man using a rich man's money to avenge his father's murder. Suspense is built with subtlety and the conclusion is implied rather than shown explicitly--Verge's behavior terrifies McGrath so much that he dies of a heart attack.

James Bridges was the perfect choice to adapt this story for television, having been born in Arkansas and having written teleplays with country settings before, most notably "The Jar." His script both adheres to and expands Grubb's story, turning it into a classic hour of television suspense. The acting performances are all excellent and the creative direction by Arnold Laven makes this episode unforgettable.

Once again, Bridges takes events that occur before the opening of the short story and dramatizes them to tell the story in chronological order, compressing the time over which various events occur to tighten the narrative and make it move more quickly from the start to the tense conclusion. The TV show begins at Fred's Hideout Cafe (no longer the Airport Inn), where Stoney Likens is thrown out by Fred for speaking harshly to McGrath, who sits in a booth, drinking and laughing with a pretty young woman. Outside, Stoney turns around and goes back in.

Robert Barrat as Stoney Likens

Here, director Laven uses the first of a series of stylized camera placements, as we look under Stoney's outstretched arm at Riley and the woman.


Stoney threatens McGrath, telling him that "no law of yours is forcing me to sell," and throws a bottle against the wall near McGrath's head. He shakes up two more bottles of beer and begins to spray beer all over the seated couple, causing McGrath to pull a gun and shoot the old man dead. McGrath tells Fred to call the sheriff and then leaves with the woman.

At the Likens home, 20 miles outside of town, Verge and Wilford play mumblety-peg with a pen knife on the kitchen table. Verge is established as the smarter brother while Wilford is simple and gentle. They await their father's return but, instead of the old man coming to the door, the sheriff appears and tells them to come with him because there has been an accident. The sheriff does not know them by sight, which shows that they are not known in town. This will be important in the show's final scene.

Jim Boles as Sheriff Reynolds

The show picks up where the story begins as Verge and Wilford arrive at Fred's and see their father's corpse. The sheriff mentions McGrath's heart condition, thus starting to set the viewer up for the fatal heart attack at the end. Instead of disappearing like wraiths, Verge and Wilford go out to their father's truck and Verge loses his temper, throwing peaches from a basket in the back of the truck and breaking windows at the cafe. Before his fit, Verge comments that Stoney got $10, a good price, and this should be remembered later on when McGrath gives Wilford $500, more than 50 times a good day's take selling peaches. By throwing and wasting peaches, Verge throws away pieces of his family's livelihood, just as his father's life has been so casually discarded.

Sammy Reese as Wilford

The next scene opens with another stylized shot, as Wilford and his two aunts are framed through the arch made by the top of a sewing machine. Like the earlier shot framing McGrath under Stoney's arm, this shot comments on the scene and the action while also getting the viewer used to creative shots in preparation for the tour de force camera work in the final scene. Here, the sewing machine is a tool used by these country women to make clothes for themselves and their family members, showing both their poverty and their resourcefulness.


The sheriff brings Verge home after the young man has spent the night in jail, presumably for his outburst outside the cafe. The family's poverty is further shown when Verge tells Wilford to put water on the stove so he can take a bath; their house does not even have hot running water. A small, quiet funeral for Stoney is held at home, with the coffin in the parlor and no guests beyond the two aunts. Again, it is clear that no one knows these country folk, a fact that will benefit Verge in his final act of revenge. Verge reads from the Bible and then quotes the "eye for an eye" passage from Leviticus as he tells Wilford of his plan to kill McGrath.

We then see Verge hiding in the bushes in town watching as McGrath emerges from his house; the poor man points a shotgun at the wealthy man but does not fire. Back at home, Verge hangs up the gun and tells his brother that he has been stalking McGrath for a month, learning his habits. He comments that McGrath has a bad heart (a remark with a double meaning) and visits a doctor regularly; this is the second time the heart condition is mentioned, reinforcing it for the viewer. Verge tells Wilford he did not shoot McGrath because he wants his victim to know his name when he kills him.

Charles Seel as Rush Sigafoose
Wilford finds McGrath at the barber shop and there is great dialogue between the powerful man and the barber; McGrath tells Sigafoose that he must be five-eighths Indian because he is so good at scalping his customers and gives him a dollar tip to buy his wife some "wampum beads." Sigafoose thanks the "Great White Father" and both laugh until Wilford announces that his father was Stoney Likens and the laughter abruptly stops. Like Verge, Wilford is a country boy, not used to town ways and unknown there; he looks at everything with wonder and appears to be an innocent among untrustworthy men. When he goes to McGrath's office, McGrath once again reminds us that he has a bad heart; his mother died eight months ago, he says, adding that "the heart is a delicate thing--I know."

At home, Wilford speaks with Verge and gives him the money, causing Verge to pack a bag and leave right away. He does not wait out the night to think things over as he does in the story; he is smart, crafty, and determined. Instead of being gone for sixteen months, Verge is gone for six. The next scene appears to occur at the end of that span of time, as a flower truck delivers a funeral wreath to McGrath with a card telling him that it is from Verge Likens. Wilford receives his sixth monthly postcard from his brother and McGrath's driver/bodyguard/enforcer picks up Wilford at home and takes him to see McGrath at the cafe.

The funeral wreath provides director Laven with an opportunity for another stylized shot, with the camera looking through the center of the wreath at the figures beyond it.


McGrath questions Wilford about Verge's whereabouts and then D.D., the driver, takes Wilford for a very short ride around the side of the cafe, where D.D. attempts to beat information out of the gentle man.

Wilford after the beating

The final act of "Return of Verge Likens" is one long scene, one of the most suspenseful of the series. After McGrath leaves his office and hurries to the barber shop for a shave, the new barber is seen from the side, standing over the sink, his face hidden.


When he stands up, we see that he is Verge Likens, who has made his return as the title promised. Rush, the other barber, finishes up with his customer as Verge gets ready to shave Riley. This is the big payoff of all the setting up that James Bridges did throughout the episode. We know that Verge Likens was little known in town, so no one knows his face and he is able to return unnoticed and secure a job in the barber shop. We know that McGrath has a heart condition. And we know that Verge has vowed to kill McGrath. In true Hitchcockian fashion, what happens next puts the viewer in the uncomfortable position of rooting for a man to commit a horrible murder, both dreading the act and anticipating it.

Verge asks Rush to get some supplies and suspense builds as we see the young barber testing his straight razor. There is no music, just sounds of shaving and dialogue. Verge tells McGrath that his name is Odell Jones and, after Rush leaves the barber shop to go down the street to the drugstore to get supplies, Verge locks the front door. Unlike Grubb's story, where Sigafoose emerges from the stockroom to see Verge shaving McGrath and then has to sit quietly by as the deed is done, the TV adaptation has Sigafoose leave Verge and McGrath alone in the shop, a much more visually exciting choice.

In a series of highly stylized shots, Arnold Laven depicts what happens next. Verge is shown in the mirror as he approaches the chair, the razor looming large in the foreground.


Slowly, carefully, and quietly, he begins to shave the man in the chair, who starts to question the new barber about his background. Verge begins slowly to reveal his identity and there is an effective shot from overhead as McGrath's eyes begin to widen in fear.


Verge shaves ever closer as he provides clues to his identity. He admits that he went to barber's college in Charleston and, when Riley tries to sit up and get away, Verge warns him, coolly, "I might slip and cut you right through to the gullet," as he draws the razor through the air just above McGrath's throat to demonstrate what could happen. "Remember your heart," warns Verge, also reminding the viewer of McGrath's perilous state of health. As Sigafoose and others begin to try to get in but find the door locked, Verge warns Riley, holding the razor to his lips, and resumes shaving. Next comes the most stylized shot of the episode, looking up at Verge from Riley's point of view as he reveals his true name and repeats it four times, waving the razor in the man's face. He gently runs the razor over McGrath's throat once again, not quite touching the skin.

"Verge Likens. Verge Likens. Verge Likens. Verge Likens."

We see one more point of view shot from outside the door as Verge bends over Riley and the crowd tries to break in.


Verge finishes shaving his customer and cleans up methodically before unlocking the door and letting the sheriff in, along with the rest of the crowd that has gathered outside. A towel is removed from McGrath's face and he is seen to be dead; though the sheriff tells Verge that he is under arrest, Verge replies that there is not a scratch on McGrath and there is no law against giving a man a shave. The show ends with a shot of Riley McGrath's face, his dead eyes staring straight ahead.


Verge Likens has succeeded in accomplishing his goal. He wanted to kill Riley McGrath and avenge his father's death, and he wanted to do it slowly so that his victim could see him and know his name when he killed him. Best of all, there was no violence or blood spilled; the sheer terror of anticipating what could have happened made the man's weak heart give out.

"Return of Verge Likens" is a masterpiece of suspense, highlighted by the brilliantly executed last act. It benefits from great writing, direction, acting, and pacing, and is a superb example of James Bridges' growing ability to turn a short story into a thrilling piece of film.

Arnold Laven (1922-2009), the director, worked in the U.S. Air Force motion picture unit in WWII and had various jobs in the film industry after the war before forming a production company with his partners in 1951. He became a director in 1952 and directed many TV shows and a few movies over the next three decades. He created The Rifleman, which ran from 1958 to 1963, and he was a producer on The Big Valley, which ran from 1965 to 1969. He directed one half-hour episode of the Hitchcock show in addition to this single hour-long episode.

Starring as Verge Likens is the strikingly handsome Peter Fonda (1940- ), son of Hollywood great Henry Fonda. Peter's career on screen began in 1962 and this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show. His many films include The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip (1967), both directed by Roger Corman; Easy Rider (1969) made him a major star. He is still acting today and he has a website here.

George Lindsey as D.D., the driver
The great Robert Emhardt (1913-1994) is perfect as Riley McGrath, portraying him as a powerful, corrupt man who can seem charming one minute and cruel the next. Emhardt was in seven episodes of the Hitchcock series; the last examined here was "Martha Mason, Movie Star."

Returning for his third appearance in a James Bridges-penned, country-themed episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour is George Lindsey (1928-2012), who was also in "The Jar" and "Bed of Roses." He is menacing and utterly believable here as McGrath's driver, who always seems on the verge of breaking into violence.

June Walker as Aunt Mary Jane
Sammy Reese (1930-1985) is particularly effective as Verge's simple brother, Wilford; his scenes in town show an almost childlike fascination with the life of those not from the country. He had a rather brief screen career, from 1959 to 1970, but during that time he was on The Outer Limits twice and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour four times, including roles in "The Jar" and "The Star Juror," both written by James Bridges.

For two of the members of the cast of "Return of Verge Likens," the show was their last acting credit. Robert Barrat (1889-1970), who appears in the first scene as Stoney Likens and is gunned down by Riley McGrath, appeared in over 150 films from 1915 to 1955 and ended his career on television, appearing just this once on the Hitchcock show. June Walker (1900-1966), who plays Verge's Aunt Mary Jane, also began her screen career in the silent era and appeared in films from 1917 to 1963, adding TV as of 1949. She was on Thriller once and the Hitchcock show three times.

Seen very briefly as the girl sitting in Fred's Hideout Cafe with Riley McGrath is Cathie Merchant (1945-2013), a 19-year-old beauty who was on screen for only four years, from 1961 to 1965, but who managed to appear in four episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including "The Star Juror," where she plays the young woman in the bathing suit who is murdered in the park.

Cathie Merchant as Mary

Other cast members:

William Bramley as Fred
Jim Boles (1914-1977) plays Sheriff Reynolds; he was on screen from 1949 to 1977 and appeared twice on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour; he also was seen on The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and The Odd Couple.

William Bramley (1928-1985) plays Fred, proprietor of Fred's Hideout Cafe; his most memorable role may be that of Office Krupke in West Side Story (1961); he was also seen in three Hitchcock episodes (including "The Test"), and episodes of The Outer Limits and Star Trek.

Charles Seel (1897-1980) plays the barber, Rush Sigafoose; he was on screen from 1938 to 1980 and he was in four episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Kind Waitress"; he was also seen on The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and Night Gallery.

Nydia Westman as
Aunt Ida Maye
Nydia Westman (1902-1970) plays Verge's Aunt Ida Maye; she was on screen from 1932 to 1970 and this was her only time on the Hitchcock show.

"Return of Verge Likens" was adapted one other time, for a South African radio horror anthology series called Beyond Midnight. The episode was titled either "Mr. McGrath and His Victim" or "My Daddy Had No Gun," and what sounds like a slightly truncated version of the broadcast may be heard here. It aired on April 10, 1970.

The TV version of "Return of Verge Likens" is not available on DVD or online, but MeTV should be running it late at night around June 10th.

Read Davis Grubb's story, "Return of Verge Likens," here (the last page is here).

Sources:
The FictionMags Index. Web. 13 May 2017.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
Grubb, Dave. "Return of Verge Likens." Collier's 15 July 1950: 22-23+. UNZ.org. Web. 13 May 2017.
IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 13 May 2017.
"Return of Verge Likens." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. NBC. 5 Oct. 1964. Television.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 14 May 2017. Web. 13 May 2017.

In two weeks: Where the Woodbine Twineth," starring Margaret Leighton and Carl Benton Reid!

Monday, May 22, 2017

EC Comics! It's An Entertaining Comic! Issue 32: March 1953






The EC Reign Month by Month 1950-1956
   32: March 1953


Davis
Tales from the Crypt #34

"Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"Oil's Well That Ends Well!" ★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by George Evans

"Attacks of Horror!" ★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"There Was an Old Woman!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Ray Bradbury
Adaptation by Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels




Another hottie from the pen of Jack Davis.
("Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall!")
You open your eyes and see a bald, bespectacled scientist with a crazed look in his eye. Though he tells you to stay put and leaves, you break free from your shackles and escape out into the night, where the crowds at a carnival run in fright when they see you. Finding your way to a road, you stop a car and murder the driver, then drive to your home, where your wife, Nancy, is so scared of you that she falls to her death from a second-story window. You return to the carnival and murder the scientist who made you this way. You stumble into a wax museum and see the horror of your own appearance reflected in a "Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall!" You destroy the mirror and run into a hall of mirrors, where the multiple reflections show you as your patchwork body finally gives out and you die.

You are randomly selected to summarize another tired take on the Frankenstein story. You enjoy the Jack Davis art but you notice he still can't draw a pretty girl very well. You wonder why the story is written in the second person. You move on to the next story, unimpressed and wondering just what caused the monster's death.

Smoking kills.
("Oil's Well That Ends Well!")
A couple of con men named Phil and Sam pull into a Midwestern town and set up in a hotel. Their scam? To pump some oil into the city park and then pretend they found oil in the middle of  town. The townsfolk raise $60,000 to pay Phil to handle the drilling to extract the Texas tea from the ground. Sam pretends to get into a fatal car accident while trying to skip town with the loot and Phil has him buried in short order. That night, according to plan, Phil digs up Sam's coffin, but there's a surprise--there really is oil in the ground and Phil is so surprised that he drops the cigarette dangling from his lips and both men are blown sky high.

"Oil's Well That Ends Well!" in a good crime story, one that would fit right into a noir pulp, and George Evans continues to impress me with his clean, sharp art.

A tax on the nerves!
("Attacks of Horror!")
Long ago, in a kingdom by the sea, lived King Moneymad, who spent his days counting his wealth. His royal advisor proposes taking the king's subjects, and what follows are a series of increasingly onerous levies: a Sir Tax on those with titles, and Excess Prophets tax on fortune tellers, and so on, until the people are so overwhelmed by the "Attacks of Horror!" that they rise up and slay the monarch.

Maybe this is funny to someone, but it was lost on me. Even the gruesome moment, when the king orders the thumbs of his subjects lopped off for failure to pay the Thumb Tax, is done off-panel, as is usual with the Kamen stories. The puns don't work for me.

And you should see what I can do with ping pong balls, too!
("There Was an Old Woman!")
"There Was an Old Woman!" known as Aunt Tildy, but when she died and the men came to take her body away, she told them to beat it. They finally cart her off, but her ghost harangues everyone so much that they let her spirit re-enter her body and return home. At least I think that's what happened in this story. I'm sure I read it many years ago, when I read every other Ray Bradbury story, but perhaps Al Feldstein got it a bit muddled up, since I'm not really sure what happened. Ghastly doesn't have much to do here other than draw a lot of panels of an elderly female.--Jack

Peter: "There Was An Old Woman!" seems a very strange story to adapt for a funny book; it's multi-layered and doesn't exactly put the message out in front for all to see. The only feedback on Bradbury's tale, in the letters page of #36, was a positive letter and a less-than-positive missive from Ed Redling of New Jersey, who got straight to the point with "Ray Bradbury's story . . . stunk!" I can imagine most pre-teen moptops shaking their head and wondering what that was all about. It's a well-done adaptation and a definite departure for the company. "Attacks of Horror!" is far from a departure, with its greedy king and jovial "art" from Jack Kamen, but what it is is very funny. You can just imagine Al and Bill, behind the scenes, giggling as they cleverly come up with examples for more taxes: "I've got it! Sails Tax!" The best Grim so far.

Universal's lawyers were napping . . .
("Mirror, Mirror . . .")
"Oil's Well" is yet another variation on the seedy business partners but this one has a hilarious climax and absolutely gorgeous George art. That leaves the opener, "Mirror, Mirror . . . ," which is just another disposable take on Shelley's favorite son. Universal Pictures must not have been clamping down yet on the copyright infringements on their 1931 vision of the monster as Jack Davis's version is a dead ringer for Karloff's. Later on in that decade, Universal would send lawyers to the House of Hammer when the studio announced they'd produce a new version of Frankenstein to ensure the British were aware that Uni's monster was untouchable.

Jose: A fairly bland issue from the Crypt. Gaines and Feldstein might have “freely lifted” plots from the old masters, but Feldstein lifts from his own resume with “Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall…”, a basic carbon copy of his earlier and more effective “Reflection of Death” from TFTC 23. Al would actually go on to use the conceit again in the final issue of TFTC with “Upon Reflection”, another Jack Davis monster-fest that puts the gimmick to more cunning use. I remember thinking “Oil’s Well That Ends Well…” was a really lame story to put in a horror book back when I initially read these, and although I still think that holds true my opinion doesn’t mar the fact that the actual yarn is pretty solid and includes a neat Chekhov’s gun-styled retribution for our oily shysters.

Huh??
("Attacks of Horror!")
Believe it or not, “Attacks of Horror” is one of the more bearable and even legitimately funny entries from the much-maligned Grim Fairy Tales series. It might not be “The Funeral,” but it’s got enough risible puns and a torture scene perfectly suited for Kamen (thumb chopping—oh my!) to make it a good time. But it's Kamen’s trouble with drawing diverse faces that leads to the story’s biggest laugh on the final page when it appears that the peasant who just had his opposable digits removed in one panel shows up later swinging the axe (!) as his supposedly twin brother holds the greedy King Moneymad. Peter got it right when he stated that “There Was an Old Woman” was probably not the best choice for an adaptation in sequential art, and Jack echoes the same kind of dissonance and confusion I suffered (as well as many others have, I imagine) upon reading this. It probably could have been moderately enjoyable as an episode of The Twilight Zone (and if you count “Nothing in the Dark” from Season 2, then I suppose it actually was), but as a comic book story it comes across like much of Graham’s art: pretty but lifeless. How appropriate.

Hel-lo, nurse!
("There Was an Old Woman!")


Craig
Crime SuspenStories #15

"When the Cat's Away . . ." ★★
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"The Screaming Woman!" ★★
Story by Ray Bradbury
Adaptation by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"Water, Water, Everywhere . . ." ★★★
". . . And Not a Drop to Drink!"
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by George Evans

"Hail and Heart-y!" ★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels




You leave my Dick out of this!
("While the Cat's Away...")
The magic has gone out of marriage for Jay and Emma; the two fight like cats and dogs and, what with Emma's weak heart, that could be fatal. Frustrated, Jay finds solace on the couch, if not in the arms, of best friend/next door neighbor, Dick. As Emma says, Jay is always "running to Dick"! One night, sick and tired of arguing with the old ball-and-chain, Jay asks Dick if he can use his guest room and Dick happily agrees. In the middle of the night, Jay finds he can't sleep and goes looking for some Dick but can't find it him anywhere! Figuring Dick must have slipped out the back door and headed to the office early, Jay decides to patch things up with Emma and heads home. Surprised to see his living room light on, he peeks through the curtains and espies a shocking sight: Emma with Dick! Feeling used (by which side is never clear), Jay hatches a plan: he tells Emma he's off to the big city on business for a week. He later overhears his wife make plans with Dick for "When the Cat's Away . . ." Instead of leaving on the train, Jay waits patiently a couple hours and then doubles back, surprising the dressed-to-the-nines she-cat at the door with a tall tale of woe: he's just witnessed Dick run down by a truck and is too shook up to leave on business. Jay monkeys with the kitchen light bulb and then sends Emma in to make coffee; the frazzled woman enters just in time to witness Dick arrive at her back door. The shock of Dick's rear entry causes a fatal heart attack and then Jay puts a tidy bow on the set-up by plugging his ex-besty with a bullet. He smiles and calls the police, reporting a "terrible accident!"

He's going for the touchdown, folks!
("While the Cat's Away...")
Let's get the obvious out of the way first of all: there is nothing even subtly gay about the relationship between Jay and Dick; it's all in your mind. There's no subtext in dialogue like Emma's "Go running to Dick like you always do! You two are so cozy-cozy, sometimes I think you're married to him instead of me!" or when Jay wakes in the middle of the night, restless and thinks, "Hang it all! No use even trying to sleep! Maybe if Dick hasn't gone to work .  . . ," there's no use hypothesizing what he's thinking after the dot dot dot but I'm amazed Wertham picked on the Batman and Robin team as obvious examples of "deviant behavior" and not these two "pals." Does Jay feel angrier at his wife for cheating on him or at Dick for ostensibly bowing out of the He-Man Woman-Haters Club? The wrap-up is a pretty conventional one; there's no real surprise even though Johnny makes it seem so. It's not one of Craig's best art jobs either; lots of partially-sketched faces and no beauties on display (Emma could be one of the boys). That is a beauty of a cover, though!

What we in the biz refer to as
"not-so-subtle foundation."
("The Screaming Woman")
While playing in  the detritus-filled lot down the street from her house, ten-year-old Margaret Leary hears a woman screaming from beneath a newly-dug patch of earth. It becomes Margaret's goal to liberate "The Screaming Woman!" but her efforts seem doomed to failure since neither her mother nor her father take her story seriously. Even her best buddy, Dippy, won't believe her. After quite a bit of cajoling, the little sprite convinces her pop to come down to the lot for a listen after dinner (where mom and dad discuss the local gossip, including the big dust-up between Charlie Nesbitt and his wife, Helen, who used to be dad's sweetie and even composed a song for him while they were courting--let's see, how did that tune go, dum de dum dum de . . .) but, of course, the voice from the ground is silent. Margaret goes door-to-door, searching for missing housewives and, at last, comes to the door of the Nesbitts. After hearing the little rugrat's story, Mr. Nesbitt insists that his wife is at the store and that Margaret should come in for a game of cards but, after about ten minutes, Margaret becomes antsy and tells Nesbitt she's going to take matters into her own hands and dig the woman out herself. When the girl gets to the lot, the voice is silent but, with a little coaxing, breaks out into song. Margaret heads home and sings the song to her dad, who quickly recognizes it as the pop standard that Helen had penned for him years before. Dad grabs a shovel, begins to dig, and they all live happily ever after (well, except mom who, in the sequel, murders dad and Helen for running away together).

"And, for my next ditty, a little
something I haven't sung in decades!"
("The Screaming Woman")
Not one of Bradbury's best but the perfect vehicle for Jack Kamen, whose forte was dimpled, pig-tailed little monsters and their dangerous adventures. "The Screaming Woman!" began life as an episode of CBS's radio show, Suspense, and was then transformed by Bradbury into a short story (published in May 1951 in Today). The plot is intriguing, albeit limited, but the outcome is pretty tame for a Bradbury crime story, with the reveal of Helen's lilting soprano performance, despite being buried under ground for several hours, if not days, drawing chuckles from at least one reader I know of. But that blame lies squarely on the shoulders of Mr. Bradbury since Al's adaptation is faithful to the source. Decades later, "The Screaming Woman!" would become a necessarily-padded ABC Movie of the Week starring Olivia de Havilland and an episode of the Ray Bradbury Theater starring Drew Barrymore as the precocious little rescuer.

I hope you brought enough ocean
for the *rest* of the class!
("Water, Water, Everywhere...")
Louis and Henri escape from a prison on a remote South American island and head for the beach. They've bribed a guard to place a small boat at the beach so they can make their getaway but the guard has betrayed them and put only a smattering of fuel in the vehicle. The boat sputters and Henri and Louis are stuck in the middle of the ocean with "Water, Water, Everywhere . . . And Not a Drop to Drink!" The blazing sun drives Henri mad and he drinks the sea water, forcing Louis to shoot his friend and dump the body out of the boat. Determined not to lose his mind like Henri, Louis shoots himself just minutes before another boat approaches. The skipper tells his first mate that the dead man must not have realized that they were on the Amazon River and the water all around is fresh. In part two of this "EC Quickie," Louis and Henri escape from a prison in the Sahara desert and the jeep they are riding in runs out of gas. Henri goes mad, seeing mirages, and wanders off while Louis, again determined not to make the same mistakes, sits back against the jeep and shoots himself in the head. The bullet pierces the radiator and drips water on the face of Louis's corpse. One of the better installments of the "EC Quickie" series, helped along by George Evans's ghoulish art (the emaciated partners look like corpses long before they're dead) and a couple of genuinely good twists.

"Ben's Being Useful"
Lyrics by Helen Nesbitt
("Hail and Heart-y!")
Ben Storch is a lazy, good-for-nothing so-and-so who won't lift a finger to do chores or yard work, leaving the entirety of the maintenance to his overworked wife, Anna. Sure, Mr. Danbury will help Anna now and then (bless his soul!) but usually, after putting in a long day at the office, it's a long night's work around the house. Ben uses his weak heart as a crutch but, as his wife reminds him, changing a light bulb isn't that stressful! After a particularly grueling morning of shoveling snow, Anna heads off to work but is forced to stop at Doc Brewster's when she gets a sharp pain in her chest. The Doc reminds Anna that she isn't getting any younger and should try to rest a bit more but the exhausted woman reminds Brewster that Ben's heart forces her to do all the chores. The Doc chuckles and tells her that Ben has just been examined recently and all that ailed the lazy slob was indigestion--Ben's heart is "as strong as a man's half his age . . ." When Anna gets home, she beckons Ben to the cellar, where she chops him up with an axe. Later that day, Mr. Danbury sees Anna spreading ashes on the icy sidewalk and (choke!) finds a gold tooth on the path! I've said it before and I'll doubtless say it again (well, yes, I hear you comment with a heavy sigh, you're about to say it right now): it's hard to invest in some of these little seven-page morality fables when the sides are not evenly drawn.

Peter, contemplating the reading
of another Grim Fairy Tale.
("Water, Water, Everywhere...")
Anna's ascending list of neglected chores that opens the story (I asked him to clean the screens . . . It isn't hard to rake the leaves . . . I told him the door hinges needed oiling . . . Couldn't he change the bulb?) and Ben's behind-the-back grins and mugging at Anna's toiling make for a character devoid of any sympathy and, frankly, believability. The mental breakdown and violent transformation of Anna are a given from page one; the only question being how the act would manifest itself in the final panels. Poor Ghastly seemed to be handed quite a few of these predictable plays around this time and did the best he could with them. But the finale, of a nutty Anna strewing Ben's ashes here and there, does not make for one of Ghastly's grimmest realizations. --Peter

Jack: Overall, this is a strong issue of Crime SuspenStories. I thought the Craig story was superb, a great story of revenge without an annoying final twist. The Bradbury adaptation was my favorite so far and is a perfect vehicle for Kamen's art. The two Quickies are better than average, as well, with strong Evans art and--at least in the first part--an unexpected conclusion. I guess that in the 1950s, jeep radiators ran on potable water. The Ingels story is, as so many of his stories are, kind of blah until the great finish; one of the more surprising things I've discovered as we read our way through every EC comic is that Ingels is not as reliably good as I remembered.

Jose: I prayed that all the homosexual subtext I felt like I was picking up in “While the Cat’s Away…” was only in my mind. So the back doors to Jay’s and Dick’s houses face each other and are frequently brought up in conversation… So what? Not to mention Jay waking up in the middle of the night and going to Dick’s bedroom with the idea that his best pal will be in the middle of getting dressed for work. “What of it?” I ask you. And then there’s of course the title, which some liberal deviant could easily posit has more to do with Jay’s hopes of leaving his wailing minx of a wife than Emma’s own desires to have a little alone time with her hubby’s BFF. In a measure of ultimate bad taste, this same deviant would probably propose that a better title for this piece would be “Everybody Loves Dick!” Thankfully, we here at bare*bones don’t take to this kind of low humor or the presence of abnormal sexuality in our funny books, so it’s nice to have Peter’s reassurance that this is nothing but wholesome, safe American entertainment.

Speaking of wholesome, there’s Jack Kamen! Were it not for the seeds of discontent that Bradbury sows in the soil of "The Screaming Woman", this could pass as just another one of ol’ Jack’s “widdle kid” tales. Dig  that telling final line Margaret delivers about her Pops. “The last I saw of him.” Is that meant to imply that Dad hooked back up with Helen after rescuing her from a premature grave? Now that’s the story I wanna read! The EC Quickies manage to pack a brutal little punch this time out, their effect more pronounced and grim given that both short-shorts end with our two would-be “heroes” succumbing to madness and suicide respectively. Evans’ haunted-eyed cast allows us to feel the pain of the moment. “Hail and Heart-y” was one of the first ECs I ever read, tracked down to a far corner of the Internet in my desperate search for that GhouLunatic ghoulash. But whereas “Horror We…” and “Lower Berth” only proved their timelessness upon rereads in previous posts, “Hail…” showed signs of age and distress as clearly as Anna’s clapboard house. This feels like a rush job in spite of a number of nice turns of phrase that Feldstein sprinkles throughout, Ingels’ illustrations in particular reflecting the boredom the artist must have felt at receiving the assignment. You can’t go from gummy bayou cadavers to domestic power plays without feeling a little bit bummed about it!


Craig
The Vault of Horror #29

"The Mausoleum!" ★★★ 1/2
Story and Art by Johnny Craig

"Let's Play Poison!" ★★★
Story by Ray Bradbury
Adaptation by Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Davis

"A Sock for Christmas" ★★★ 1/2
Story by Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines
Art by Jack Kamen

"Pickled Pints!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Graham Ingels

Evinced by his doddering old uncle’s steadfast refusal to accept the offer of a wealthy American eccentric to buy up the familial English castle and transfer it to the States for a hefty price, ne’er-do-well nephew Nathan promptly shows his disapproval by giving the old boy the ax—right down the middle of his skull. Nathan passes off Uncle’s death as a disappearance and then passes off the house keys to the American, Howard Martin, but the murderer insists that the family mausoleum be left intact on the moor grounds. (After all, that’s where Uncle’s hanging out now.) But what neither man counted on were the host of crumbly ghouls who live in the mausoleum to tear the structure asunder and conveniently rebuild it in the garden of Martin’s estate. Martin is thrilled to see that his place is genuinely haunted, but Nathan is less than thrilled when he travels to America to give Martin a piece of his mind but ends up losing all peace of mind when the ghouls snatch him up and nail him into a coffin to be interred alongside Uncle’s ferreted corpse. In the nights to come, Martin delights in unsettling his dinner guests with the ghastly, ghostly wails that emanate from his garden mausoleum.


Though much more gruesome in appearance than the typical Craig fare that would regulate the oozy monsters to a few brief glimpses, “The Mausoleum” is shot through with enough droll wit and winking humor to leaven the nasty sight of the zombie construction workers with a light air. The two elements are really at perfect balance in this tale, similar to how Craig experimented with horror and humor in earlier tales such as “Horror House” (VOH 15). Glancing back at that tale and studying the layout of “The Mausoleum” is just as good a testimony as any of how far Craig had advanced as an artist in those few short years. Along with the specific shots that Jack mentions below, the opening splash of the prototypically Gothic mise en scène displays a wonderful use of scale and architectural detail that captures your attention just as brilliantly as any putrid cadaver.

Kids Do the Darnedest Things!
("Let's Play Poison!")
Mr. Howard hates kids. In a sense, one can hardly blame him. After all, he did witness a group of his students surround young Michael, shouting that they hated him just before pushing the boy from a third-story window. Still, Mr. Howard takes his theories further than even the most rotten ol’ bastard: he remains convinced that children are an entirely demonic breed unto themselves, separate from the adult human race and forever preoccupied with the strange occult ritual known as “playtime.” He finds out one of these morbid games goes by the name of “Poison” and entails the little brats skipping over “gravestones” in the sidewalk marked with names of the dead, really just the inscription of the company that laid the concrete. But Mr. Howard finds out that there just might be something to the game after all when a group of pranksters rouse him from his home and lead him to fall ass over teakettle into an open pit, bashing his head on an exposed pipe and effectively burying him into a sidewalk grave that will respectfully henceforth read “M. Howard R. I. P.”

I enjoyed this Bradbury adaptation more than I thought I would (“There Was an Old Woman” had left me a little leery), and Jack Davis shows that he was just as crafty wielding a pen to depict the macabre merry-go-round lives of children and the miserable teachers who loathe them in this quietly insidious yarn that is oh-so-softly infused with some autumnal tidings.

Kamen gets the lead out!
("A Sock for Christmas!")
Melvin, the baker’s child, seems to get the break of a lifetime when the great King Irving comes down from his mighty castle yon high to enlist the child in becoming his son, Prince Tarby’s, new royal companion. But Melvin, already saddened at being wrested from the home of his peasant family, quickly finds out that the only break he’ll be getting is the crack of a hand against his hindquarters as Prince Tarby’s new royal whipping-boy! Tarby, you see, is a little jackass of all trades whose brilliant father has devised a means of handing out rightful punishments for his son’s crimes without actually having his son suffer the consequences: get some other poor little bastard to take the beatings instead! Heartbroken after hearing from Tarby that as a “naughty boy” he’ll be receiving no presents for Christmas, Melvin is reassured by his father upon his return home that the King will help to fill his fireside stocking. And that Santa makes sure of… even if it means taking the King and stuffing him into the stocking one bloody chunk at a time!

Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals! Yet another entry from the Grim Fairy Tale line, “A Sock for Christmas” scores big by not only going for the laughs but for being built around a fairly original and intelligent premise: what happens to the boy who takes all the real jerk’s punishments when the holidays come around to reward only the good children? We could probably poke fun at Jack Kamen’s stencils for the whole marathon (and let’s face it, we probably will), but stories like “A Sock for Christmas” clearly illustrate (har-har!) what a consummate professional and draughtsman he could be at times. I found myself staring at the finely-wrought details of certain panels a number of times with this one. And talk about surprises: how ‘bout that ending folks? Yee-haw! I’m sure most children probably wouldn’t be comforted by the fact that Ol’ St. Nick would happily smite their enemies like an avenging guardian angel in fur, but this 26-year-old degenerate couldn’t think of a more heart-warming end to this Yuletide tale. God bless us, everyone!

Warren and Cal are operating a pretty sweet racket: by offering bums and hobos a cool ten dollars to donate blood to their derelict loft clinic, the two shysters then turn around and sell each pint to a legitimate blood bank for thirty bucks a pop. It’s a set-up that can’t lose, except when the bowery bums start repeatedly returning to Warren and Cal’s place to give blood so that they can buy their next bottle of rotgut. The literal final nail in the coffin comes when one of the bums kicks the bucket, effectively scaring off any willing donors from the premises. So Warren and Cal take up their cudgels and take to the streets to rustle up some blood, but the con men get the scare of their lives when they nab a napping derelict from the loft basement only to discover that the box the gentleman was snoozing in was actually a coffin and that come sunset the drifter has plans to make a considerable withdrawal from Warren and Cal’s personal blood banks.

Yow!
("Pickled Pints!")
“Pickled Pints” is solid B-grade entertainment, but it goes down smoothly. I recall being fairly surprised by the twist ending to this one when I first read it; though in retrospect it makes perfect sense, Feldstein doesn’t overburden the metaphor ahead of time like he has before so that we see the payoff coming a mile away. Here the introduction of the supernatural comes as a sudden shock. Nothing in the trajectory of the story prior to the vampire’s arrival points to the possibility of that happening, yet in the end it feels entirely appropriate. This isn’t Ingels’ most standout work, but the story is worth it alone for those super glamour shots of the Old Witch throughout (dig that poached egg eyeball at the top of Page 6!) and the gnarly Nosferatu that rips across the final page. --Jose

Yow! Pt. 2
("Pickled Pints!")
Peter: The word that best sums up the contents of Vault of Horror #29 is "average." Not bad, not especially good, just average. Johnny Craig's visuals for "The Mausoleum!" are among the best we've seen but the script could have used a little work. "Poison" is not one of Ray's best short stories but Al does what he can and Jack does a better job than Kamen at creating a Bradbury child's POV. The Grim Fairy Tale (a subspecies that is, seriously, wearing out its welcome) has a great twist and (-choke-) actual blood in a Kamen story but "Pickled Pints!" is strictly low-grade Ghastly.

Jack: "The Mausoleum!" is four stars all the way. Craig can do so much with a wordless panel at the right moment, and that moment comes with the axe attack in this story. Mr. Martin is a man after our own hearts, grinning as he watches corpses assemble the mausoleum by moonlight. Like the rest of the Bradbury adaptations, "Poison" features higher quality writing than we're used to and it's interesting that we're seeing so many adaptations of Ray's horror tales when he was best known for science fiction, at least at this point in his career. The Christmas story is terrible and having St. Nick kill and dismember the king shows misguided revenge, if you ask me--the little brat was the one who deserved it! The best thing I can say about the Ingels story is that he really excels in drawing the Old Witch and sometimes seems more inspired to draw her panels of narration than he does to depict the characters in the main story.


Feldstein
Shock SuspenStories #7

"Beauty and the Beach!" ★★★
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Jack Kamen

"The Bribe!" ★★★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Wally Wood

"Infiltration!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Art by Joe Orlando

"The Small Assassin!" ★★ 1/2
Story by Ray Bradbury
Adaptation by Al Feldstein
Art by George Evans

Two couples sit on the beach in the hot summer sun: John and Mary Milton and Percy and Ginger Fullman. The women love to display their beautiful bodies in bikinis and soak up the sun; the men aren't so keen on the subject. Mary is approached to enter a beauty pageant and Ginger is invited to be spokesmodel for a tanning oil; both women jump at the chance, despite the protestations of their men. When the gals get too wrapped up in their work, the men are forced to act: John encases Mary forever in plastic so she can show off her body for all time, while Percy subjects Ginger to a bank of heat lamps and burns her to a crisp.

Peter does not approve.
("Beauty and the Beach!")

Bill Gaines must have decided he'd forced Jack Kamen to draw enough bratty kids and Grim Fairy Tales, so it was time to let the man run wild with his greatest talent--drawing beautiful gals posing with very few clothes on. "Beauty and the Beach!" is the Cheesecake Factory, circa 1953! The plot is entertaining, too, if one even notices that there is one.

Peter finds this scandalous.
("The Bribe!")
Fire Inspector Frank Wilson is appalled by the crowded Blue Swan Club, which lacks sufficient exits for safety, and tells the owner that he'll report the situation. His daughter, Jeannie, meanwhile, is in love and wants to get married, so Frank agrees to take $1200 from the club's owner to look the other way. After "The Bribe!" has been paid, there is a fire and many patrons of the club are killed. A photograph shows Frank that Jeannie and her beau were there that night and, in despair over causing his beloved daughter's death, he kills himself. He never hears the phone ringing and thus fails to learn that Jeannie and her fiancee left the club and eloped before the blaze began.

A bracing story of corruption and misunderstanding, "The Bribe!" is elevated by tremendous art by Wally Wood, who can draw serious men thinking serious thoughts in one panel and then a gorgeous babe like Jeannie in another. It's a shame he came to the same end as Frank.

"Unacceptable," says Peter.
("Infiltration")
Miss Curtiss is hired by Col. Shaw to work at a Pentagon bureau responsible for ferreting out Martian invaders. He tells her that there has been an "Infiltration!" and that she must watch what she says and be on guard. She meets Phil Brady, another employee, who says he knows there is an alien among them. She accepts his offer of a date and tells Shaw, who informs her that Phil is the alien! That night, she takes Phil back to her place but he is shocked to discover that both she and Shaw are Martians. In fact, everyone in the bureau except for Phil is a Martian, and he must be eliminated so he does not stand in the way of the invasion.

I had a sneaky suspicion Miss Curtiss was a Martian but I did not suspect Col. Shaw, so they got me. Like Peter and Jose, I am enjoying Joe Orlando's growing place as a regular artist in the EC stable.

Since before her baby was born, Alice thought the little guy was trying to kill her. Dr. Jeffers explains to her husband David that she's just emotionally upset, but while David is away on a business trip Alice contracts pneumonia. He comes home and slips on one of the baby's toys, nearly falling down the stairs. Alice has the same accident and he finds her dead. The baby soon does away with Daddy as well by leaving on the gas at the stove. Dr. Jeffers finds David's body and, convinced that the infant is "The Small Assassin!," advances on the child with a scalpel.

"Sexist and exploitative," warns Peter.
("The Small Assassin!")
There is just too much text in this story for me to fully enjoy it as a comic book entry. George Evans's art is photo-realistic but the pictures are crowded out by words and the action is quite static for such a tense narrative.-Jack

Peter: The more work I see by George Evans on this journey, the higher his name climbs on my list of favorite EC artists. "The Small Assassin!" benefits not only from an eerie, noir-ish visual style but also from the source material, a tale with a very bold climax for its time (it would be bold for our times as well). Bradbury builds his fable around the common fears a woman has post-childbirth and magnifies those fears a thousand-fold. We all think our kids are trying to kill us at one time or another. The other standout this issue, "The Bribe!," fools us into thinking we've guessed what the twist will be but then Bill and Al smile and say, "Oh, we're not done yet, kiddies!" The Wally Wood/Shock story is fast becoming the "Sure Thing" of the month. "Infiltration" sees no such double-trickery in its climax; it's utterly predictable and that reveal has already been used by Al in the past. "Beauty and the Beach!" could very well be the nastiest and most vile story we've seen yet (well, okay, second place behind "Cutting Cards"), a tale that exists only to display torture (and to two women who didn't even commit adultery) and misogyny. A forerunner of today's so-called "torture porn" films like Hostel and Saw.

Jose: Damn, that climax to “Beauty and the Beach” is rough, isn’t it? With its buxom babes drawing lascivious glances and the over-the-top savagery of its final kills, one could easily be fooled into thinking they’ve stumbled across a lost Herschell Gordon Lewis film. That being said, I did enjoy Feldstein’s ping-pong narrative that has events and dialogue occurring with one couple resurfacing with the other, a mirroring method that shows that there’s always somebody else out there who has the same problems as you do, even if they may prefer vats of bubbling plastic to human toast. “The Bribe” has all the best qualities of a top tier “Shock SuspenStory”: stark, uncompromising, and haunting. Frank could’ve easily been broadly drawn as a bull-headed nasty or an upstanding Samaritan, but instead Feldstein presents him as a believably conflicted man with varying shades of light and darkness within him, thus making his conflict and grief over the outcome of his crime all the more palpable. You get the impression that he’s a good guy and a loving father who just made one bad mistake, so his suicide comes across as legitimately tragic, and then Gaines and Feldstein grind their heels into our hearts a little deeper by revealing that not only were Jeannie and her betrothed not at the immolated club but that they left to elope, thus rendering the bribe Frank took completely meaningless. “Infiltration” pierces these dark clouds with an OK scifi yawn (sorry, yarn) that would’ve been dead in the water had anybody but Joe Orlando drawn it. I’m not sure exactly where I stand with “The Small Assassin.” (Hopefully not anywhere near that staircase!) Chilling, creepy story and tense, uncomfortably realistic artwork by Evans, and yet… Like Jack said, it might be that this one just suffered in translation. I can understand the urge to leave in as much of Bradbury’s text as possible, but here it makes the journey from one panel to the next feel more arduous than it should.


In Our 105th Issue of
Star Spangled DC War Stories...
Oh Goody! More Canine War Heroes!