Saturday, June 29, 2019

Dungeons of Doom Special #1

Baffling Mysteries!
Part One
by Peter Enfantino

The premiere issue
Readers might remember the blog Jose Cruz and I did a few years ago dedicated to pre-code horror publishers (we got as far as Ajax/Farrell and Harvey before life got in the way), an absolutely delightful experience I just couldn't get out of my system. Ergo my bi-weekly Atlas column. And yet... I have the itch to explore other worlds at the same time. So... every few months I'll drop Dungeon of Doom "Specials" spotlighting a horror title from the 1950s. Since it's just me covering this vast territory, I'll be forced to condense the content a bit and simply discuss my picks for the best (or most interesting) stories to appear in each title (sorry, no "worst turkey of the month").  First up...

Some might say a title that begins with a story about a secret race of goat-men (who demand the sacrifice of tourists or they'll erupt the local volcano) has nowhere to go but down from there. With hackneyed and confused plots, fair-to-middling art, and dialogue-heavy panels, some might just be right.

Baffling Mysteries was the fourth (of five) Ace horror titles to be dumped into the glutted 1950s comic newsstand and continued the Ace formula of tame pablum introduced in their first three titles, Challenge of the Unknown, Web of Mystery, and The Beyond (the fifth title would be Hand of Fate). Those looking for the gory thrills found in the pages of an EC or Harvey comic would probably find yawns rather than chills but those looking for some supernatural adventures with a high level of goofiness may just find your boat floating.

Writers had no problem coming up with titles that would perfectly summarize the plot: "Night of Strangeness," "Jungle Idol's Vengeful Rage," "Macabre Ritual in Witches' Glen," and my favorite, "Bazaar of the Cursed Goblins!" Baffling would last 22 issues (containing 73 stories, all 7 pages long), beginning with issue #5. When the heat came down and (like the rest of the publishers outside EC) Ace had to curtail all the horrific elements, censored reprints became more and more prevalent (the final two issues are all-reprint). As with most of these 1950s titles, Baffling continued the numbering from a title that had nothing to do with horror, in this case Indian Braves! What else could be more Baffling?


"Aiii! I was mad to challenge this fiend who bathes in living flames!
-"Game with Lucifer"

Issue 7
When the old graveyard is to be moved to make way for a "super highway," Count Ricco pays the workers to move the rotting corpse of his long-dead niece, Elena, to the family crypt. Ricco explains to the men that, under no circumstances should the metal spike piercing the coffin be removed. But guys will be guys and the spike is accidentally pulled out of the casket and vampire Elena rises from her nap. After attacking and feasting on one of the workers, Elena flies to the estate of Count Ricco to pay her respects to the old man, only to discover that there is a grand costume ball underway. With her ugly face and clothes that "smell of the grave," Elena finds it relatively easy to come in first place for "Best Costume." But when one of the guests insists that the girl be unmasked, Elena throws a fit, strangles the man, and flies away.

It's at this time that Count Ricco's granddaughter asks for a little background on their odd relative. Ricco explains that Elena was an "ugly child, possessed  of a ferocious temper." Her demeanor only worsened as she aged and was the butt of village jokes and gossip. After being shunned by Guido, a young man she fancied, Elena threw herself from a balcony onto the rocks below, suffering massive damage to her brain. Doctors attempted to help her but, after her brain operation, Elena became "hopelessly mad," and authorities had no choice but to lock the girl in a padded cell. After her death, the doctors naturally drove a steel spike into her heart to "keep her fastened in her grave," and buried her in a pauper's cemetery. The Count finishes his dramatic flashback by insisting that his niece must be found and returned to her resting place. At that very moment, Elena is paying a visit on Guido, now a middle-aged blading astrophysicist and, after a brief catch-up, she drains him of his blood. Ricco tracks Elena to the family vault and stakes her with the metal spike that kept her out of commission for so long. Count Ricco, obviously free of guilt, orders the mausoleum sealed in cement and hopes the vampire can rest in peace.

Like the best 1950s pre-code horror stories, "Back From an Unhallowed Grave" (from #7) is a mishmash of ideas and execution. Since the events are set in the fictional "province of Bolinia," one wonders why anyone would think to run a "super highway" through the village. The period setting is equally muddled: there's the aforementioned freeway, which would tend to put it in modern times, but Count Ricco wears a cape as though he's stuck in the 19th Century. Elena is that rare villain in the pre-codes: a pure monster but, at the same time, a sympathetic character, whose only crime was to be born unattractive. Nasty comments and countless slights have hardened the girl but there's really no explanation for her transformation into vampire. Equally befuddling is the doctor's insistence that the girl be staked and buried in a pauper's grave despite the fact that no evidence of tomfoolery had thus far been unearthed. The whole tale is a head-scratcher but immensely enjoyable. GCD throws a question mark at a Mike Sekowsky art credit on this one.


"Die, you terrified jellyfish!"
- "Back From an Unhallowed Grave"


"Very many years ago, my first husband was a naturalist-explorer, who delved into the mysteries of the Australian bush-country head-hunters! He learned all their mystic rites and their formulas for shrinking and preserving human skulls! When he died, I experimented and learned I could shrink and preserve his whole corpse -- bring back a spark of life to it! Later, I married a much younger man, who died suddenly by accident! When I preserved and shrunk his corpse, I found that I also inherited his youth!"

"You -- you mean those dwarfed dolls, and the one I killed this afternoon, are really the shrunken, still partly-living bodies of your ex-husbands? All five of them?"

"Yes, Dick! Listen and I will tell you the rest of the story!"
- "The Bride's Borrowed Time"


Issue 9
Lovely Nissa Marlo, owner of the vastly under-appreciated Songland Bird Shop, has been conducting mysterious experiments in her back room (in between sales of parakeets and lovebirds, I guess), cross-breeding various breeds of birds and working "herself almost to the point a nervous breakdown." Fiancé Perry Jackson is not taking Nissa's long hours and negligence (when it comes to their love life) sitting down. Still, Perry shows up, along with Nissa's aide Maggi (who looks, more than anything, like one of the EC hosts), when the proud would-be geneticist unveils her masterpiece, the Vulbat! Half vulture, half bat, all ugly, the creature elicits oaths of heresy from Perry, who demands his beloved put an end to this nightmare pronto. Nissa turns rabid on Perry and he storms out, leaving her alone with the Vulbat. Feeling dizzy, Nissa swoons, falling against the cage and somehow releasing the Vulbat, which immediately attacks the revived and terrified girl. Luckily, Maggi is in the next room and hears the uproar; she comes to Nissa's rescue and beats the monster to a pulp.

Nissa notices some of the creature's blood has soaked into her wounds just before she sprouts fangs and murders Maggi. The killing returns the girl to normal and she decides the only thing to do is to rush over to the office of her old physician, Dr. Jacoby and relate the nightmarish events to the strong, handsome, and brainy doc. Jacoby pooh-poohs Nissa's story, telling her she must be suffering from hallucinations and over-work ("Your pupils are dilated -- your pulse fantastically excited!"), and this throws the girl into a rage, triggering yet another Nissa-to-Vampire transformation. She murders the quack, then regains her sanity and realizes she has to rush back to the pet shop and destroy all evidence that might lead the police to her. Too late! The cops are already there! Nissa feigns surprise, and the police chalk it up to a burglary gone wrong (never mind the three-foot bat lying dead in a heap on the floor). Perry escorts the frazzled young lady back to her place and then leaves for the evening. The full moon triggers a transformation in Nissa (this time she grows wings as well!) and she flies off into the night, looking for prey.

She finds a lone girl walking in the park, drains her dry, and then changes back into Nissa again, just as Perry rushes in, having heard the screams. Perry notices Nissa's unkempt appearance ("What are those fresh bloodstains on your dress?") and decides that taking Nissa to Dr. Jacoby's office is just the right medicine. In a scene vaguely reminiscent of an Abbott and Costello routine, Nissa protests and her anger transforms her back into the vampire queen. Perry is naturally astounded as Nissa takes wing, to find solace in a nearby bell tower. The multitude of bats nesting near the bell don't take kindly to the interloper and they attack, causing Nissa to fall to her death from the tower (oddly, ignoring the fact that she has wings to fly away). Perry mourns over the pecked and battered body of his lovely lass, Nissa, who "paid the full price for her madness."

"Madness" is the perfect word for "When Black Wings Flap..." (from BM #9), a load of hilarious hooey from first panel to last. The writer seems to have adopted the motto of so many great writers of the Golden Age of Comic Books: this is a funny book story... there are no rules. Right from the Vulbat intro, I knew this was something special, but then our uncredited genius scribe jumps track and hops aboard another train, jettisoning his crafty cross-breed ("The wisest bird-creature in existence!" according to its creator) and throwing focus on the lovely Nissa as evil force. The writer has a great time adjusting the triggers for Nissa's transformations, be they anger, nervousness, or the moonlight! Hysterical sub-plot when Dr. Jacoby admits to Nissa that he may have had alternative medicine in mind with her treatment:

"Your nervous exhaustion is my fault! I've been encouraging you to overwork, put you on a weakening diet, so you would become more and more dependent upon me! It was the only way I could get you away from Perry Jackson, darling Nissa!"

 Artist Lin Streeter has a lovely, Bill Everett-esque style to his work, with Nissa looking gorgeous in her Macy's-bought gowns and positively frightening in fangs and wings. Streeter was a mainstay of 1950s horror and romance comics, contributing to ACG's Adventures Into the Unknown and Forbidden Worlds, and Baffling Mysteries' sister zines, The Beyond and Web of Mystery. There's a boatload of quotable dialogue here but I'll leave you with the opening words from poor deluded Nissa, who tried to reach for the stars and, instead, fell from a bell tower instead:

"Perry, I'm sick of your ridicule of my bird-breeding experiments! But you'll cease trying to be funny when you see the result! My creation will win first prize at the Society's contest and bring me national fame and fortune!"


The Macabre population dissolves in the putrid smog and Carl feels himself falling thru a vortex lined with a mosaic of horrendous faces
-“The Monster Maker”

Poor Steve Tinney. Sure, he’s star halfback of Southern University, but every time he brings a girl out to Alfredo Springs for a little “quiet time,” the dame is grabbed by a python and squeezed to death. If it wasn’t for beautiful Claudette LeBrun, who just happens be swimming in the lake at Alfredo Springs and can attest to a giant python on the loose, Steve would be all-star at Sing-Sing! Naturally, after Claudette has pulled his fat from the fire a couple of times, Steve draws attracted to her. Then, Steve’s old pal, Tom Stokley, comes back home from “taking photos” in the Far East with a far-fetched tale to spring on the astonished athlete: Claudette is, in fact, the “Pythoness”named Claudia Brown that Stokley has photographed during exotic black magic rituals. 

Stokley is convinced the girl has followed him home to land a man like Steve. Claudette/Claudia gets wind of Stokley’s arrival and squeezes the life out of him; Poor Steve follows when he refuses to become King of the Pythons. Several of Steve’s friends arrive and witness the girl’s transformation into a really large serpent and they inform the authorities. Claudia is found guilty but sentenced to an insane asylum when she tells her story of “girl into python” on the witness stand (evidently, Steve’s buddies carry no weight with the law). Once inside, Claudia sweet talks her doctor, gives him the squeeze, and takes a powder through the bars of her window (no glass at this asylum!).

“Snakes Alive!” (from BM #15) is gloriously wretched and massively enjoyable at the same time. Our anonymous scripter really went to town on this one; it has as many twists as the proverbial snake in the grass. Star athlete Steve must have taken a few two many hits on the practice field; how else to explain why he takes a second chick to the lake after the first one was murdered by a huge snake? The art, by Charles Nicholas (who drew Fox's Blue Beetle in the early 1940s before freelancing for several of the pre-code horror publishers) is as generic as the rest of Baffling Mysteries' output. It's not very exciting but you can tell what's going on.

Issue 15
The dialogue is a hoot as well:

Claudia (to Dr. Platt): When I was just a little girl, I was frightened by a snake and in my dreams I could see slimy, twisting, squirmy snakes. Night after night, I fought them, until finally I began to dream I was a snake! Until I became a snake and was attracted to the voodoo rites! Now, when the urge to kill seizes me, I kill!
Dr. Platt: Hellppp!


More Notable Quotables:


"Look out! The monster of the mines! Eowww!"
"You dare betray me, zombie slave? Suffer the fate of all those in my power, who try to escape or get help!"
-"Dread City of the Undead"


"It's hard to realize this horrible evil can live for thousands of years and that it should be the destiny of a modern girl to end its horrible power! I shall never again be curious about the unknown! It can be too terrifying!"
-"Sinister Return of the Princess of Baal"


As Marie's bullet grazed Falco's vampire-form, he changed suddenly into a werewolf, a transformation many vampires assume in their excesses of bestial fury!
-"Red Talons of Lupercalia"

No, seriously...
Peter can't wait to bring you Part Two
next week!

1 comment:

Jack Seabrook said...

Great stuff! I'm glad you don't feel compelled to write about the bad stories. That first cover is really impressive.