Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Dungeons of Doom!: The Pre-Code Horror Comics Volume One

Harvey Comics
Part One

By Jose Cruz
and Peter Enfantino

According to John Benson (in Greg Sadowski's Four Color Fear), there were 1,371 pre-code horror comics published under 110 titles between 1947 (Avon's Eerie #1) and 1954 (when the Comics Code axe cut its swath through scary funny-books). I've always been fascinated by old horror comics, even before I knew they were old. I was young enough to think that those stories about gorgons, vampires, and werewolves at the back of Giant-Size Dracula were new tales. That naiveté ended when Marvel began running those little white banners on the splash that proclaimed "Originally Presented in Astonishing #49" and, suddenly, a whole new world was opened up to me. In those days, before the internet, you had two ways of finding information on old comic books: conventions and Overstreet's annual price guide. Well, three if you were lucky enough to have a comic book store in your town. Comic stores were rare in 1974 (and they're becoming rare again) but we had one of the pioneers, Bob Sidebottom's Comic Collector Shop, in downtown San Jose. Bob was a nasty cat sometimes but he had the coolest shop, no order whatsoever, and a mouth-watering selection of monster magazines, posters, and comic books. Now and then, in the stacks of quarter comics, you'd run across a real find. That's how I found Uncanny Tales #12, an honest-to-gosh old comic book on a summer day in 1974. Now, of course, as was his wont, Bob would select which comic books he'd sell you for that advertised quarter and Uncanny #12 evidently fell out of the hallowed realm of two-bits and I had to fork over two quarters before the old codger would slip it into the CCS brown paper bag. I didn't hesitate though since I'd gotten a couple back issues of The Monster Times (you know, the ones that were SOLD OUT in the back pages and commanding outrageous prices on the black market) for the same paltry sum.

I took that Uncanny home and popped it open... only to find that every single story in that issue had been reprinted recently. I'd already read the dang thing! Regardless of that hiccup, I became a pre-code fan as of that day, a preoccupation that has lasted forty years. Pre-codes (especially the ECs) have always been pricey so my purchases had been few and far between, relying mostly on reprintings to feed my appetite. Titles such as George Suarez' Tales Too Terrible to Tell and Craig Yoe's recent Haunted Horror keep the flame lit and, hopefully, bring in new followers every day. These days, technology has made it a feast for pre-code horror fans. Websites such as The Digital Comic Museum and Comic Book Plus make thousands of public domain comics available for free download and every day we come closer to having every PD horror comic at our fingertips. -Peter Enfantino

For my part, I believe I was first introduced to the world of vintage horror comics, as most folks my age likely were, through the HBO television series Tales from the Crypt. Up until that point I was more than familiar with the genre in its other proliferations: I chilled to the Universal monsters, dug Rod Serling’s excursions into the weird, and had even listened enthralled to a few adventures of that masked adventurer of the radio, the Shadow. But horror in comics was a new—and luridly fascinating—concept to me at the time. I remember staring at the briefly-glimpsed covers from the Cryptkeeper’s cackling introductions to that week’s episode, wondering if these were the same comics that I had heard about, the ones that were so dangerous that they had been wiped out by the government for fear over the souls of their children!

E.C. served as my main draw into that particular medium for some time, and it was only after I read Digby Diehl’s indispensable Tales from the Crypt: The Official Archives that I became aware that there were other horror comics that were published during the 40s and 50s, ones that were more or less in direct competition with Bill Gaines and his merry band of ghouls. Before the days that comic book stories were easily found on the Internet in the form of specialty sites or the bit torrents of the “grey market,” I would obsessively pore over the incredible covers that adorned these terrifying tomes, dreaming up whole tales based on the simplest illustration or most ambiguous title. I was unsure if I would ever get the chance to glimpse the gruesomeness in between their covers during my lifetime.

I received Peter Normanton’s The Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics as a Christmas present during high school and it was here that I first tasted the heady cocktail of the pre-code terror books in their full gory… err, glory. True, these reprints were done sans the colorful palette that in part made them so macabrely delicious, but my exposure to the B&W hardcover editions of the E.C. titles put out by Russ Cochran had given me an appreciation for the work of the artists and the inkers that color might have detracted from. The illustrations in the Mammoth book were smaller than Cochran’s grandiose layouts, but what I saw was enough to feed my itch for more of the delirious horror that I glimpsed in such stories as “Hitler’s Head” (Weird Terror #1) and “Marching Zombies” (Black Cat Mystery #35). These were stories that dripped and slithered and creeped their way into my black, beating heart… and I needed MORE!     -Jose Cruz

All that's missing is the brain matter on the camera lens
(from "Black Knights of Evil," issue #6)
So, what's with this new series? In June 2016, we'll launch our month-by-month critical examination of the entire output of EC's "New Trend" and "New Direction" comics (right after Jack and Peter finish up the DC mystery title line coverage) but that's a long ways off and we've been jonesing to explore the more obscure titles for years. Beginning today, and continuing every other Thursday, we'll take a look at the output of each publisher, ten issues at a time. We'll each pick five stories that jumped out at us, be it from a graphic or script standpoint, and we'll be throwing in a mention for the "Stinking Zombie" of the week as well to break up the monotony. We've used John Benson's list of titles and issues (also published in the aforementioned Four Color Fear) to come up with an initial menu but there may be some distractions and detours along the way. I should also warn that there might be potholes in our road as well since not every pre-code horror issue has been made available as of yet. Hopefully, we can fill in those potholes along the way in an "Errata" section now and then. With nearly 1400 comic books to cover, this project will take quite a while to complete. The biggest bonus though, with most of these stories being in public domain (all but the mighty Atlas, alas), is that we will each pick one story to reprint in full. This way we won’t have to describe the lunacy of a sexually amorous cactus or a corpse who rises from the dead to reclaim his eyeballs. It’ll all be on display!

Our first publisher, Harvey, is a company widely known for its humorous children's titles. Casper, Richie Rich, and Sad Sack, three of the biggest-selling comics from Harvey (you can read more about these and other Harvey titles here), sold in the hundreds of thousand every month and were all characters licensed from other media. The company waded into the burgeoning horror market in January 1951 with Witches Tales #1 and followed soon after with Chamber of Chills #21 (CoC's numbering is complicated due to the fact that the first twenty issues were actually Blondie Comics Monthly, an old trick publishers used for mailing purposes) and Black Cat #30 (the first 29 issues of which featured the adventures of the sexy titular heroine). Tomb of Terror #1 completed the quartet of horror titles in June 1952 (there was to be a fifth title, Inferno of Fear, launched but the CCA killed any hope of that). The vast majority of the 96 issues published contained four short stories and a text page. The final two issues of each title were given over to badly edited (and badly redrawn) reprints to satisfy the CCA. Here, then, is the first part of a look at the 24 original content issues of Chamber of Chills. -PE & JC


The Good...
Peter: Fledgling entrepreneur Michael Stearns can't seem to pass up a bargain so one night at an
auction he plunks down twenty-five bucks for a mysterious red box. Hoping there will be something of value inside, Michael heads home where he breathlessly opens the box and finds inside... "The Shrunken Skull." Disgusted, Stearns wonders what to do with his new prize until the eyes pop open and the head begins to speak. Once a powerful witch goddess in the "teeming jungles," the woman was beheaded by unbelievers and her tiny noggin was discovered by explorers who brought her to America. Now thrusting for vengeance, the head offers untold wealth to her new owner if he'll provide the body of a beautiful woman for her to sit astride. The greedy Stearns quickly agrees and goes shopping, beheading the first buxom babe who crosses his path. The sight of a teensy head sitting atop a gorgeous gal's shoulders notwithstanding, the pairing proves a success and the new partners head off to the jungle to fetch a pound of flesh. Once they get there, the duo discover the village is now nothing but skeletons and the goddess reveals that before she was killed, she cursed the village with The Dance of the Living Dead. The multitude of bones rise and make merry but this all proves too much for Michael Stearns and he cleaves the little head from the big body. The skeletons murder Stearns and his bones soon litter the landscape with the former dancing troop. Along comes an expedition of explorers who find the shrunken skull and cart it back to America, where it is quickly sold to a young entrepreneur.

...and the Bad and the Ugly (redrawn
for Eerie's Weird (June 1970)
A truly sick and twisted story, "The Shrunken Skull" (from CoC #5) is a good example of why Harvey had a reputation for pushing the envelope and why collectors have paid exorbitant prices for back issues for many years. Tempering the really nasty images of headless and bleeding corpses are those of the riotously funny veiled micro-head atop the maxi-body (think a baby's noggin on Betty Grable's torso) strutting through the streets, arm-in-arm with Stearns. Besides the gruesomeness, the other "quality" that jumps out at one is the ability of the writer and artist to throw as much as they can at the wall in a panel and make it stick (or at least try to make it stick). Goddesses who can turn children into crows, talking shrunken heads, and dancing skeletons all anchored by the wild imagination of artist Bob Powell, a pre-code powerhouse who contributed to fifteen of the ninety-six stories captured within the insane asylum of the Chamber of Chills (and may have written several of them as well). "The Shrunken Skull" was reprinted no less than five times by Eerie Publications in the 1970s (and once by Harvey in the all-reprint 25th issue of CoC), where it was retitled "The Shrunken Monster" and completely re-drawn by Larry Woromay. The re-do renders it almost a completely different story, absent of the goofiness that was the original's charm.

(This one was a real nasty one, though it's comparitively bloodless to other tales. It just has a skeevy atmosphere that makes you want to take a shower afterward. - Jose)

Jose: Hell hath no fury like a bookworm scorned! Abigail is a “downtrodden” librarian by day, but after discovering the “Book of Vengeance” in a secret dungeon at her workplace she’s transformed into a warty old witch by the powers of darkness. And what’s a girl to do with a moldy volume of horrible spells… other than exacting bloody vengeance on her enemies, of course! The first order of business is commanding an army of rats (which look mysteriously like bunny hybrids) to consume stuffy head librarian Miss Simmons while she sleeps. For the handsome rotter who jilted her out of an engagement? Nothing but the finest robe to cook him alive where he stands. It’s not just enough to punish him either; Abigail, in her more human form, sneaks a can of hexed facial cream into the widow’s bedroom that shrivels the poor gal up like a prune. (Perhaps it was witch hazel?) With all of her personal scores settled, the power-hungry Abby decides it’s time to bring out the big guns for total world domination. Conjuring a flock of ravenous vultures to nibble on the frightened masses, Abigail gets a little too excited over her victory and knocks over her bubbling cauldron, effectively setting herself on fire and leaving her angry birds to burst in the air like smoky popcorn.

This story from CoC #4 is simplicity personified, opting out of the convoluted twists and turns that earlier issues took by delivering a yarn that gets right to the goods. There’s a juvenile quality to the storytelling that I find endearing; it sounds like something I might have penned in grade school. (“Once upon a time there was a sad lady. One day she found an evil book in the library. It turned her into a witch.”) It’s charming to see the witch made the focal point of the story, regulated as they normally are to second-string characters who merely offer warnings to our lunk-headed protagonists. The fact that we get a nice series of Dr. Phibes-style gimmick deaths just stokes the fire all the more. Vic Donahue’s art is attractive if not overly stylized, which is in harmony with the unadorned but highly enjoyable narrative. I think we can safely assume that Abigail would sympathize with the famous adage “The meek shall in-hee-hee-herit the Earth!”

(What I liked about this one -- and several others of its ilk -- is that the protagonists go to great length to murder. A simple gunshot or knifing will not suffice, not when you have books of black magic at every corner store and vultures to command! -Peter)

Joe Certa's stylish splash
Peter: Chauncey Ashworth really really really wants to be initiated into the “Riders of the Night,” a fraternity at his New England college, but his reputation as a bit of a dandy precedes him. The other boys decide to have some fun with Chauncey, telling him they’ve agreed to initiate him that night, midnight sharp, at Devil’s Well, a local landmark said to have played host to some supernatural shenanigans in the past. Chauncey shows up in his best suit and tie and is met by a skeletal robed figure, who beckons the young man to follow him up a hill to the actual Well itself. When Chauncey and the eerie creature are met by two other robed figures, our young hero is on to them but goes along with the prank. He is told he must be approved by “the spirit who watches” and then, after some incantations are read, up pops a demon. The trio of pranksters, now unhooded, are terrified but Chauncey still believes it all a fun game until the demon clobbers one of the men with a mace and tosses all three down the Well. The police arrive soon after to find the bloody mess and a now-raving mad Chauncey offering up the bright side: now he’s initiated!

“Black Knights of Evil” (from CoC #6) is a compact four pages long but it doesn’t scrimp on its chills and jumps. You can literally feel the thud as the demon’s mace connects with the head of one of the hapless students (all of whom look as though they should have graduated from college decades before). As is always the case with these little morality plays, the guilty are punished but here we see the naive Chauncey Ashworth (the name conjures up money so perhaps the message is that anyone with money is morally reprehensible) pay the penultimate price as well: his sanity. The art by DC vet Joe Certa is Archie Andrews-fluffy where it needs to be and stark in its violent bits. 

(That is one pissed demon. A familiar story that wins a spot just for that socko ending. - Jose

Jose: Dr. Larson feels that he has “cracked through the mysterious wall of nature” with his latest discovery: a mass of protoplasm that, upon the injection of who-really-knows-or-cares, can assume the shape and solidity of life! The jelly’s first transformation into a slithering snake unsettles Larson, but he’s able to return it to its original state and runs to the closest group of colleagues to blather on about his wondrous achievement. A nearby reporter—we can tell he’s a reporter because he dresses poorly and has a newspaper sticking out of his coat pocket—catches wind of this and decides to do some snooping. Realizing a lifelong desire to “stick a hypodermic needle into something,” the reporter finds out that the jelly also has the ability to transform into a gigantic spider hungry for human blood. (“I’ve always wanted to stick my fangs into something,” the spider apparently thought.) Larson is able to rush onto the scene and turn the spider back into jelly, but the onlookers are convinced that the doctor is attempting to “overthrow mankind.” Larson tells them that that he is working for good, but after being hunted down by the police, the kind physician snaps and decides to whip up a hulking beast from the gunk (who has a rather prominent gluteus maximus) to bring “Jelly Death” to the world. Following the coda of all mad experiments, the monster promptly kills the doctor and heads out on a bloodsucking rampage… but not before Larson stabs the needle into its back, just short of sending the plunger home. After the “fetid, blood-bedabbled fiend” drinks its fill of the villagers, it’s cornered in the local graveyard by the coppers. The monster melts into a puddle of goo when it backs into a headstone, perishing right at the grave of our late, beloved reporter.

Blobby got back
If you like your cheese with an extra helping of jam, then you’re in for a treat here. The famous Bob Powell lends his considerable talents, along with Howard Nostrand and Marvil Eipp, to this riotous bit of mad science and muck-dudes. For the most part the Jelly Monster looks like a morbidly obese sheet ghost, but the artists embellish him here and there, like the above panel that shows a piggy face with a parasitic mouth puckering up for a kiss. In many ways the pre-code comics were an answer to the contemporaneous horror films of Poverty Row: where those low-budget features would boast delirious narratives but lackluster creatures, comic books like Chamber of Chills would be able to deliver on both fronts with mad aplomb, as seen here. The human interactions are, needless to say, marvelously goofy and the beastly antics are delivered with the kind of fervor (at one point the monster lets rip with a hearty “Snort!! Snort!!” before feasting on a victim) that kids reading this stuff—and the grown men revisiting it—would eat it all up like so much sweet marmalade.

(I loved the addition of torch-bearing villagers, something right out of those Poverty Row quickies Jose mentions - Peter)

Peter: On the brink of bankruptcy, Alex, the heart-broken owner of a “once-gay” carnival called “The House of Mystery” opts for the only out left to him: the black arts. An old crone on the edge of town (who stands at least eight feet tall!) is only too happy to surrender a book of incantations to the man and soon he’s conjured up an entire sideshow of unearthly ghouls and demons. The attraction backfires though when the creatures prove too gruesome for customers and employees alike. Faced with failure yet again, Alex screams out to the dark forces, “I must learn your secrets!” A sound startles him but it’s just a hobo, come in out of the cold. Suddenly, a pack of demons descends on the pair and drags them to “the blackest, deepest pit of evil” where they witness the torture of those souls doomed to burn forever in hell. The duo frantically hoof it, looking for any way back to their own world, and travel through a sideshow of depravity and rot before finally making it back to terra firma. The burning pit of hell has become the carnival, now engulfed in flames. Alex burns alive and the hobo, now insane, is nabbed by the police.

The nightmarish obstacle course in Hell
Like Chauncey Ashworth in “Black Knights of Evil,” Alex is not a bad man, rather we initially feel loads of sympathy for his plight. A businessman, down on his luck, watching as his only love, the carnival, sits in silence due to dwindling crowds. So, why wouldn’t Alex want to explore any option to keep his dream alive? How could we fault him for that? We can’t but (and this is the beauty of Chamber of Chills and many of the pre-code titles), in “real life”, it’s not just the bad guys that swing from a rope or are buried alive by zombies; it’s the hard-working factory guy from the Springsteen song too. It’s hard to figure why, if the first crack at dark arts and demons didn’t work, Alex would plead with the spirits of darkness to “bring me to your blackest, deepest pits…” but, oh what a trip! The various images of decadence and suffering (the apex being a row of staked heads, all screaming out in pain) in "Pit of the Damned" (from #7) are counter-balanced by quietly eerie glimpses of the utter hopelessness of hell (a giant doorknob just out of reach, a landscape of fire stretching out as far as the eye can see, etc), all masterfully told by the pen and ink of Bob Powell and Howard Nostrand. Like Bob Powell, Nostrand is a legend of pre-code horror whose 1950s work constantly pops up in reprint projects. Much like Rich Buckler (who contributed to several Marvel comic titles in the 1970s) Nostrand has had his detractors, critics who feel his work is, shall we say, chameleonic. Take a look at “Dust unto Dust” (from CoC #23, due for review soon) wherein Nostrand offers up a dead-on imitation of Jack Davis. Greg Sadowski, in Four Color Fear (which reprints “Pit of the Damned”) aptly describes the six page journey through hell as “breathtaking.” The late Bhob Stewart write a fabulous piece on Nostrand for The Comics Journal and it can be read here

(As you know, this one was in my final running."Breathtaking" it certainly is. Its painful vision of Hell is similar to the tortures seen in Jigoku [1960]. - Jose)

Jose: On the way to his job as a subway motorman, Larry Frost bumps heads with a female passenger in transit on the underground railway. This isn’t the meet-cute of a romantic comedy but the beginning of an unending horror! After his little cranial injury, Larry starts to see loathsome creatures interweaving through the crowds of humankind. (The first one shows up in a wife beater and purple undies. An abomination of fashion to boot!) Spending his shift on the lonely “milk run,” Larry spots the very same creature slinking through the darkness. Tempted by the look of a monster, Larry jumps ship to follow it through the dank tunnels. Coming to a secreted room at the end of a corridor, Larry sees a whole gaggle of the gruesome fiends holding council in the “Dungeon of Doom.” The minutes of the meeting: kill the two humans who can now perceive them through the mental veil they have rendered over our kind! They have the woman from the train Larry knocked heads with, but the motorman runs away in fear before he can see her melted down into four flavorful colors through the use of the monsters’ “disintegrating top.”  Making it back to his train, Larry’s surprised to find a female passenger on board the previously deserted vessel. He’s stirred on to race home when the woman makes mention of the “monsters on the track” that she saw. Too bad for him it’s all a clever ruse: the frightened lady is really a pimpled bogey in disguise. Larry heats up at the touch of her velvet glove and the next thing you know a skeleton is pulling back into the subway station.

“Dungeon of Doom,” from the all-around solid CoC #6, was one of the first pre-code titles I read thanks to that handy edition of Peter Normanton’s The Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics. This may be why I have a fondness for it, but the script by our unknown author is certainly intriguing without any attachment of nostalgia. Chamber has trod similar ground before in the “A Trip to Terror” story from the second issue. But while that tale dried up on its central the-monsters-are-among-us premise, “Dungeon” turns up the heat (quite literally) by adding a few tasty flourishes to the mix, none more so than that face-liquefying disintegrator. Vic Donahue’s underground critters are certainly more fun and detailed than Lee Elias’ illustrations from “Trip,” looking like a mutant version of the cast from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Reading this story in my high school classroom was one of the first glimpses I got into the pit of depravity that Chamber of Chills and its brethren dwelt in and—should this reveal something of my morbid tastes—only made me bristle with curiosity at what other goopy violence was in store.

(Amazingly gruesome and indicative of a trend throughout Chamber of Chills: the good guys, innocent bystanders, meet grisly ends. Unlike EC, where the moral was usually "bad things come to those who do bad," here we've got no morality and that wonderful little boy down the lane just might be eaten by the tree in your front yard. -Peter)

Peter: A strange man wanders into a group of young people enjoying the warmth of a campfire and, as one of the young men throws another log on, the stranger relates a terrifying tale, that of the “Green Killer!” (from CoC #8). Years before, the man had bought a piece of property and, while out roaming, he discovers a weirdly-shaped tree, one that seems to have an evil face and outstretching arms. Feeling an overwhelming evil emanating from the wood, he questions his neighbors and discovers a violent past associated with the tree. One day, the man watches in horror from his window as the tree almost reaches out and draws an auto into its claws, killing the passengers and, soon after a child falls from its branches. Determined to be rid of the monster, the man takes a pick axe to its trunk but is injured by a falling limb. He resigns himself to a world ruled by monster foliage. After heavy rains, his property is flooded and he needs to vacate via a rowboat but the water seems to carry him right into the arms of the tree and escape seems impossible. At this point in the story, a young lady interrupts by asking how he managed to get free of the arms of the tree. “I didn’t. I drowned.”

Such a simple story this one, the premise of which (killer plants) had been told several times times before and, certainly, zillions of times since but “Green Killer!” has rough edges to its simplicity and a real viciousness in its presentation. The hint of a hate crime, the murder of a child, and, once again, the torture and murder (this time by drowning) of an innocent, a man who had nothing but move on to this property (another aspect of the Harvey horror stories that strikes me is that several of their characters go nameless). Then there’s the denouement, that striking final panel where our nameless wanderer (now rotting away) looks into our eyes and tells us that he didn’t escape his fate after all. He’s a ghost wandering, but for what reason? To warn others of the dangers of landscaping? And what became of the “Green Killer” once the waters receded? This inquiring mind wants to know! Artist Vic Donahue contributed to ten stories in the Chamber of Chills library.

(Ha! Definitely didn't see that coming. That was like the final barb of a campfire tale. - Jose)

Jose: Two married couples come ashore on a deserted island to camp out, as married couples are wont to do. It isn’t long before they notice that the island isn’t as absent of other life forms as they thought. They discover that there are gigantic, tooth-clawed crabs all about, and not the kind that young married couples are wont to get either. Bill is eager to slaughter one—especially since he thinks it may be a rare species (!)—but the butcher is startled when he hears the crustacean emit a “horrible half-human” cry as it dies. The others tell Bill it ain’t no big thing. Later that night the crabs come out and eat Bill’s wife alive. It seems the humans didn’t realize that they would be facing “Crawling Death” on this isle of the damned. Bill manages to do what he does best—stabbing things—allowing him and the others to flee in their rowboat. Overcome with the lust for revenge that only shellfish can bring out in a man, Bill jumps out and swims back to the island. Carol and Fred, the other not-insane and/or dead couple, can only look on in terror as Bill is dragged kicking and screaming into the crabby congregation. Bill transforms into a monster-crab and feasts on his wife’s remains. They row back to civilization where an old seaman tells them of the legendary crab creatures that populate the area. His words have, of course, come too late: Fred and Carol have sworn off Red Lobster for the rest of their lives.

Nightmares taste like crabmeat
Like the best kind of midnight movie madness, “Crawling Death” takes you by the pincer and leads you through a story that only builds in delirium with each successive turn of the yellowed pages. You’re likely to think that there is nowhere else for this tale to go right before it shows you that it can and it will go there. Such briny nonsense as this would never be found in a book from the E. C. bullpen. They had stories where baseball was played with human parts and people were shrunk to fit inside Easter eggs, but nothing from the GhouLunatics ever felt so tasteless and loony as “Crawling Death” does. Abe Simon’s art is highly complementary of the script; he draws the killer crabs with fangs inside of their pinching claws and weird, snail-like faces that are genuinely unsettling. It reads like a ripping yarn from Man's Life mutated with a low-budget monster film that has a grindhouse sensibility. It really is one of those things that must be seen to be believed.

(Again we're faced with a nightmare universe where you'll be forced to do unsociable things like eating your wife's corpse and then you'll rot in crustacean hell. Jose's right that nothing of this sort would be found in an E.C. Comic book. The art's too rough and sketchy and the story meanders rather than winding itself to a logical conclusion. If E.C. was the Marvel Comics of the industry -- the apex -- then Harvey was the equivalent of the short-lived Atlas line of the 1970s: garish nonsense filled with cannibal superheroes. Fun stuff, mind you, but disposable for the most part. -Peter)

Peter: A “repulsive old man” has a bee in his bonnet and the only way to release it is world destruction. To achieve that goal, he reads a passage from “Ancient Incantations in Evil,” allowing the “three worthy gentlemen” of rhyme (the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker) to enter our world. The trio that arrives isn’t the band of merry gents we learned of from school but three demented psychopaths who revel in drawing blood with their “ordinary tools.” BB&C embark on a city-wide, random orgy of rape, pillage, and murder, robbing banks when they have a moment. Upon their arrival back at the madman’s house, the trio are told their services will no longer be needed and that, come the morning, they will be returned to the land of Mother Goose. That’s doesn’t fly with these guys and they hack the madman to pieces and burn his body. Unfortunately, safety rules regarding furnaces was never covered in Fairy Tale Land and the entire house goes boom, ending the solid run of the “Demons of the Night!” (from CoC #9).

So many of these CoC stories (and I suspect this will hold true for the entire run of Harvey titles) do not follow a natural progression of storyline (or a progression we’re used to, at least). They tend, in fact, to be thrown together as if some MAD LIB game commenced at noon in the Harvey bullpen each weekday. We’re never given a satisfactory reason why our madman has decided to destroy the city (yes, we know he desires money, but why murder and maim when you can just rob the banks?) nor why the idea of giving life to three fairy tale toilers rises to Number One on the list of “Ways to Rule the World.” Wouldn’t fire-breathing dragons or Black Plagues do a more thorough job? Nope, no answers to any nagging questions that might arise and it’s for just this reason we love these goofball dramas so much. Chopping helpless women up like so much firewood, burning buildings to the ground, even delivering skull-splitting whacks from a rolling pin. These guys mean business! Who would think that death could come so easily to a trio that brought a city to a standstill? Does the city rise again the next day and burn all fairy tale books? One panel shows a woman, fully engulfed in flames, fleeing from a night club. What deranged mind at Harvey thought this was great fun for pre-teens? Whoever he was, we salute him. 

(The fact that that woman was both on fire and screaming for the police made me both laugh and gasp a little. Such widespread panic and destruction wrought by nursery rhyme characters? I like where the minds at Harvey are at! - Jose

Jose: Vern Sherard, an American celebrity whose program TV Reporter is a hit with the viewing public, is staying with elderly British couple Standish and Lavinia at their manor to film his next big show. When his investigation into his own familial ancestors proves a bust, Vern elects to make a quick change in subjects and chooses the infamous Grumley Castle, purported to be haunted, as the focus of his show. Standish is leery of the idea. Although he doesn’t believe in ghosts, he sees no reason to tempt fate either. But tempt it Vern does as he sets up his remote controlled cameras and mike system in the cavernous halls of the castle. The resident haint is a spectral woman who roams about with a sword jutting out of her back and whose head is cut off. The couple leaves Vern to his mission. Later that night, Standish awakens from a nightmare wherein he saw Vern meet a horrible death. Lavinia and her husband rush back to Grumley, but they’re too late: Vern’s body lies in a bloody pool, skewered by a great blade! They’re able to reclaim the reporter’s reels of film and project them at home the next day. The clips show Vern meeting the ghost woman face-to-face. The lady accuses of Vern of murdering her, and in his fright the reporter backs himself right into the blade that his ancestor used to kill the woman centuries ago!

The ghost hunt was not an unfamiliar concept to the public before the time of “Headless Horror.” The story “Television Terror,” which premiered in the third issue of E. C. Comics’ The Haunt of Fear in September/October 1950, dealt similarly with a jokey reporter facing the spooks within a shunned abode. There was an even earlier version, titled “Ghost Hunt,” that made its debut as a radio play for Suspense on June 23, 1949. While poor Vern Sherard never even had his brave journey seen by the world like the doomed protagonist of “Television Terror,” this story from Chamber of Chills #8 is perhaps the earliest example (that I’ve seen at least) of what has become a prominent fixture in the modern horror film: found footage. Like recent examples such as The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2008), “Headless Horror” hinges on the idea of the source of terror being discovered and revealed to us through the viewing of lost footage. Vern’s cameras capture shots that seem fairly impossible with the technology he has on hand (including one glimpse of the ghost’s face that looks like it was filmed from Vern’s POV!), but besides that Abe Simon’s art displays a talent that allows his spookhouse-flavored imagery like the spectre yanking her juicy head off and Satan’s elongated guffaw to carry a creepy note to it. And as for Vern’s slack-jawed, blood-drooling face? Brrrr!

(This one was on my short list as well. Flashes of brilliant art and a genuinely involving story -Peter)

And the "Stinking Zombie Award" goes to... 

Jose: "The Lost Souls" (CoC #4)

A sleepy guy stumbles into a deserted town in the dead of night. Spooked by the darkness and desolation, he mistakes a trash collector for a ghoul and tackles him to the ground. Like you do. Awakening later and finding to his horror that he’s still in the same story, the stranger sees he is surrounded by a gaggle of robed phantoms. A voice shouts to him from a sewer to get the hell out of Dodge and the next thing you know the whole place is blowing up. He’s carried away to safety by two manual laborers who are befuddled that the man could have wandered right into the middle of their demolition project. They’re equally confused as to why the place is in smithereens since they have yet to set off the explosives. One of the workers remembers that the site was built over an old cemetery.

"Yeaaa!" "W..." (?!?!)
You now have just as much knowledge regarding the content of “The Lost Souls” as anyone who has actually read the thing. (You’re welcome.) Still confused? Don’t worry, it comes with the package. This scrambled slip of a plot is the worst kind of story: contemptible for its complete disregard of crafting anything close to entertainment. One imagines the anonymous writer sent the finished “script” in with a big doodle of a middle finger drawn on the front page. The only thing that I could think of afterward was “What the hell was that all about?” It runs more like sketchy notes than a fully-formed idea. “Uh, let’s see… abandoned town… ghosts… voices from sewer (maybe???)… explosion in the end I guess…” What are we to even make of that ending? Did the restless spirits of the old graveyard try to destroy the demolition project? Do they know they’re only making the job easier for the humans by doing that? And to top all of that off, the main character has one of the most grating and unnecessarily stuttered deliveries that reaches the point of parody: “Ohh… where am… time..? O…ohhh! T…twelve o’clock!” (Are you freaking kidding me with that?) Powell, Nostrand, and Eipp have a few effective compositions, but this is nobody’s best hour. Just a poor, sloppy job all around.

Shades of Johnny Craig
Peter: "Two Ways to Die!" (CoC #4)

Two brothers, James and Leslie, face destitution and the loss of their Florida mansion if they don't lay their hands on some cash pronto. James brings up their rich old Aunt Lenore and, before they know it, they've hatched a plan involving Aunt-icide. The boys invite the dear old thing down to the estate for a visit but, unbeknownst to the two dopes, Aunt Lenore has a little something up her sleeve: she's a practicing witch and is onto her two nephews. Devising a plan of her own, Lenore conjures up the "spirits of the shadow" to protect her and do away with the two con men. In the meantime, the genius that is "The Murder Plan of James and Leslie" is launched when James places a metronome outside the old woman's window, believing "she'll think some swamp fiend is tapping at her window" and madness will soon follow.. That night, the tapping trick is turned right back at the pair (who, evidently sleep in the same room at night!) when a real swamp fiend comes knocking at their window. More ruses are attempted and all fail, backfiring each time. The pot boils over when Lenore admits she knows what the two have been planning all along so they dispense with parlor tricks and dump the old bag in the swimming pool. That night the witch rises from the pool and does away with her nephews (James hung in the vines and Leslie at the bottom of the pool). The police are baffled.

Make me chuckle, make me gasp, make me think. Just don't make me yawn. There aren't very many stories in the first ten issues of Chamber of Chills that fell completely flat on their illustrated faces but this is one of them. Vic Donahue goes for the big EC swipe several times in this one (especially that dead ringer for The Old Witch reprinted above), something he avoided in most other tales, but the Big Zero comes down to story. We're told right off the bat that Lenore is a witch so that bit of suspense is thrown out of the window. All that's left is the game of one-upmanship and that's not all that involving. A hearty laugh for the climax, where we see the old woman, having been questioned by the police (James' feet still clearly dangling in the background), heading off on a steamer ship, while the cops still ponder Leslie in the pool. "This is going to be a tough case to solve..." muses one. "Yeah, especially if you never actually take a look at the bodies" says I! By the way, when I make notes for this blog, I rate each and every story one to four stars and, seeing as how I assigned one star ratings to every story in #4 and Jose's "Stinking Zombie" also comes from this same issue, I think it's safe to say this was the worst overall issue published (well, let's cross out fingers there aren't any worse in the next batch).


Jose: I cannot in good conscience recommend "The Formula of Death" (CoC #8) as a good story. What it is is a great galumphing smorgasbord of bubbling grostequeness that reaches for the bottom of the barrel and scrapes up every last crusty bit to smush together this wham-bam tale for the sole purpose of stroking the readers' basest morbid interests. Taboo-shattering science? Knobby-kneed, drooling monsters? Wanton violence? Deranged art courtesy of schlockmeister Rudy Palais? We have it. Now drink deep!

Peter: Since my esteemed partner, Jose, has given us both an out, I shall pick a story that is neither great nor awful but simply indicative of the kind of writing you might find in the pre-code horror titles, be they Harvey or Story or Prize or Atlas (EC, not to hammer a point home too many times, didn't seem to suffer from the same maladies other companies exhibited). "The Vault of the Living Death!" (from CoC #2) could very well have been called "Curse of the Analogy!" for all its whacked-out metaphors. Like a giant pizza with lots of cheese and earthworms, "Vault" stumbled from page to wildly over-the-top page. Without further hesitation, I give you, like a Swedish musketeer violently strumming his guitar, "The Vault of the Living Death!"


Jose: Having had my first full taste of Harvey, I admit that it fulfilled my ravenous appetite with only the intermittent grumble of dissatisfaction. What struck me most prominently thus far has been Chambers of Chills’ (and I would think the company’s other titles apply here as well) willingness to “push it” from the very start. If you compare these first few issues to the tales that served as the foundation for E.C.’s New Trend, you’ll note how comparatively tame the stories from The Vault of Horror and The Crypt of Terror seem when stacked against Chambers’ first issues. Especially in those Johnny Craig yarns, everything was so clean-cut and mannered. The influence of the old radio shows on that company’s initial look was clear; they were more in the mode of making “chillers and thrillers.”

Setting a standard from the start
Harvey, however, was pure and unadulterated pulp from conception. Just look at the very first story in Issue #1, “The Old Hag of the Hills.” Not only do we have blatant witchery occurring with a nasty old wench, but there’s also the sorceress’ transformation into a busty redhead, one of the characters’ resurrection as a crook-necked zombie, and the witch’s later demise by vivid immolation to fill in the gaps. It’s clear from this point that Harvey considered no subject too lurid and no ground too sacred… they were in it for the thrills, and by God they were gonna give them to you.

As alluded to before, this facet of the company was a double-edged sword. It had the potential to give the readers a glimpse into unrestrained lunacy, but there was also the chance that the pursuit of cheap shocks would result in scrimping in the storytelling department. Sometimes, like in “Creatures of the Swamp” (CoC #2), the momentum of the story’s Grand Guignol antics is too fast to allow the reader to stop and think about anything too much. Whoa, that guy just had his head eaten by an alligator. Nothing else matters anymore!

This is one reason why coming across a vignette that actually appears to have had some actual thought put into it is such a delightful surprise. “Walking Dead” (CoC #3) almost has the epic sprawl and all-encompassing supernaturalism of a Euro-horror flick from the 60s; “The Pale Light of Death”  (CoC #4) is a tale of metaphysical, romantic torture with a neat little sting in its tail that would not be out of place in Wyllis Cooper’s Quiet, Please; “Devil’s Due” (CoC #10) is a dark parable that, like “Book of Vengeance,” takes only the necessary amount of time to introduce its otherworldly conceit and gets right to the goods for optimum reader satisfaction.

"The horror... the horror..." 
Still, we’ve definitely seen our share of yawners even amidst all this madness. One of my “Stinking Zombie” contenders, “The Doom of Living Ice” (CoC #3), uses that old saw of the explorers in the wild terrain discovering some ancient/alien city and/or lifeform (a setup I admit to not really liking all that much) seems promising with its premise of frozen boogeymen coming to life, but it’s so dunder-headed that you can’t help but marvel at the stupidity of its “learned” scientists. “Hey it looks like these guys were just in the middle of horribly torturing each other… let’s defrost them right now.” They deserve to be turned into popsicles.

Looking forward and dreading the worst (in the best possible way, of course) for Round 2 of our Chamber of Chills-a-thon!

Peter: I think, Jose, that the reason Harvey started their engine at 60 mph rather than the droning neutral like EC was stuck in for several months is that the groundwork EC laid (the gore and sex) had already been built up by the time Harvey came to town (more than a year after EC published their first horror comic, The Crypt of Terror #17, in May 1950). Harvey jumped into the waters because EC was so successful with their extreme horror. Like you, I was pleasantly surprised with the quality I found in the first forty stories in CoC.

I think, however, what endeared me to these stories was the sheer four-color looniness of the scripts. Some of these little dramas start at Point D, go back to Point A, and then forget they were ever telling us about Point D and tell us about Point E instead. In "Lost Souls" (from #4), a guy wakes up in a deserted city, sees ghosts (or what he thinks are ghosts), things start exploding all around him, he runs into a junkman he confuses for a ghoul, sees swirling circles, and is eventually escorted out of the deserted city by a couple of workmen. It's then that we're told the city is scheduled to be destroyed but one of the workers notes it's already been blasted. "I just remembered," says the confused man, "this housing project is on the site of an old cemetery!" Huh? So, what did we just witness? Hysteria or haunting? Or, most likely, a writer who's written himself into a corner, shrugs his shoulders a bit, and thinks "Who'll know? Who'll care?" The predominant themes, of course, are voodoo and books of spells, pretty much ignoring EC's claim to fame: the murdered spouse (although that does pop up now and then). There's also a scarcity of the classic monsters but a peek ahead shows that might change. I loved how many of the cover artists threw as much at the wall to see what would stick (as best exemplified by the cover that has become our mantlepiece, #7). Just look at how busy some of those covers are. Like Jose, I can't wait to explore more Chambers of Chills in the weeks to come.

Chamber of Chills #1-10

#21 (#1) (June 1951)
Cover by Al Avison

"The Old Hag of the Hills"
Art by Bob Powell

"Darker Than Death"
Art by George Appel (?)

"The Chieftan of Death"
Art by Vic Donahue

"The Ghost of the Rue de Morte"
Art by Rudy Palais

#22  (#2) (August 1951)
Cover by Al Avison

"The Vault of Living Death"
Art by Vic Donahue

"Creatures of the Swamp"
Art by George Appel (?)

"Ferry of the Dead"
Art by John Giunta and Manny Stallman

"The Snake Man"
Art by Rudy Palais

#23 (#3) (October 1951)
Cover by Al Avison

"Walking Dead"
Art by Bob Powell, Howard Nostrand, and Marvil Epp

"Trip to Terror"
Art by Lee Elias

"Monster's Maze"
Art by Vic Donahue

"The Doom of Living Ice"
Art by Pierce Rice

#4 (December 1951)
Cover by Lee Elias

"Two Ways to Die"
Art by Vic Donahue

"The Lost Souls"
Art by Bob Powell, Howard Nostrand, and Marvil Epp

"The Pale Light of Death"
Art by Pierce Rice

"Book of Vengeance"
Art by Vic Donahue

#5 (February 1952)
Cover by Lee Elias

"The Shrunken Skull"
Art by Bob Powell

"An Appointment With a Corpse"
Art by Pierce Rice (?)

"Operation -- Monster"
Art by John Giunta and Manny Stallman

"Spirit in the Stone"
Art by Joe Certa

#6 (March 1952)
Cover by Lee Elias

"Jelly Death"
Art by Bob Powell, Howard Nostrand, and Marvil Epp

"Black Knights of Evil"
Art by Joe Certa

"The Seven Skulls of Magondi"
Art by Warren Kremer (?) and Lee Elias

"The Dungeon of Doom!"
Art by Vic Donahue

#7 (April 1952)
Cover by Al Avison

"Pit of the Damned!"
Art by Bob Powell and Howard Nostrand

"Crawling Death"
Art by Abe Simon and Don Perlin

"Garden of Horror"
Art by Joe Certa

"The Seal of Satan"
Art by Manny Stallman and John Giunta

#8 (May 1952)
Cover by Lee Elias

"Green Killer!"
Art by Vic Donahue

"A Safari of Death!"
Art by Bob Powell and Howard Nostrand

"Headless Horror"
Art by Abe Simone

"Formula for Death"
Art by Rudy Palais

#9 (June 1952)
Cover by Al Avison

"The Eight Hands of Ranu"
Art by Vic Donahue

"The Captain's Return"
Art by Tom Hickey

"The Ice Horror"
Art by Al Avison

"Demons of the Night"
Art by Manny Stallman and John Giunta

#10 (July 1952)
Cover by Lee Elias

"The Face of Horror"
Art by Vic Donahue

"Cave of Doom"
Art by Al Avison

"The Dead Sleep Lightly"
Art by Manny Stallman and John Giunta

"Devil's Due"
Art by Rudy Palais


Alter Ego #89 (October 2009) "Special Harvey Horror Issue"
Howlett, Mike. The Weird World of Eerie Publications. Feral House, 2010.
Sadowski, Greg. Four Color Fear. Fantagraphics, 2010
Suarez, George. "Terrology Chapter 8: Harvey." Tales Too Terrible to Tell #8. May-June 1993: pgs 22-35.
Watt-Evans, Lawrence. "The Other Guys." The Scream Factory #19. Summer 1997.

Coming in Two Weeks! Part Two of our in-depth look at Chamber of Chills!


Jack Seabrook said...

What a fantastic start to your new series! I thoroughly enjoyed every word of this post, and the pictures are great! Those are some gorgeous covers. It's also great that you are able to reproduce whole stories. It lets us lazy readers enjoy the stories without having to track them down!

K. Marshall said...

Great way to begin....SOMEONE just
HAD to do this...hope you will be
delving into context of the
postwar times that put these and
other lowbrow pop culture into
perspective...cannot easily
divorce comics from the tenor of
their times, after all. Good
luck with this project!
-----K. Marshall