Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Cornell Woolrich Part One: "The Big Switch" [1.15]

by Jack Seabrook

"Change of Murder" was
first published here
The life and work of Cornell Woolrich are examined in great detail in Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die by Francis M. Nevins (1988). Woolrich's stories and novels were often adapted for the big screen, and in 1944 Joan Harrison produced the film adaptation of his novel Phantom Lady. Alfred Hitchcock directed Rear Window, the 1954 adaptation of his 1942 story "It Had to Be Murder," so it is not surprising that when Hitchcock and Harrison began to produce Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1955 they would look to Woolrich as a source for stories. Throughout the ten-year run of the Hitchcock show, three half-hour episodes were based on Woolrich stories and an hour-long episode was based on one of his novels.

The first of the Woolrich episodes was "The Big Switch," broadcast midway through the first season on January 8, 1956, and based on the story, "Change of Murder," which was first published in the January 25, 1936 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly. Nevins points out that this was one of the author's earliest crime stories. It takes place in Chicago and begins as Brains Donleavy calls on his friend Fade Williams. Fade's office is in the back of a bar in the Loop and he can provide an alibi for a price; after Brains pays Fade for the last time he used this service, Fade quotes a price of $500 to alibi Brains for killing a man on Chicago's North Side.

The story was reprinted
in this 1945 digest
Brains explains his plan and signs an IOU, after which Fade shows off his trick telephone booth, whose false wall opens into the garage next door. Fade has a habit of cleaning his gun and Brains warns him that this could be dangerous. The two men retire to the back room to play cards and Brains escapes through the telephone booth. He takes taxis to an apartment building and crawls on a plank across an air shaft and through an open window, hiding in a closet until a man named Hitch comes into the room and Brains emerges, gun pointed. Brains blames Hitch for stealing a woman named Goldie while Brains was in jail. Hitch tells Brains that he was just helping Goldie out when she was in trouble.

Hitch tells Brains that he married Goldie and that they had a baby and named it Donleavy Hitchcock after Brains. Brains lets Hitch go after learning this news and leaves the way he came. Hitch laughs at how he tricked Brains: the baby that Goldie referred to in a letter he showed to Brains was a gun! Brains uses the rick telephone booth to return to Fade's office without being seen. Just then a crowd rushes in and restrains Brains, who sees Fade slumped over dead behind his desk, accidentally shot by his own gun while cleaning it.

The trick phone booth
As Brains leads the crown to the trick telephone booth in an attempt to clear his name for the murder of Fade, he realizes that no one will believe him and remarks: "Six guys I killed and they never touch me for it; the seventh I let live, and they hook me for a killing I never even done at all!"

Nevins points out that the characters in "Change of Murder" are reminiscent of those that Damon Runyon wrote about and that the ending, where Brains is accused of a murder he did not commit after having gotten away with real murders, recalls the end of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, where Frank is convicted of murdering Cora, whom he did not kill, although he had gotten away with killing her husband, Nick.

George Mathews as Sam Donleavy
"Change of Murder" is an entertaining story with a twist ending that makes it perfect for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. One also wonders if Hitchcock and Harrison found it hard to resist a story where one of the main characters is named Hitchcock and goes by the nickname of Hitch! Richard Carr adapted it for television and title was changed to "The Big Switch"; this was not the only thing about the story that was changed, but the show is still quite enjoyable. Hitchcock's onscreen introduction to the show includes a rare mention of the author of the story, as one master of suspense pays tribute to another: after a joke about mouse traps, Hitchcock remarks that "Cornell Woolrich makes people traps, and very good ones, too."

Joseph Downing as Lt. Al
"The Big Switch" was directed by Don Weis and begins with a scene not in the story. Before that scene, a couple of title cards superimposed over a street scene tell us that it is "Chicago 1920" and "In the Days of Bullets, Bootleggers and Beautiful Babes." From these title cards, we know that this episode will be tongue in cheek.

We first meet Sam (not Brains) Donleavy in his apartment, where he talks to his pet bird, Edgar, and his pet cat, Schultz; Sam has a pronounced accent that is a mix of Brooklynese, Irish, and Chicago gangster. A police lieutenant named Al pays Sam a visit; the two have known each other since childhood and Al recalls how a teacher once took a switch to Sam. Sam asks Al if he'd like to do the same and Al replies that "The only switch big enough for you now is the one that throws the juice to the chair." This explains the episode's title, "The Big Switch," though it could also refer to the switch of places Sam later makes by means of the trick phone booth.

Goldie talks to Morg about Baby
Suspecting that Sam has come back to Chicago to cause trouble, Al asks him to leave town and needles him about a framed picture of Goldie. Al suspects that Sam came back to the city to punish Morgan, Goldie's new boyfriend. The banter between the two old friends/enemies is effective and is peppered with slang typically used by gangsters and cops in Hollywood movies.

The show then picks up where the short story began, as Sam visits the speakeasy owned by Barney (not Fade). Humor continues to be the dominant theme as Sam complains that Barney's demand of $2500 for an alibi for murder is dishonest--as if the idea of committing murder and getting away with it is honest! Unlike in Woolrich's story, however, this time Sam plans to kill Goldie rather than her boyfriend. Al, the police lieutenant, comes to the speakeasy to keep an eye on Sam.

George E. Stone as Barney
When Sam escapes through the phone booth and goes to Goldie's room, the entire episode of him crawling across a plank between two buildings to gain access is eliminated, which is too bad, since it is a suspenseful part of the story and one that the reader can easily imagine. In the TV show, Sam just climbs in through Goldie's window. The scene between Sam and Goldie is similar to the one between Brains and Hitch in the story. This time, Goldie asks if she can call her husband Morgan to say goodbye and while they talk we see him on the other end of the line admiring "Baby," his large gun. Goldie asks Sam to give "little Donleavy" a kiss through the phone and he not only backs off from his plan to kill her, he insists that she meet him the next morning to go shopping for gifts for the baby! He gives her a chaste kiss on the forehead and leaves.

Beverly Michaels as Goldie
Back at the speakeasy, Sam hears Barney pretending to yell at him during the imaginary card game. He then hears a gunshot and rushes in; this time, the crowd that rushes in is led by Lt. Al, who holds a gun on Sam, certain that he has committed murder. The final lines spoken by Sam are similar to those spoken by Brains in the story and underline the irony of the situation.

"The Big Switch" is a fairly faithful adaptation of "Change of Murder" that adds the character of Al, the police lieutenant, and changes the target of Brain's wrath from his former girlfriend's new boyfriend to his former girlfriend herself. Both new characters are welcome, partly because of good performances by the actor and actress. In fact, the performances in this episode are all good.

Al cleans his gun once too often
Richard Carr (1929-1988) adapted the story for television. He worked in TV from 1952 to 1981 and in movies from 1956 to 1981, though most of his work was for television. He began as a writer for radio and wrote three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, all during the first season. He later wrote two episodes of Batman.
Don Weis (1922-2000), who directed "The Big Switch," directed five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid" and Henry Slesar's "First Class Honeymoon." He worked in movies from 1951 to 1978 and on TV from 1954 to 1990, directing many episodes of various TV series. He directed a Twilight Zone, four Batmans and four Night Gallery segments. An entertaining article about his career may be found here.

Entering Goldie's room
Starring as Sam Donleavy is the huge, craggy-faced actor George Mathews (1911-1984), whose career began with the WPA Theatre during the depression. He started in movies in 1943 and on TV in 1949 and worked into the early 1970s. He was in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but he will best be remembered as Harvey, the pool hall bully in the episode of The Honeymooners called "The Bensonhurst Bomber." Mathews was born--where else?--in Brooklyn.

The sultry Beverly Michaels (1928-2007) plays Goldie with the same tawdry sensuality she brought to other roles, such as her starring turn in Wicked Woman (1953). She had a brief career, appearing in 11 movies and three TV episodes between 1949 and 1956, but those roles were memorable. She was born in the Bronx and this was her only appearance on the Hitchcock show. She appears to have given up acting soon after it was filmed.

Pretending to play cards
The role of Barney is played by the diminutive George E. Stone (1903-1967), 5'3" tall to George Mathews's 6'5", who was born Gerschon Lichtenstein in Poland. He was in countless movies from 1927 to 1961, including Little Caesar (1931), 42nd Street (1933), The Man With the Golden Arm (with Mathews, not long before "The Big Switch"), and Some Like it Hot (1959). His TV career lasted from 1953 to1963 and included two appearances on Superman, though this was the only time he was seen on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Joseph Downing (1903-1975) plays Al, the police lieutenant. He was in movies from 1935 to 1957 and on TV from 1949 to 1963. He appeared in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents three times.

"Change of Murder" was also adapted as a half-hour live TV broadcast on May 21, 1950, as part of the Colgate Theatre series; newspaper listings report that the cast included Bernard Nedell, Charles Jordan, Alfred Hopson and Martin Kingsley. This show is almost certainly lost.

"The Big Switch" is available on DVD here and may be viewed online for free here.

"The Big Switch." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 8 Jan. 1956. Television.
"CTVA - The Classic TV Archive Homepage." CTVA - The Classic TV Archive Homepage. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 May 2015. <>.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 May 2015. <>.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 21 May 2015. <>.
Nevins, Francis M. Cornell Woolrich--first You Dream, Then You Die. New York: Mysterious, 1988. Print.
Nevins, Francis M. "Introduction." Rear Window and Four Short Novels. New York: Ballantine, 1984. Vii-Xx. Print.
"TV Listings." Brooklyn Eagle 21 May 1950: n. pag. Print.
"TV Listings." New York Times 21 May 1950: n. pag. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 21 May 2015. <>.

Woolrich, Cornell. "Change of Murder." 1936. Rear Window and Four Short Novels. New York: Ballantine, 1984. 110-33. Print.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Do You Dare Enter? Part Fifty-Three: November 1974

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

Redondo studio?
The House of Mystery 227

"The Vengeance of Voodoo Annie"
Story by Russell Carley and Michael Fleisher
Art by Nestor Redondo

"The Haunting Wind!"
Story by Jack Miller
Art by John Giunta
(reprinted from The Phantom Stranger #2, November 1952)

"Cry, Clown, Cry"
Script Uncredited
Art by Bill Ely
(reprinted from House of Secrets #51, December 1961)

"The Town That Lost Its Face"
Story Uncredited
Art by Bill Ely
(reprinted from House of Secrets #50, November 1961)

"The Weird World of Anton Borka"
Story Uncredited
Art by Howard Purcell
(reprinted from House of Secrets #37, October 1960)

"Demons Are Made... Not Born"
Story by Don Glut
Art by Quico Redondo

"The Girl in the Glass Sphere"
Story Uncredited
Art by Joe Maneely
(reprinted from House of Mystery #72, March 1958)

"The Carriage Man"
Story by Russell Carley and Michael Fleisher
Art by Alfredo Alcala

Peter: Henry and George, the successful owners of Jarrett Bros. Toy Co., have one thing in common: they're both in love with George's wife, Connie. That's bad news for both of them since Connie is playing Henry against George to obtain a share of the toy company. The sultry vixen wants Henry to murder his brother and then run away with her so Henry hooks up with an old hag known as Voodoo Annie, who guarantees her black magic will dispose of George lickety-split. She gives Henry a voodoo doll and tells him to stick a pin in it after midnight but when Connie sees the doll, she throws it out her penthouse window in anger. A few hours later, George is found dead, an apparent suicide. It's not long before the cops come calling, citing a letter written by George shortly before his death, wherein he foretells his own death at the hands of his wife. The police haul Connie away, leaving Henry smiling, happy that his fake letter scheme worked. He'll now inherit the other half of the toy biz and he'll be a gazillionaire. Voodoo Annie calls, wanting fifty grand to keep her trap shut, but Henry's having none of that. He meets with Annie on a cliff and, as he's about to shoot the old woman, she produces a Henry doll. As he blasts her, she drops it over the cliff and Henry tumbles to his death attempting to retrieve it. Some time later, their bodies are found and the cops allow how it's great they finally got con-woman Voodoo Annie, who would mold dolls, murder the subjects, and then blackmail her mark. There are bits of Fleisher peeking through in "The Vengeance of Voodoo Annie" but not much and the whole thing tastes a little rancid, like three day old leftovers. That Scooby-Doo expository at the finale doesn't help things at all. I will admit to not seeing the second twist (Henry's con on Connie) coming and Nestor's art is customarily good so it's not all bad.

Jack: Definitely second-tier Fleisher, and Redondo's art isn't as strong as we've grown used to, either. The best thing about this story is the length--at 12 pages, it's longer than the typical DC horror tale and thus has a little more plot.

Peter: Rare book collectors Solyomi and Kruzz have been looking for the legendary "Chronicles of Satan" tome for decades and, at long last, it has fallen into Solyomi's hands. The book is supposed to contain spells and incantations that can raise demons for fun and profit. Kruzz decides he wants the book to himself so he offs his partner and heads back home with the treasure. There, he draws his pentagram and recites the mumbo jumbo but the result is not what he'd thought it would be: he himself becomes a demon. Satan arrives to inform Kruzz that "Demons are Made... Not Born!" and that the "Chronicles" were put on earth to lure greedy saps into his control. Pretty good story with knockout graphics, "Demons..." also has a true twist in its tail, one that I didn't see coming. I would question Solyomi's assertion that, based on a quick scan of the contents, the "Chronicles" is indeed authentic and written by Ol' Sparky himself! Basing that on what? Handwriting samples? Common themes found in the author's other work? I may have mentioned this before but writer Don Glut has produced a body of fun genre work, from his horror stories such as this to the adventures of his supernatural comic character, Doctor Spektor (published by Gold Key Comics), to two of the most essential genre reference books ever written, The Frankenstein Legend and The Dracula Book.

Jack: Quico Redondo outdoes his brother Nestor this time around with some atmospheric art, marred only by an unintentionally funny panel that shows the newly made demon running from the cops.

Peter: A series of gruesome murders have the police baffled until an abandoned buggy leads them to Henry Plimpton, "The Carriage Man." With the unwitting help of Henry's lady friend, Elaine Ratner, the detectives set a trap designed to bring Henry's nasty habit out into the open. The scheme works and Henry's alter-ego, that of a werewolf, is unmasked. That's it. No twists, turns, or surprises and twenty pages that are padded with lots of smelly stuffing. Like "Voodoo Annie," there's not much of the Michael Fleisher we know and love here. I kept waiting for something unique to pop out at me but the thing just kind of lays there and unravels. Alcala, however, is aces. From the intricate detail of his city street scenes to that full-pager of Henry attacking his customers in the park, there was nobody illustrating horror comics quite like AA (and, I hate to sound the alarm, but we only have a handful of Alfredo left to sup on as he'll soon be commuting between other DC titles and work at Marvel).  It's nice to know Henry was able to keep at least a bit of his human sensibilities about him and didn't kill his horse (who must be pretty used to the transformation by now since he didn't even buck). A looooong, dreary slag.

Jack: I thought this was very Fleisheresque, especially the graphic murders of Phil and Joclyn in the park and the concluding graphic death of the werewolf. Also very in line with the Fleisher I remember is the line of cruelty that runs through the story. The story of Henry and Elaine recalls the plot of Chaplin's City Lights, where the tramp is loved by the blind girl who can't see his clothes but understands his inner goodness. Here, Henry is a kind man who turns into a murderous fiend at the full moon. The strange part of this story is that the police are so callous and cruel. They make fun of Henry and Elaine and show no compassion whatsoever when they kill him in his werewolf form. The story troubled me from that aspect. Shouldn't they have done more? I guess they had to kill the beast, but they at least could have given some explanation to poor Elaine.

Two things struck me as funny in this one. First was the murder of Phil, whose girlfriend Joclyn insists that he get her out of there while he's busy getting his throat ripped out. Second was this exchange between the cops:

Cop #1: "His throat's ripped out . . ."
Cop #2: "Yeah, well you win some, you lose some!"

It's stories like this that made Fleisher a polarizing figure.

Peter: Usually, I attach words such as "innocent," charming," or "imaginative" to the reprints in these 100-pagers but, this time out, the adjectives that jump out at me are "tedious" and "inane." From the silly "Haunting Wind" that follows a temple defiler to the clown who's never satisfied with the amount of laughter he garners to the goofball invisible aliens who make Anton Borka's dreams come true, there's just a bit too much hokum going on. The only rerun worth its paper is Joe Maneely's "The Girl in the Glass Sphere," wherein a reporter stumbles on the story of a lifetime when he discovers that a millionaire's girlfriend is a real-life siren (luring the sailors to the rocks and all). Stan Lee once said that if Maneely, who made his name on Atlas's eyeball-pleasing (and sadly short-lived) Black Knight (1955-56), had not been tragically killed at a young age, he would have become another Jack Kirby. Imagine a world where Joe Maneely illustrated Doctor Strange and The Mighty Thor.

Jack: One of the most ridiculous reprint stories this time out is "The Town That Lost Its Face," in which a man discovers that a mysterious power has been transferred to him from an old Indian face carved in the side of a mountain. The power causes everyone who looks at him to lose their facial features. The weird part of the story is that he has his own helicopter, which he flies over to the side of the mountain and climbs out of down a rope ladder, leaving the helicopter hovering there in mid-air without a pilot. He fixes the problem at the end by carving a new face into the side of the mountain with a jackhammer in record time. How is the jackhammer powered? By a cable that goes up to his helicopter, still hovering faithfully in mid-air.

Luis Dominguez
The House of Secrets 125

"Catch as Cats Can!"
Story by E. Nelson Bridwell
Art by Luis Dominguez

"Pay the Piper"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Alfredo Alcala

"Instant Re-Kill!"
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by Frank Robbins

Peter: Baron Von Schlamm rules over a small medieval European village with an iron glove, bleeding its peasants dry with his taxes and petty laws. One of those petty laws makes the owning of a cat illegal. That doesn't sit well with a little blonde girl and her feline, Zauberkatze. In fact, whenever one of the Baron's men comes near the kitty, bad accidents happen. Hearing of these mishaps, the Baron himself decides to put a stop to this little girl and her "pranks." But when Von Schlamm confronts the cat, it screeches "some strange sounds" and the Baron disappears. Thankfully, Abel arrives to let us know that the cat is a witch or else we'd have never known. "Catch as Cats Can" is a charming enough fable, with nice art by Dominguez, but since Bridwell saw fit to translate the meaning of the cat's name, couldn't he have let us know the meaning of the magic words it screeched as well?

Easy for you to say!

Jack: I know very little German, but I know that "Zauberkatze" means "magic cat," which pretty much told me all I needed to know on the first page of this story. Still, the Domiguez art is impressive and Bridwell at least manages to tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, which puts this a notch above what we get this month in Ghosts.

Exquisite detail by AA
Peter: A particularly nasty man, Michael Duncan forces his handicapped son to mountain climb with him and, after a very acidic rant directed at young Andy, is surprised when a man dressed in a piper's suit arrives to scold him. Despite the anger he feels, Michael hires the man to guide them down the mountain. While his father sleeps one night, Andy goes off with the piper to a "fantasy land" where his infirmities are magically healed and children flock to him to play. When the youngster tells his father of the magical place, Michael flies into a jealous rage and sends the piper off. That night, the man returns to rescue Andy again, this time for good. Michael sees the piper and his son open a door in the mountainside and disappear. When he goes down to the village for help, the police scoff until he describes the guide and the burgomaster shows him an ancient book containing a drawing of the piper. He is death. Despite the over-the-top portrayal of the sadistic Michael Duncan (yep, I know there are really nasty fathers out there but there's an almost humorous piling on of hatred toward Andy that just doesn't work), this has one of those really nasty kicks in the rear that the DC mystery writers can cook up now and then (usually directed towards feeble children, I hasten to add) and Alcala's exquisite art elevates "Pay the Piper" into one of the year's best. It's bizarre that we feel relieved that the child is dead and free of his brutish father when there must be some other way to save him. This is one that gets better the more you think about it.

More Alcala... just because we can.

Jack: I wonder if Jack Oleck submitted this as part of a two-for-one deal with last issue's "Make Believe," which is such a similar story. In both, a disabled child is taken away by an adult man to a fantasy world where he can be happy and free of disability. For some reason, it works better this time around, mainly due to Alcala's gorgeous art. This will be in the running for the year's ten best, at least on my list.

Peter: Has-been actor Ned Randolph just can't seem to get a good take of the scene he's shooting with the groovy Laura. The director hates the first take of Ned gunning down Laura in a jealous rage so he has him slap her around a bit first. Still not good enough, the director has Ned switch to a shotgun. Much better. Unfortunately, that's when the cops break down the door and we find out the movie is all in Ned's head and Laura's been blasted to bits. "Instant Re-Kill" has a decent twist ending but I defy you to get past annoyance and into enjoyment when you gaze at Frank Robbins' Rorschachs. Check out Laura's relaxed pose in that first panel (below); can the human body actually bend like that?

Jack: Another weak script by Steve Skeates, perfectly matched by horrible art by Frank Robbins. The actress's pose in the first panel is an example of Robbins's tendency to ignore the reasonable possibilities of what the human body can comfortably do. Suffice it to say, the ending makes no sense, but did we expect any more?

Nick Cardy
The Witching Hour 48

"There's a Skeleton in My Closet!"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Ruben Yandoc

"Tragedy in Lab 13!"
Story and Art Uncredited

"Curse of the Chinese Charm"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Frank Carrillo

Jack: Grant Morrow was a millionaire who had a son named Lance and an adopted son named Wade. He doted on Lance, who was a ne'er do well hippie, while straight-laced Wade felt unloved. When Grant dies and Lance comes home for the reading of the will, Wade rigs the brakes on Lance's car and so causes his death. Wade then learns, to his horror, that "There's a Skeleton in My Closet!" Detective Lonergan suspects Wade of causing Lance's death, but Wade is so frightened by what appears to be the skeleton of his dead brother that he falls off a balcony to his death. Lance's hippie wife, Aimee, shows up to collect the inheritance, and we suspect that she had something to do with the fright campaign that led to Wade's demise. Not a bad little story, though nothing original. Rubeny's artwork holds the pieces together.

Peter: Bloodthirsty relatives? Check. Big inheritance? Check. Phony ghost? Check. Expository for those of us too dumb to see the obvious? Check. Typically good art by Yandoc? Check.

But he's not through with his
gig as one of the Village People!

Jack: Dr. Chang invents a miracle drug that prolongs life. A pharmaceutical company offers its sales rep $1,000,000 to get the secret formula, so he woos and proposes marriage to Chang's lovely assistant. They hatch a plan to poison themselves and Chang so that he will tell them the formula and save all of their lives. But a "Tragedy in Lab 13!" occurs when they get their hands on his notebook and find that all of the writing is in Chinese! I let out a big laugh when I read the end of this one. I did not see that coming. Bravo to the unknown writer who thought this up. The art's not bad, either!

Peter: Oh, poor Jack needs a vacation again. Tell me why these two dopes would drink the poison? There's no logical reason for it. All they'd have to do is lie to Chang and tell them they were feeling the effects as well.

Woe is Woo?!?

Jack: Shanghai, 1947, and Hester Drummond buys a charm in a Chinese curio shop. The salesman tells her that the charm will bring good fortune to the ambitious, so she gives it to her boyfriend, Kevin Ames, and sends him on an undersea treasure hunt. He comes up with valuable loot but barely escapes a man-eating shark. Each time he goes back down for more treasure, the charm weighs heavier on him, until he finally takes it off and becomes shark food. Hester doesn't miss a beat and sends another boyfriend, Paul Wethersford, down to get the charm. The "Curse of the Chinese Charm" ensures that he'll meet the same fate as Kevin, but what does Hester care? It was her ambition that was rewarded. "Chinese Charm" is by the numbers, with no surprises.

Peter: Can you duck a shark underwater? Seems a very hard task to me. This one is utterly drab. The climax reads as though Wessler was under the impression he had a few more pages to wrap up his story and, at the last minute, Murray called down to the lunchroom and told Carl he'd have to cut it short.

Kevin decomposed very quickly

Luis Dominguez
Weird Mystery Tales 14

"Blind Child's Bluff!"
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by Ruben Yandoc

"The Price"
Adaptation by E. Nelson Bridwell
Story ("The Price of the Head")
by John Russell
Art by Alfredo Alcala

"Flight Into Fright"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by Ernie Chan

Peter: Bucky is accused of murdering little Cathy’s parents but Cathy knows her dog had nothing to do with the killings, even if she is blind. No, Cathy is convinced her dead father’s ghost took care of her conniving stepmother and Mr. Jones. When the police arrive to shoot the dog, daddy’s ghost makes an appearance and the cops hightail it. Cathy and Bucky are left all alone in the big house. Well, alone except for daddy. Here’s another really dumb story that was obviously accepted because there would otherwise have been five white pages. I’d opt for the blanks after reading “Blind Child’s Bluff.” So, the bloodthirsty police (“Come on! Shoot! Right between the eyes!”) are convinced there’s a ghost after all and run out the door, leaving little blind Cathy to fend for herself? In what universe?

Jack: That was quick! Another poor story by Steve Skeates. I'm also getting a little tired of Ruben Yandoc's art. Give me more Gerry Talaoc!

Peter:  Pellett is a disgrace, spending most of his days on the Polynesian island of Fufuti in a drunken stupor. The only one who still has faith in Pellett is his man-servant, Karaki, who dutifully hoists him upon his shoulder and takes him home to clean him up after Pellett has closed down every bar on the island. This morning, however, Karaki takes Pellett down to the beach, steals a rifle and a catamaran, and hobbles all the village boats so they can’t follow. They head out to sea where the drunken Pellett finally wakes up with the DTs and queries Karaki as to their destination. Balbi, Karaki’s birth place is the answer. After a month at sea, the duo arrive in Balbi, where a suddenly sober Pellett thanks Karaki for all he’s done for him. Is there anything Pellett can do in kind? In Balbi, a white man’s head is “desired above wealth and fame” and Karaki claims his prize. Based on the short story, “The Price of the Head,” by John Russell, “The Price”  is a shot of class in an issue that needs it badly. I had heard this story dramatized on the old time radio show Escape years ago (and you can listen to that show here) so was familiar with the plot but E. Nelson Bridwell does a great job of condensing and editing out the dry bits and leaving a cohesive, enjoyable narrative. Pellett resigns himself to the fact that he’ll be beheaded but tells Karaki he owes his friend that much and more for all he’s done for him over the years. Alfredo always soars when given a story set in a tropical clime and he doesn't disappoint here.

Jack: "The Price of the Head" by John Russell was first published in the May 20, 1916 issue of Collier's and may be read here. I wish Joe Orlando had done more of these adaptations of classic stories, since they are so much better than most of the new stories written by the DC horror scribes. The art by Alcala is flawless, of course, and Bridwell's script follows the story closely. The story ends with Pellett telling Karaki to shoot; the comic version adds two panels to depict the aftermath, which works well in the graphic story format.

The grim climax of "The Price"

Peter: With the help of hunchback Quasimodo, Count Dracula has opened a travel agency that specializes in showing tourists the vampire country of Transylvania. He signs up three cool, hip cats and accompanies them to his castle, where he shows them the coffins of the vampires. The hippies scoff and this outrages the vampire, who locks them in with the awakening vampires. The flower children manage to escape (faulty locks?) but are attacked by vampire bats outside the castle and bitten. The next day, they are on a plane back to America as children of the night and Dracula smiles as he surveys his new “disciples.” If this was meant to be parody, I’m not laughing. Utterly juvenile, “Flight Into Fright” scrapes the bottom of a seemingly bottomless Kashdan barrel. Why is Dracula free to wander around during the day? Uh, George, some rules might be helpful. And how the hell did the three nitwits get out of that locked dungeon? We see Drac slam the door and a couple pages later they’re free. Uh, George, a little continuity might be helpful. The usually reliable Ernie (Chua) Chan turns in a job that could be conservatively labeled "cartoony." The whole package would have been more comfortable located in the pages of the waning Plop! In a year rife with bilge, this is easily the worst thing we’ve read.

Jack: Was that supposed to be a surprise ending? I wasn't surprised. Had I not read the credits, I would not have known this was drawn by Ernie Chua, since it doesn't look much like his usually fluid work. One thing I am not surprised by, though, is another wasted effort by George Kashdan.

Nick Cardy
Ghosts 32

"The Hellfire Club"
Story Uncredited
Art by ER Cruz

"The Fruit of the Hanging Tree"
Story Uncredited
Art by Luis Dominguez

"The Phantom Laughed Last"
Story by Leo Dorfman
Art by Fred Carrillo

Jack: Peter Hain, a reckless and daring student at Cambridge in 1955, demands to be shown the inside of the room where "The Hellfire Club" held its final meeting 50 years before and then disappeared. After the caretaker gives Peter a history lesson, he opens the door. Peter goes in, sees something horrible, and disappears. Yep, that's it! Not exactly a plot, and Cruz's art doesn't help. For the life of me, I can't tell what happened to Peter.

Peter: I'm with you on the confusing aspects of the story but I thought Cruz's art was decent. I liked how he messed around with the layouts and avoided the same old 6-panels per page Ghosts story art. That doesn't mean it gets a thumbs-up from me but it's nice to see something different in this title now and then.

What is happening here???

Jack: In a small town in Bengal, India, ghostly figures appear each year as "The Fruit of the Hanging Tree," reminding villagers of a brutal crackdown by British soldiers a century before. When an engineer digs up the tree to build a new road, the ghosts of the dead emerge from the pit and go on a rampage until the tree is replanted. This is one of those stories by an uncredited artist where I feel like I recognize the style but I just can't put my finger on it. It's not good, that's for sure.

Peter: Nope, this is not good at all. Well, I'll give it half a star for the eerie panels of the ghosts hanging from the trees. That's pretty cool.

'Cause this is thriller, thriller night---
Jack: Paris, 1830, and Alfred does not believe in ghosts until a specter comes out of his mirror to frighten him. Alfred becomes a famous writer, but the specter torments him for years and really cramps his style with the ladies. Finally, he discovers that "The Phantom Laughed Last," the ghost is himself and he drops dead of "premature old age." It's a trifecta! Three awful stories make up this issue of Ghosts, the comic we love to hate! You know what makes no sense? DC was about to put out a giant-sized edition of Ghosts! I can't wait to see what that entails.

Peter: By the 32nd issue, both Jack and I stand and applaud when a mediocre Ghosts story is presented since we're so used to this bottom-of-the-barrel junk. Pretty sad. What's sadder is that the fabulous DC mystery artists like Dominguez, Carrillo, and Cruz have to illustrate these crappy Dorfman scripts (I'm assuming the other two are by Dorfman but the other two Ghosts standbys, Boltinoff and Wessler, are equally as bad).

Can you run that by us again?

In Our Next TNT-Package!
On Sale June 1st!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

COLD PRINT: Poppy Z. Brite's "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves" and "The Ash of Memory, the Dust of Desire"

by Jose Cruz

I found it in my aunt and uncle's office. It was early afternoon, the combined light of the day outside and the eggshell glow from the bulbs of the rotating fan above giving the setting an innocuous, decidedly mundane atmosphere. But I knew that the book I held in my hands was anything but innocuous or mundane.

The cover looked fairly generic at first glance, emphasis placed on the author’s name rather than the artistic rendition to sell the book. Still, there was something patently forbidden in the pallid, scarred face that stared out off-center, its lips either submerged in the gummy waters of the bayou or covered by cross-hatchings of Spanish moss. Or sewn shut with black voodoo thread. And the title of the book itself: Wormwood. Biblical, ancient, full of whispery pestilence. And just below that an even more telling reveal, a line that explains this short story collection was previously released under the title Swamp Foetus. I was still in middle school when I picked up the book that sunny afternoon, but I still had enough knowledge of these matters to realize that this was horror as I had never conceived before.

It was then that I realized that this Poppy Z. Brite meant business and was, very likely, highly dangerous.

It was only early this year that I finally confronted the work within that forsaken text. My initial apprehensions of Brite being a tawdry peddler in the erotic horror paperback market had been stamped out in the intervening time between that initial encounter and now, appraisals and tributes to her wonderful and unique craft ever-intriguing me to reevaluate that hasty and paranoid assertion I had made as a foolish boy. Diving into Brite’s prose was a full realization of all the praise I had heard.

The renamed collection from Dell (1996)
In her short stories, Brite is audacious and merciless, the viciousness of her narratives honed to a keener edge by the refinement she brings to her work. To read Poppy Z. Brite is to immerse yourself in a cesspool of sensations both thrilling and horrendous: one comes to admire her delectable descriptions of cuisine and landscape with the same fervor as her portrayals of bodily mutilation and raw sexuality. Brite knows that horror is a genre of feelings both physical and emotional, her uniquely trained eye for unconventional imagery and metaphor perfectly suited to elicit frissons in the reader during the course of any one of her poetical tales. Two of them from later in the collection, “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves” and “The Ash of Memory, the Dust of Desire,” are the subject of today’s post.

Reading each story in Wormwood in its presented order allows the reader to pick up on many of Brite’s fascinations and recurrent themes. The underground Goth scene figures heavily in many, as does the rambling, shadowy streets of New Orleans, both of which Brite has called herself a resident. “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves,” therefore, surprises one in its departure from the familiar settings and preoccupations with art and love that came before it. Originally published for Craig Spector’s and John Skipp’s anthology Still Dead (1992), their follow-up to their successful Book of the Dead (1989), the story is another in a gathering of fictions taking place in a universe wherein George Romero's zombies have overtaken the world.

Mark V. Ziesing, 1992
The story is related to us by a nameless narrator (my favorite kind), the son of an American man and Indian woman who was rescued when the hospital he was birthed in burned to the ground, his mother’s bloody body left in the basement morgue after she died in labor. Early on Brite readily establishes her strengths in painting the most vivid pictures with her prose:

[My father] pressed his thin chapped lips to the satin of my hair. I remember opening my eyes—they felt tight and shiny, parched by the flames—and looking up at the column of smoke that roiled in the sky, a night sky blasted cloudy pink like a sky full of blood and milk.

After his despairing father drinks himself to death, the narrator returns to his homeland of Calcutta as a young man.

Calcutta, you will say. What a place to have been when the dead began to walk.

As he sees it, his home has changed very little with the proliferation of the living dead. The city was already a crawling mass of bodies wishing for death, so the sights of zombies eating the entrails of catatonic mothers through their vaginas and munching on the skulls of their children have only become a part of the greater squalor rather than upsetting the social norm.

Not having any responsibilities in a world gone mad (and living in a city that already was), the narrator spends most of his time wandering through the streets overcrowded with ramshackle buildings and watching the degeneracy unfolding around him to preoccupy his time. From the incinerated zombies tossed into the Hooghly River by the police to the rotting beggars who have scarcer meals than the zombies, the narrator witnesses it all with an impassive eye, loving his home all the more with every horrible revelation.

One of his mandatory stops during his trips is the Kalighat, the temple of worship for the goddess Kali. The narrator is entranced by the power and mystifying sex the goddess represents in her monstrous physicality and deathly adornments. As the narrator continues his walks and muses on the practical and metaphysical problems presented by the living dead (a perfunctory explanation linking their reanimation to a biologically-engineered microbe meant to eat plastic waste is the only one given, and briefly), he eventually finds that the labyrinthine streets of the city have led him back to the Kalighat come nightfall. But when he returns to the altar of his beloved mistress, he finds a different kind of congregation gathered in the temple.

I saw human heads balanced on raw stumps of necks, eyes turned up to crescents of silver-white. I saw gobbets of meat that might have been torn from a belly or a thigh. I saw severed hands like pale lotus flowers, the fingers like petals opening silently in the night.

Most of all, piled on every side of the altar, I saw bones. Bones picked so clean that they gleamed in the candlelight. Bones with smears of meat and long snotty runners of fat still attached. Skinny arm-bones, clubby leg-bones, the pretzel of a pelvis, the beadwork of a spine. The delicate bones of children. The crumbling ivory bones of the old. The bones of those that could not run.

These things the dead brought to their goddess. She had been their goddess all along, and they her acolytes.

This macabre diorama, combined with the animation of the sinuous statue itself, compel the narrator to run from the scene back to the ruins of the hospital. He lowers himself into a cradle of ashes, returned to the dust from whence he was born as the dawn of a new day arrives.

Brite’s writing demonstrates such a potent musicality that when paired with these gruesome sights it creates a symphony of terror. “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves” is a narrative of tensions and contradictions. The city is redolent both with beauty and misery; the living dead both of equal standing with the human citizens and perversions of humanity; Kali acting as both a guard of the old faith and the vicious herald of the New World Order. The best writers have the power to take your breath away, to make you envious of their gifts, to keep you thinking long after you’ve finished that last sentence. Poppy Z. Brite does all of this with “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves” and had it been her only story the world could only be so thankful to have at least gotten this little masterpiece from her.

“Calcutta…” presents a vivid depiction of a social horror eating away like a cancer, and in this way it is similar to “The Ash of Memory, the Dust of Desire,” but the latter tale is more secretive where the former was illustrative, dwelling more in the pockets of darkness in between the “candyscapes of nighttime lights” than in the glaring light of the unflinching sun.

St. Martin's Press, 1991
Originally appearing in Dead End: City Limits (1991) edited by Paul F. Olson and David B. Silva, “The Ash of Memory…” is a tale of the modern city, or what would at first appear to be the modern city. The stink and spice of India is left behind in favor of the steely cool of the American metropolis (its exact name is never given) where our narrator, Jonny, works as head chef for the posh hotel restaurant the Blue Shell with his aspiring artist friend Cleve. Jonny’s girlfriend Leah spent a passionate night with Cleve for which the couple is still feeling the emotional shockwaves from, their intimacy gradually crumbling in the wake of the infidelity. Not only that, but Leah has found out she is pregnant. The baby could belong to either man.

Conflicted by his feelings for both Leah and Cleve, Jonny continues to kick back and listen to jazz records with Cleve and comfort Leah in her times of need even when she makes her resentment of his boyish sweetness known to him. When she gets an appointment with a private doctor in a run-down neighborhood to carry out the abortion, Jonny decides to accompany her despite his fear of the decrepit district.

Other parts of the city were more dangerous, but to me the old factories and mills were the most frightening places. The places where abandoned machinery sat silent and brooding, and twenty-foot swaths of cobweb hung from the disused cogs and levers like dusty gray curtains. The places that everyone mostly stayed away from, mostly left alone with the superstitious reverence given all graveyards. But once in a while something would be found in the basement of a factory or tucked into the backroom of a warehouse. A head, once, so badly decomposed that no one could ever put a face to it. The gnawed bones and dried tendons and other unpalatable parts of a wino, jealously guarded by a pack of feral dogs. This was where the free clinic was; this was where certain doctors set up their offices, and where desperate girls visited them.

There’s a telling reveal in Jonny’s words about the head that “no one could ever put a face to it.” This description not only speaks to his fear of the city’s erosion of identity and how a distinct human body can be reduced to a nameless pile of remains that no one can mourn but also his fear of the random, anonymous incidents themselves. Early in the story Jonny speaks of “the grand melodramatic murders” that the city hosts, but one never gets the impression that Jonny speaks of these things as products of human nature. The atrocities he describes in the quoted passage seem to be attributed to a greater and more arcane horror, victims erased from existence by the very environment rather than some mortal perpetrator. This notion is lent more credence as the tale advances.


When Jonny and Leah begin arguing after having difficulty finding the doctor’s office, Jonny runs off, his impotent rage leveled only by his blind devotion to Leah, leading him to make sure that she remains in earshot as she gives chase to him. But Jonny ends up losing track of her, finding evidence that Leah had taken a spill outside an alley before seemingly disappearing from the spot. This is where Brite demonstrates a touch for queasy suspense, ratcheting up the tension as Jonny sees a worn sign pointing down the alley marked with their destination.

But whereas the couple had been searching for “127 Payne Street,” the sign indicates that he has found “Pain Street,” and the number itself is scratched into the face of a yawning metal door leading into one of the ghostly factories. There he discovers the corpse of a young girl “half buried and half dissolved into the grime and ash of the factory floor,” one of the miserably impregnated who sought the aid of a doctor years ago and only found death. Jonny quickly sees that Leah has come to a similar end herself: she’s been run through with one of the towering machine’s gleaming, organic hooks and lifted into the air, the desiccated fetus ripped from her abdomen. The sight leaves Jonny maddened and haunted in the tradition of the Lovecraftian narrator, but any melodramatics are played down with Brite’s eloquent style.

I no longer thought I knew something about love.

Now I knew what love was all about.

A reprint from Penguin Books (1995)
Like “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves,” “The Ash of Memory, the Dust of Desire” leaves off with all its horrors intact, the narrators left to study their lives—or whatever may be left of them—as the dark forces of the unknown continue their work and propagation in the background. The latter story would make a favorable pairing with Clive Barker’s “The Midnight Meat Train,” another tale concerned with the bloody black magic of the old ways literally existing underneath a veneer of modernity. While Barker gives his terrors a face, Brite leaves her story ambiguous. Who or what is controlling these machines? Are they sentient? How did they come to be? Like many things of this earth, there’s more to it than anything Brite or Jonny could have dreamt up in their philosophies.

Both of Brite’s stories are in the end concerned with the unloved and the unwanted. The narrator from “Calcutta” is the product of a fatal birth, one he believes his mother may have despised him for, and an undesirable child is the whole driving force in "The Ash of Memory...". Though separated by hundreds of geographic miles, Leah and the catatonic mothers of India are in their hearts one in the same, victims of circumstances both within and without of their control, food for monsters. It shows us that in spite of our differences, horror is a tie that binds us.

Brite now identifies as Billy Martin, and you can find his blog here.