Saturday, July 6, 2019

Dungeons of Doom Special #2

Baffling Mysteries!
Part Two
by Peter Enfantino

The sun is high when the villagers begin their siege of Hillory Hill! They scream and yell, and their torches pimple the hill with a rash of flaming boils!
- "The Horror of Hillory Hill!"

Sir John Trevelyan rules over his kingdom with an iron fist, stealing the food and valuables from the people of his land and stringing up any peasants who might disagree with his philosophies. But Sir John is a tormented man, for his love, Evelyn, committed suicide years before and he is forever haunted by her visage... and the soothing voice of her cockatoo, a beast Sir John strangled with his bare hands! One night, Sir John wanders into a gypsy camp and Tanira, the camp's leader tells the nobleman that she can bring Evelyn back from the grave. Even while mocking the old woman, Sir John is stunned to see Tanira transform into his beloved Evelyn. The girl beckons her husband to follow and she shows him a carnival of his sins. A ghoulish proprietor sells rotted wood, perfect for Sir John's mines; a witch hocks tools of torture such as the Iron Maiden and thumbscrews; and a freak show features all the children starved during Sir John's reign. Sir John flees back to his castle but Evelyn's cockatoo is waiting and the bird sets off a huge fire, roasting the evil royal and ending oppression in the land.

Issue 16
Unlike most of the BM entries in this list, "Bazaar of the Cursed Goblins" (from #15) features little if any humor, intentional or otherwise. Sir John's "showcase of sins" is a pretty nasty affair and the anonymous author seems to have had a genuinely good idea rather than a deadline to meet. Sure, the undead cockatoo goes nowhere (other than to become the tool of Sir John's death) but the creature is handled so well, we suppress the urge to laugh. The art, by Lin Streeter (who provided visuals for the classic "When Black Wings Flap!" back in #9), comes across as low-rent Joe Maneely but it's a cut above most of the generic pap that made up the contents of BM. Streeter's final panel, of the cackling goblins rising from the ruins of Sir John's mansion, is like something out of Disney's Haunted Mansion.

“She’s what they call a pythoness, and that's worse than a zombie!”
- "Snakes Alive!"

George and Harold, buddies and workmates at the Midwestern Laboratory, both crave the love of gorgeous Marian, but an accident in their nuclear fission lab leaves Harold disfigured and basically out of the Marian race. George, naively, only wants to make his friend feel better so he suggests that the three of them go on a trip to India. Once there, Harold weaves a web of vengeance around the friend he believes scarred him for life in order to get his paws on Marian.  His plans take a trip down Weird Avenue when he buys a mystical rug from an old crone who tells Harold that the carpet will suck the body of anyone Harold wishes into its fabric. But, the old witch warns, Harold can never look into the rug or he will be trapped in the design as well.

The rug works and poor George is whisked away into some Carpet World he cannot escape from. For some wild reason, Marian doesn’t even question George’s disappearance and, very soon, marries Harold and settles down into wedded bliss. Harold keeps the cursed rug safely locked in a back room and warns Marian never to enter but, girls being girls, his new bride can’t help herself and opens the room the first chance she gets. George’s spirit prevents Marian from looking into the rug but the moment Harold comes home and discovers the open door he walks into the room and can’t… avoid… looking!

“Strands of the Faceless Horror” (from #16) is another well-plotted story, anchored around the stunning graphics of Lou Cameron, who really knew his way around a good horror story (and a well-drawn dame). George’s descent into the rug is hellish, leaving him a flaming pile of bones and ashes. And for what? Being a good friend to Harold! We can’t help but feel sorry for George and hatred for Harold. When a funny book reader is drawn into a story this effectively, the writer has done his job well. It’s a shame we don’t have a record of who wrote what for the majority of these pre-code horrors. Of course, there are always pieces here and there that raise a smile on my face. Here, it’s the fact that these two dopes work in a nuclear fission lab. It’s a wonder this story didn’t morph into an apocalyptic tale.

“Well, lightning may not strike in the same place twice, but I guess pythons do!”
-"Snakes Alive!

Issue 19
Best-selling horror author Carl Bascom, "The Monster Maker" (from #19), is miffed at his publisher for claiming Bascom’s best days are behind him. Intent on writing the greatest and scariest story of all time, Carl spends all night at his typewriter but can’t get it right. In frustration, he decides to burn the manuscript but, out of nowhere, a strange robed man appears and claims he’s one of the many monsters Carl has literally given life to and if Carl burns his manuscript, his creations will go up in smoke. The man gestures behind him and, out of the shadows emerges a host of horrors. Carl scoffs at the notion that a manuscript page can destroy flesh and blood so he drops a single page into the fireplace and watches in awe as one of the ghoulies ignites and burns to ash. In an uproar, the remaining creatures grab Bascom and spirit him away to “the world beyond” (where all fictional monsters live) to stand trial for murder. On his way to his cell, Carl Bascom is introduced to the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll, and a veritable who’s-who of horror history.

Bascom is placed in a cell with a gorgeous redhead named Gloria Stone, who explains she’s a horror writer waiting for her turn in court for a similar crime. Carl has a brainstorm and writes another horror story. When his newly-written creatures materialize, he commands them to talk the “monster master” into releasing him and Gloria or they will be reduced to ashes pronto. The trick works and the couple are transported back to our world, where Carl quickly burns al his manuscript pages, thus ending any threat from the “world beyond.” Most people would be happy ending ti right there but Carl decides to play with fire (literally), and writes a whole new novel set in the “world beyond,” burning each manuscript page as it’s written and saving the carbons. Gloria stops by to show Carl her new novel, set in the same otherworld dimension he set his book in. Laughing and claiming his novel will be the only one released, he throws the manuscript into the fire and then writhes in pain as his body catches firew. Gloria explains to his pile of ashes that she had made him hero of the story.

I like the twist at the end of the story but Carl’s persona changes drastically (and not very realistically) over the course of the seven pages (which, by the way, feels padded), morphing from a likable guy who only wants to scare his readers into a masochistic scamp who takes pleasure in watching his creations die. I think the writer knew that if he was going to kill off Carl at story’s end, he had to make him a villain, but I think it would have been much more effective had the writer died a genuinely good guy. Jim McLaughlin’s art is nothing spectacular but it gets the job done.

Helene: "Get your own supper -- I'm going out!"
Jeff: "All right, dear... Go to a movie, or a fortune teller -- anything to make you feel a little better!"
- "Duel of the Spectres"

Hans Baseman is the master doll maker of a small European village, toiling away in his shop, crafting unique and life-like dolls for the people of Donnerwald. Only one thing means more to Hans than his lovely dolls and that is the equally lovely Gretchen. Alas, Gretchen’s father does not think Hans will make a good husband and he forbids the ceremony take place. Remembering one of his father’s old black magic spells, Hans gives his life to his dolls and then sends them on a mission of murder… to clear the way for his future wedding. While strolling out the door on their way to off the old man, one of the dolls reminds Hans that the moon is full. Hans shakes his head in wonder, spits out “Yeah, whatever, now do your job,” and goes back inside. The dolls do their evil business and Gretchen’s father is reduced to pulp.

Gretchen enters a period of mourning and Hans takes a step back, waiting for his love to regain her happiness. The next month, during the full moon, Hans watches as his dolls rise and head for the door. When he asks just what they think they’re doing, the dolls explain that since Hans had them commit murder during a full moon, they will rise every month when the moon is full and spill blood. Sure enough, one of the good people of Donnerwald is found in pieces the following morning and Hans feels the guilt at last. Seeing her man wasting away, Gretchen prods Hans to marry and the proposal lifts his spirits; he vows to destroy all the dolls and end the nightmare. The girl watches in horror as the dollmaker takes a hatchet to all his creations. Well, not all the dolls are slaughtered, since Gretchen rescued her favorite, a gorgeous “little-girl doll,” adorned in a striped dress. That doll climbs from its trunk one night, soon after Hand and Gretchen are married, murders Gretchen in her sleep, and lures Hans out to a cliff. The distraught dealmaker falls to his death while the devilish doll flies off to wreak havoc in other lands.

A genuinely creepy little yarn, “They Strangle By Night” (from #19) has the same kind of vibe as a vintage foreign horror film (say, for example, Mill of the Stone Women); it’s dark and the lives of its characters are disposable. Sure, Hans is a bad guy for ordering the execution of the man who would have been his father-in-law, but Gretchen is an innocent bystander whose act of love (saving her favorite doll) dooms the couple. Louis Zansky’s art is minimalist in spots but extremely effective in others; the sequence where the “little-girl doll” rises (like a vampire) from her crate is one of the most chilling we’ll find in pre-code horror. Zansky even finds spaces for black humor, such as positioning a caption on the backside of Gretchen's pop's tombstone. Yes, devil doll potboilers were a dime a dozen in the 1950s, but "They Strangle By Night" is far from wooden (ouch!).

A volley of flaming fagots explode from the vengeful mob and  slam against the rotting slats of Hillory House!
- "The Horror of Hillory House!"

Issue 20
Victor Rarlo is a sadistic billionaire who has grown tired of being rich and turns his attentions to puzzles to keep himself from boredom. To that end, Rarlo has had a huge maze constructed on his property and he invites the businessmen that owe him money to conquer the maze and see all debts absolved. None can crack the mystery and some come close to losing their lives. After a particularly harrowing maze session leaves one man near death, Rarlo grabs his dough and runs to India before the authorities can nab him. Not having learned his lesson, the tycoon actually kicks his cruelty into a higher gear. He offers gold to those who can offer him interesting puzzles and death to those who fail.

One day, a veiled stranger promises Rarlo the greatest mazes the man has ever seen. First up, the stranger sends him into the mind of an amnesiac and Victor makes it out with some difficulty. Excited, Rarlo orders the man to find a greater challenge and Victor is sent into an insanity-riddled brain; he barely makes it out but has a renewed sense of excitement. Rarlo promises to make the man rich beyond his imagining if he can serve up the greatest challenge ever. The mystic agrees and Rarlo is sent deep into a crazed world of monsters and demons. There is no way out this time. The veiled servant explains to Rarlo’s henchmen that he sent Rarlo into his own mind.

"Brown Sugar" indeed
“The Maze Monster” (from issue #20) is probably the most-celebrated of all Baffling Mysteries stories, perhaps because of its deep message and almost LSD-inspired graphics (Wolverton-inspired might be a better description) and there’s no denying it’s a very maturely written script (perhaps by artist Lou Cameron) but then so were many of the stories written this deep into Baffling’s run. Sure, there were the speed bumps like “Crimson Wraith From the North” (in #18) but, overall, there’s a sense, to me at least, that the Ace writers were trying to reach an older audience. After all, how many pre-teen readers appreciated the unconventional elements found in the panels portraying the various mazes Rarlo found himself in (particularly the scene where Victor is running past what appears to be the skeletal carcass of a woman with leaves for a crown)? When it came time for a selection of pre-code horror stories, Greg Sadowski picked "The Maze Monster" to represent Baffling in Four Color Fear (I've said it several times before and I'll probably say it again... if you don't have this book, you're reading the wrong blog) and, while it's hard for me to argue with a decorated historian such as Sadowski, there are better stories that warranted inclusion.

More Notable Quotables:
Grabbing a flaming torch that had been kept in constant readiness, Greg raced up the stairs… his nerves tensed by the screams of terror that burst against his ears… 
-“Crimson Wraith from the North”
Jeweler: It's worth in the neighborhood of 500,000 pounds!
Hood: Five-Hundred Thousand pounds! We'll be millionaires!
- "The Amulet of Terror"

Coming Soon...
The Strange Terrors and Weird Horrors
of St. John!

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