Thursday, June 29, 2023

The Hitchcock Project-Charlotte Armstrong Part One-Across the Threshold [5.22]

by Jack Seabrook

Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969) was born in Michigan and began writing plays in 1939 before switching to novels in 1942. She wrote 29 novels in her career and was known as a master of suspense; she was awarded an Edgar in 1957 for A Dram of Poison. She also wrote short stories, beginning in 1948, and a handful of teleplays from 1955 to 1960, including three for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the Startime episode, "Incident on a Corner," which was the only TV show directed by Alfred Hitchcock to be filmed in color. Three episodes of Thriller were based on her novels, and her papers are held at Boston University's Gottleib Center. There is a website devoted to her here. See here for a discussion of "The Five-Forty Eight," which she adapted from a John Cheever story.

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Charlotte Armstrong
Armstrong's first teleplay for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Across the Threshold," is a delightful, compact twenty-two-minute film with just three actors that manages to combine crime and humor in a way that is both satisfying and surprising. Hubert Wintor may be a grown man, but he still lives with his mother, Sophy, whose attention and kindness he finds stifling. He is not very different from the caged bird she keeps in the living room; neither is able to escape Mother's limitations. She still thinks of her late husband Arthur as "'just across the threshold, waiting'" even though he has been dead for six years. Mother tells Hubert that she worries about the dead man being lonely and her son is stopped in his tracks when she remarks that it would be simple to go to him--she kept the medicine from his last illness, which is poisonous in large doses.

Hubert tells Mother about a new medium he's heard of and she asks him to help her try again to contact Arthur. Mother calls Hubert a "'dear, thoughtful boy,'" but the viewer sees another side of him from his bored posture and his silent mimicry of Mother's oft-repeated sayings.

Patricia Collinge as Sophy Wintor
The scene dissolves to a woman's legs, reclining in bed, and a sting from a horn on the soundtrack announces that this woman is not someone of whom Mother would approve. There is a knock at the door and Irma jumps up to admit Hubert; after they embrace, he disappoints her by telling her that he has to get back to Mother soon, while she complains that she waited in an agent's office for three hours and is flat broke. He suggests a solution to both of their problems: Irma can pretend to be a medium and help Mother get in touch with Arthur.

The scene fades out as Hubert and Irma kiss; it fades back in on a closeup of Irma, now dressed as a medium and at Mother's home, preparing for the seance. "Miss Collett" is garbed in black and speaks in a vaguely Eastern European accent, explaining that she will channel a princess from Ancient Egypt. "'She married her brother,'" says the fake medium; "'they all did, you know.'" Lines like this amuse the viewer but are close enough to what a real medium might say that they fool Mother.

The seance proceeds without a hitch, as Irma displays her acting skill, Mother is convinced of her veracity, and Hubert sits on the arm of Mother's chair, right behind her, smirking and silently mouthing the lines he has fed to Irma. Mother begs Irma to return for another seance and the actress agrees. After a brief scene between Hubert and Mother, the fake medium returns for a second visit, during which Irma says that she sees Arthur "'standing at the end of a long, dark passage,'" waiting to receive Sophy. Mother asks if he's happy and he replies, through the medium, that he's lonely and misses her. As Irma speaks these words in Arthur's voice, Hubert mouths them silently, demonstrating once again that he has taught the actress her lines.

George Grizzard as Hubert
Miss Collett leaves and Mother tells Hubert that she now understands that she must use the medicine to join her late husband the next evening. "'Tomorrow evening, then, Arthur'" she says, looking up to Heaven. The next day, Mother has prepared carefully for her suicide, paying all of her bills and even dusting the piano. There is more gentle humor here, as Mother continues to put off the inevitable by making sure to have "'everything just so,'" sending Hubert out to mail the bills and reassuring him that he need not worry.

Hubert stops at Irma's to tell her that Mother is about to commit suicide and Irma questions the morality of what they've done; Hubert has no qualms and tells her that she's in it just as much as he is and can't interfere without implicating herself in an act of criminal fraud. He grabs Irma roughly and tells her to "'sit and wait and be patient.'" He leaves, promising wealth and a honeymoon trip to Europe.

Back at home, Mother brings Hubert his robe and a drink, explaining that she wants them to act as if they're just having one of their usual, comfortable evenings together. She has a glass of poisoned wine by her chair and finally sits down, but just as she is about to take a drink, she sees a basket of loose yarn and insists on tidying it up. There is a cut to Irma, who picks up the telephone and calls the police, then the scene cuts back to Hubert and Mother, who reassures her son that she has left a note and prepared her will. Hubert also has a drink and proposes a toast to "'Daddy'"; he drains his glass but Mother hesitates and watches Hubert closely, as he begs her not to delay. Suddenly, Hubert clutches his throat, at which point Mother tells him that "'I've only been waiting to see you safely over the threshold.'" Poisoning Hubert was just one more task that Mother had to check off of her mental list, not wanting to leave her son alone when she joined her late husband in the hereafter!

Barbara Baxley as Irma
Hubert clutches his throat and looks at her in horror, unable to speak, as she tells him: "'Now you'll be with Mummy and Daddy for always.'" He passes out and a siren is heard outside, as the police approach the house in response to Irma's call. Mother tells Arthur that she has attended to everything and, just as she is about to drink her fatal glass of wine, the police ring the doorbell, and her suicide is again delayed as she gets up to answer the door. The screen fades to black as she approaches the door.

Arthur Hiller directs "Across the Threshold" so that it moves briskly from start to finish, and the performances by the three actors are excellent. As Sophy, Patricia Collinge is sweet and suffocating; her calm decision to murder her son in order to prevent him from being separated from her is an example of motherly love that borders on insanity. She will surely be arrested and convicted of murder, which will only delay her reunion with her late husband.

George Grizzard, as Hubert, is calculating, duplicitous, and cruel; he comes up with a way to drive his mother to commit suicide and enlists the aid of his girlfriend, threatening her when she begins to have moral concerns. As Irma, Barbara Baxley is both sexy and innocent; in her first scene, she seems willing to move in with Mother in order to marry Hubert, and when she has given his plan some thought, she goes against his wishes and calls the police. "Across the Threshold" plays like a comedy but is in the end a tragedy; mother murders son before he can engineer her suicide!

"The Dark Passage" was
first published here
The credits for "Across the Threshold" say that the teleplay is by Charlotte Armstrong, based on a short story by L.B. Gordon. According to The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion, the source story is "The Queen," which appeared in the April 1958 issue of John Creasey Mystery Magazine, a British digest that is hard to find these days in the U.S. I received a scan of the story from the British Library in London and, when I read "The Queen," it was clear that it was not the story by L.B. Gordon upon which Armstrong based her teleplay. "The Queen" is a short horror story involving a detective who visits a mysterious woman he suspects of murder; he ends up on the verge of being consumed by her collection of spiders!

A review of other stories by L.B. Gordon listed in the FictionMags Index suggested that the correct story might be "The Dark Passage," which was published in the July 1959 issue of John Creasey's Mystery Magazine. Additional research suggested that, in the Clifford Whitworth Library at the University of Salford, there is a teleplay by Charlotte Armstrong titled "The Dark Passage," based on a story by L.B. Gordon; however, when I contacted that library, they had no knowledge of the teleplay. Perhaps Joan Harrison decided to change the title of the episode prior to its airing to avoid confusion with the 1947 Humphrey Bogart film, Dark Passage.

I was able to secure a scan of "The Dark Passage" from the British Library and, to my delight, the story is the source for "Across the Threshold." To my surprise, Charlotte Armstrong not only made small changes to the story's details, she made a big change to its ending!

As the story opens, Hubert's thoughts are on the 20,000 pounds he expects to inherit from his mother, a monetary figure never mentioned in the TV show. He works in an office, unlike his TV counterpart, who has recently lost his job. Hubert suggests hiring "'Miss Irma Collett'" to hold a seance and thinks she would not charge "'more than twenty-five guineas a sitting'"; in the TV show, payment is never mentioned. Hubert asks Mother if she "'wouldn't wish to leave me even to join father,'" planting the seed of an idea in her mind that will later result in his death.

Irma is a very different character in the story, lacking the TV version's soft side and moral concerns. She insists on being paid thirty guineas a session and expresses no desire to move in with Hubert and his mother. In fact, she never mentions being an actress or being broke, as she does in the TV show. The first session unfolds as it does on TV, but Irma slows things down in the second and ends up having five seances in all so that she can collect additional fees.

On the final night, Mother and Hubert have dinner together and she confirms with her son that he should never be afraid to meet death; he does not realize that she means to kill him. "'You are the real sufferer--the only sufferer,'" she tells him, adding "'Poor boy.'" At the end, unlike the TV show, Mother and Hubert both drink their drinks. Hubert becomes sleepy from the drug and hears Mother saying that she will be with him. Unlike the TV version, where Irma has an attack of conscience and calls the police, in the short story Irma is not seen again after the fifth seance. Yet Mother tells her dying son that she has left all of her money to Irma, "'to be used for Psychical research.'" She then tells Hubert that she will follow him soon "'over the threshold'" and the story ends with her admitting that she poisoned him. However, unlike the TV show, she has drunk the poison as well and will die; there is no hesitation on her part and no doorbell being rung by the police.

"The Dark Passage" thus ends, in part, as does "Across the Threshold," with the surprise of mother poisoning son, but in Gordon's story she commits suicide as well. Charlotte Armstrong's decision to change the end of the episode so that Mother survives is an extra twist that adds irony to the conclusion; it is fitting that the woman who is so insistent on making sure everything is taken care of lives while her son dies. The author's choice to humanize Irma is also welcome since it serves to deepen her character and make her more sympathetic.

L.B. Gordon, who wrote "The Dark Passage," wrote short stories that were published in British magazines between 1957 and 1965. 

"Across the Threshold" is directed by Arthur Hiller (1923-2016). Born in Canada, he had a long career as a director, from 1954 to 2006, starting out in TV and ending up in film. He was president of the Director's Guild of America from 1989 to 1993 and directed 17 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Disappearing Trick." He also directed three episodes of Thriller and the classic comedy, The In-Laws (1979).

Patricia Collinge (1892-1974) stars as Sophia Wintor. She was born in Dublin, Ireland, and began her career on stage in 1904, coming to the United States with her mother in 1907. Collinge appeared on Broadway from 1908 to 1952 and played roles on screen from 1941 to 1967. Her films included Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and she was seen on the Hitchcock TV show six times, including "The Landlady."

Her son Hubert is played by George Grizzard (1928-2007), who was on screen from 1955 to 2006, working more on television than on film. He had a Broadway career that spanned the same years and he was in the original cast of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Grizzard was seen in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Fog Closing In," as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone and Thriller and the famous Bus Stop episode, "I Kiss Your Shadow."

Barbara Baxley (1923-1990) plays Irma. She was an Actor's Studio graduate who started out on stage and had a long career on screen from 1950 to 1990. She was on The Twilight Zone and can be seen in six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including Ray Bradbury's "Design for Loving" (with Norman Lloyd), John Collier's "Anniversary Gift" and Henry Slesar's "The Case of M.J.H."

Watch "Across the Threshold" online here or buy the DVD here.


"Across the Threshold." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 5, episode 22, CBS, 28 Feb. 1960.


Galactic Central,

Gordon, L.B. "The Dark Passage." John Creasey's Mystery Magazine, July 1959, 85-95.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001. 



Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "Nightmare in 4-D" here!

In two weeks: Our series on Charlotte Armstrong concludes with a look at "Sybilla," starring Barbara Bel Geddes!

Monday, June 26, 2023

Batman in the 1980s Issue 85: July 1989


The Dark Knight in the 1980s
by Jack Seabrook &
Peter Enfantino

Batman #435

"The Many Deaths of the Batman 
Chapter Three: The Last Death of the Batman"
Story by John Byrne
Art by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo

A woman named Mary McGinnis is found dead in her apartment. Before she died, she managed to scratch the Batman emblem in the carpet with her fingernail. At Stately Wayne Manor, Bruce Wayne is going crazy because he is being guarded by a protective police squad and can't escape to the Batcave. Commissioner Gordon is at his desk, discussing with the unnamed female pathologist the mystery of the seven Batmen recently murdered. She has determined that the second victim was dead before he was blown up, leading Gordon to wonder if the murders are all an elaborate plot to cover up one killing.

In the suburbs, Sally interrupts Jerry and we see that he was putting a Batman costume in a box. Alfred distracts the cops on duty with some food and Batman gets to work, first researching the victims on the Bat-computer and then visiting the hotel room of Aurelius Boch, who has been summoned to Gotham City from Austria by a mysterious note from a Mr. Smith, which is the name he knew Bruce Wayne by. Batman recalls that, years earlier, Boch taught him about toxicology. Unfortunately, the cops enter and announce that Boch was killed the day before; Batman visits Gordon and "the doctor" at the morgue, where an autopsy is in progress, and tells them that each victim was killed "in the manner of expertise of the next victim" and they all had a connection to Batman--they were the men who trained him.

Jerry, calling himself Mr. Jones, visits a man named Shastri and claims to be Batman; Shastri says that he never tutored an American and Jones realizes that Shastri is Batman in disguise. Jones throws an electrified Batsuit at Shastri/Batman, injuring him, and escapes, insisting that he has created a new life and Batman will never be able to trace or harm "us." Back at the Batcave, Batman tells Alfred that Jerry is really Stone, the second man murdered, and the earlier murder victim was not really Stone. It seems Stone is one of the people who trained Batman and now he's trying to hide to protect himself. Jerry confesses this to Sally, not knowing that Batman is watching. Jerry visits another man and makes him don a Batman costume, but before Jerry/Stone can kill him, Batman appears, calling Stone by his real name, which is Sawyer, and disarms him, explaining that when he killed Mary McGinnis, he left a clue that led Batman right to him. Gordon arrives to arrest Jerry Sawyer and Batman heads off to break the bad news to Sally.

A rare early appearance
by Ben Affleck as
millionaire Bruce Wayne
Jack: Holy smoke, that was complicated! Sorry for the long synopsis, but I had a lot to explain. It all made sense in the end but it was one goofy plan that Sawyer had, requiring him to kill multiple people in order to protect himself and his girlfriend/wife from potential harm if someone ever found out that he had a hand in training Batman. Aparo and DeCarlo's art is not quite as strong in this issue as it was in the last couple of issues; perhaps he got worn out trying to follow the twists and turns of Byrne's convoluted plot. It's interesting that the writers of the Bat-titles are starting to develop a narrative of what happened between when Bruce's parents were murdered and when he became Batman--perhaps it's the influence of Year One?

Peter: "Year Three" is right around the corner, Jack! And let's hope it's better than this sleep-fest. You're being way too kind by calling it "complicated"; I'd use the word "ridiculous." Or maybe "padded." It's also the antithesis of the first chapter, the one with no dialogue, two issues ago. John Byrne over-explains everything. Batman's monologue about Stone's reasoning behind dressing up his victims as Batman made no sense to me whatsoever. Wouldn't it have been a heck a lot easier for Stone to just start a fire in the Gotham Home for Wayward Kids, wait 'til the Dark Knight showed up, and plug him with a rifle from a neighboring grassy knoll? 

There sure are a lot of people out there who assisted Bats in his training. To think Bruce Wayne scoured the Earth to find an expert in everything that's anything. It's a pity Stone never made it to the woman's lingerie expert or the expert on sitcoms or that guy who knows everything about wine. I'm still waiting to find out who built the Batcave. Inexplicably, the art by Aparo and DeCarlo is awful; Bruce Wayne looks different every time he shows up. Amateur hour all around.

Detective Comics #602

"Tulpa Part Two: Night Moves"
Story by Alan Grant
Art by Norm Breyfogle & Steve Mitchell

Jason Blood and his faithful sidekick, Randu, sit in Blood's Sanctum playing chess when Randu is struck with a feeling... a disturbance in the force. The feeling fades and the two men return to their game.

Across town, Batman is prowling the streets of Gotham, searching for the man who broke into Wayne Manor and assaulted Alfred. Though the bat-tracer Al attached to his assailant has gone dead, Bats is confident he can track the thug anyway. He notices Rafe Kellogg and his merry bunch of hoods far below and decides to follow them, knowing that where Rafe goes, trouble follows.

Kellogg has come to collect his loan interest from Tenzin but Rafe's once-flustered prey seems confident this time around. In fact, he tells Kellogg he'll pay him exactly zilch. Kellogg flips out and wallops Tenzin across the head with a handy leg bone and then watches in shock as a giant six-armed creature, axe in hand, bursts through the door, screaming "I am Makahala and you gonna die!"

Batman finally decides to burst through what's left of the door and protect the bad guys from the giant but he quickly discovers this is no man in a suit. This is a real, honest to gosh demon! Tenzin is badly wounded and Rafe and a couple of his men survive the onslaught and head out the door. Bats tries to defend himself from the monster with six arms but that's not a winning prospect. Our hero finally goes down for the count. Makahala heads out into the night, searching for his targets.

The Dark Knight awakens, calls an ambulance, and listens as Tenzin explains to him the origin of the creature. Knowing only a supernatural force can eliminate this menace before it kills again, Batman heads to the home of Jason Blood to beg for the help of Etrigan, Blood's inner Demon. Blood refuses but Randu offers his help and he and Batman exit. Meanwhile, realizing he can't ventilate a demon and his bodyguard army is dwindling, Kellogg flags down a patrol car and begs to be arrested. The cops laugh him off until Makahala shows up. No laughing matter.

 I guess I've joined the Breyfogle fan club, because I really enjoyed his work on this story. He draws a cool Batmobile and the demon is impressive. I was not expecting a guest shot by the Demon/Jason Blood, but it seems to make sense, though I thought it odd that Batman went to his house and knocked on the door asking for help. They probably teamed up at some point in Brave and Bold, but it's unusual for Batman to pop over to the home of another superhero for aid, especially a second-tier one like the Demon. I was lost when Blood and his friend mentioned a recent battle with Darkseid, since I haven't followed the late-'80s Demon exploits.

Peter: I think Batman pleading for the help of Jason Blood makes a lot of sense since he knows he's fighting a demon and may need a little extra help, the kind of aid that Green Lantern or even Superman might not be able to bring. I've never read a Demon comic (don't even get me started on Jack Kirby's DC comics of the 1970s--yeccccch!) so I had no idea who these two cats were until the name "Etrigan" surfaced. That rang a bell and so I did a quick deep internet dive. Alan Grant once again knows how to keep those pages turning; he packs the action but also knows how to pace it to keep us on edge. Should be a great conclusion!

Next Week...
Battle of the Demons!

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Journey Into Strange Tales Issue 89: Atlas/ Marvel Horror


The Marvel/Atlas 
Horror Comics
Part 74
November 1954
by Peter Enfantino

Journey into Mystery

Cover by Sol Brodsky

“Behind the Locked Door!” (a: Pete Tumlinson)

“The Un-Human!” (a: John Forte)

“The Little Things!” (a: Howard Post) ★★★

“It Waits in the Tank!” (a: Vince Colletta) ★★1/2

“The Witch Burning” (a: Ed Winiarski)

A woman scientist makes a robot duplicate of her beau so that he can carry on a life of crime and have an airtight alibi. “Behind the Locked Door!” is one totally forgettable hunk of ludicrosity, a perfect example of the dumbing-down of the Atlas horror titles that was coming fast down the pike. Clunky writing (Sudden evil enshrouded the doctor as hypnosis claimed him thru the camouflaged instrument of the distant masters… rendering him pliable to the brain probing…) and unimaginative visuals sink “The Un-Human!,” the tale of a creature from space who impersonates a kindly old professor’s assistant. 

Joe can’t stand the little statues his wife, Alice, buys to clutter up the house but she’s a very large woman so Joe knows there’s not a thing he can do about it. Then, one day while Alice is out, Joe accidentally breaks a figurine of a rabbit and the real thing materializes, running around the room. To test his new power, Joe takes a handful of small animal figurines (ignoring the elephant statue for obvious reasons) into the backyard and starts hurling fastballs at the fence. Suddenly, the yard is teeming with wild life. A light bulb goes on over Joe’s head: here’s the perfect way to get rid of his annoying wife. Joe goes back to the curio shop where Alice buys her toys, buys a rattlesnake statue, and leaves the bag on the kitchen table. He heads out for some errands and then comes home, grabs the bag and throws it against the wall. Alice, having heard him come in, tells Joe she took the snake back to the shop and traded it in for a replica of an A-Bomb!

Yes, it’s dumber than a Titanic sequel, but “The Little Things” has an undeniable charm and wit to it absent from 90% of the Atlas fare at this time. The final twist, that Alice would buy an A-Bomb statue rather than, say, a walrus, makes no sense but that’s okay. It makes for a hilarious bang. And Howie Post’s rough sketches are uber-sharp, stylish in a way that’s missing from the first two installments this issue. Post’s work is very reminiscent of that of Harvey Kurtzman, and the Atlas titles could have used more Howie.

Jules Farren, “eminent authority on tropical fish,” is intrigued by the old man who approaches him after a lecture and tells Jules he owns several deep water fish not catalogued by modern man. Jules follows the strange old man back to his small apartment and, indeed, spies several odd species swimming to and fro in the man’s tank. The stranger tells Jules about the folklore that these fish may have been born in Atlantis and have the power to grow into man-like creatures. Jules is astonished when the man hands him a sack containing several of the little creatures as a gift, and he races home to add them to his collection.

Jules adds the new specimens to his tank but, shortly thereafter, notices the rest of the fish disappear and the only one left hides behind the tanks’s greenery, allowing Jules only a glimpse of its eyes. Eventually, the old man’s words come to life and Jules is faced with a nightmare he can never escape. A tad Lovecraftian in vibe, “It Waits in the Tank!” is a fairly unsettling thriller with a very creepy reveal. Vinnie Colletta’s work here is nowhere near as polished as it was back in “The Machine Age”  (Uncanny Tales #18), but it’s effective nonetheless. 

        Our caboose this issue, “The Witch Burning” concerns John Burton, who comes from a long line of witch burners. At first, John ignores his calling and attends to his crop but then finds he’s taken a liking to watching women burn. As with most of these mean-spirited and righteous human monsters, John gets his comeuppance. None of the events transcribed in “The Witch Burning” are interesting. It’s the same old song and dance, with some truly wretched Winiarski art to make the trek that much more grueling.

Marvel Tales 128

Cover by Harry Anderson

“Emily” (a: Pete Tumlinson) ★★

(r: Chamber of Chills #14)

“When a Vampire Dies” (a: Sid Greene) ★★

(a: Dracula Lives #5)

“The Man Who Meddled!” (a: Ed Winiarski) 1/2

(r: Where Monsters Dwell #33)

“Walking Horror” (a: Tom Cooke)

(r: Amazing Adventures #23)

“Oh, Baby!” (a: John Forte) ★★★

Poor “Emily,” not exactly the belle of the ball and lacking in social skills. Her “friends” mock her and her strange hobbies but Emily does the best she can. Her new hobby is flying saucers, like the one that just landed on her roof. Funny thing though, she’s the only one who can see it and every one else tells her she’s a loon. When she gets up to the roof and stands before the UFO, the hatch swings back and a four-eyed green-hued alien pops out, proposes to Emily, and then gives her a giant engagement ring. 

“Put it on now,” explains the creature, “so that when my people come back to eliminate the human race, they’ll know not to touch you.” Emily is so excited about her new beau (“even if it is an ugly little creature from outer space!”), she heads back to the party at her friend’s house to tell them about the upcoming invasion. But when she enters the celebration, her pals start right in on her again with their nasty comments and Emily decides to remain silent. A cute little SF tale with some fab noir visuals by Pete Tumlinson. The smug look on Emily’s face in that final panel is priceless.

A kindly vampire, assigned to a small village in Eastern Europe, is attacked by fools who have no idea what happens "When a Vampire Dies...". They learn very quickly after they've staked their resident Prince of Darkness that a more vicious creature takes his place. The story side of “When a Vampire Dies…” is not bad, bordering on "cute," but the Sid Greene art is just awful, almost as primitive as kindergarten sketches, and the punch line's a little lazy.

In the ludicrous (and downright ugly) “The Man Who Meddled!,” Dr. Paul Hartwick is working on a super secret formula designed to speed up the life cycle of mice (in order to get medical results faster, whatever that means). Mr. Butterfingers attempts to blast the rodents with the Cyclotron (and he’s never even read the owner’s manual!), leading to an explosive disaster. Hartwick is exposed to cyclo-radiation and, wouldn’t you know it, just before his son is born. Tragically, the kid becomes an old man in just two weeks and dies in his crib, but at least Hartwick knows his experiment worked. The single scene of the parents reacting to their child’s death is grim stuff, but the rest of the tale is stuffed with road apples.

Hiram Wolf is born an ugly freak and stays hidden for 37 years in a basement dungeon, fed through a slot in a door. He refuses to go out in public, not wanting to be known as the “Walking Horror.” His psyche shattered, Hiram finally decides to end it all by setting fire to his room. After his dead body is dragged out onto the street, we see he’s a normal-looking man and everyone around him is an ugly alien. No explanation is given for Hiram’s predicament; whether he’s living in hell or on Mars or some alternate Earth, we never know. Since every face is either in shadow or (in the case of Hiram) covered by arms, the “twist” is evident from panel one and any suspense is diminished considerably.

The baby came late in the lives of Jim and Martha but both were sure they would be wonderful parents. So why is there this gnawing at the back of Jim’s brain that “baby” can understand everything his parents are saying? Little things (books being taken off the shelf, Martha’s obsession with remaining by the child’s side day and night, etc,) bug Jim until one day he gives ol’ Doc Hinton a call to come over and give the little rug rat a complete physical. 

Hinton emerges from the room a shaken man, explaining to Jim that the little monster is dangerous. As he’s about to get into his Studebaker, Hinton collapses dead as “baby’ looks on, smiling, from the window above. Jim races up to the nursery just as the little crumb-cruncher is tossing a book out of his playpen and stops short. Martha enters and asks Jim what he’s doing in the nursery and Jim admits he can’t remember why he entered nor why he’d be reading a book titled Normal Child Behavior. “Baby” looks on approvingly. Though I’d have preferred a more able draftsman been assigned to “Oh, Baby!,” I must admit that when it comes time to elicit a chill, John Forte comes through with his final “baby” panel. This is another one of those rare instances where Stan didn’t require his (uncredited) writer to provide the standard gamma ray/radiation excuse for baby’s almost demonic powers. The climax also leaves a lot of other questions unanswered, such as Martha’s part in her child’s unsocial behavior and leaves the door open for world-wide conquest. 

Mystery Tales 23

Cover by Joe Maneely & Carl Burgos

“Shrinko!” (a: Art Peddy) ★★1/2

“The Burning Truth” (a: Mort Meskin & George Roussos) ★★★

“Violence!” (a: Bill Savage & Jack Abel) ★★

“Fit for a Corpse” (a: Carl Hubbell)

“The Madman!” (a: Ed Winiarski) ★★1/2

“Shrinko!” is a fairly amusing tale of two con men who come up with the idea of selling “Shrinking Formula” (every man and woman can then make their food budget stretch and make their house look bigger) and make millions. Problem is, the stuff works too well, and they’re the only two people in New York over a few inches tall. The stuff even shrinks all the buildings! That last bit isn’t exactly explained but the whole romp has an Abbott and Costello feel to it, so don’t go looking for reasoning. Just enjoy the five-page ride.

Professor/Explorer Gerald Framson stands on the island of Krakatoa as its mammoth volcano erupts. When he wonders aloud why the mountain should pick now to blow its top, a native tells him to see witch doctor, Karo Batak. Framson quickly finds the witch doctor and is told that the “fire people” inside the volcano can answer the nosey scientist’s questions. Taking Karo’s word on faith, Framson climbs the mountain and falls into the volcano as it’s spitting lava.


Instead of burning to death, the scientist awakens later to find himself inside a huge city, governed by a king and his daughter, Pyra. The king explains to Framson that the volcano erupts every time one of the red-skinned  citizens of this lost city commits a sin. Framson beams at the knowledge only he possesses and Pyra leads him away.

The two quickly fall in love and Pyra invites her new beau to remain in the volcano city forever. Framson explains that he has a wife back in London and has to get back there before she misses him. He says his goodbyes and hops a freighter back to England. Unbeknownst to Gerald Framson, his wife, Linda, is in the arms of another man when he attempts to open the locked apartment door. Linda hustles her muscle out the back door and gives her returning bread-winner a big hug. When she tells Gerald she missed him, the professor ignites in flame and Linda is burnt to ashes! He looks at his skin turned red and realizes the truth. A boat will take too long so he boards a plane back to Krakatoa and rejoins Pyra who confesses she transformed Framson into one of the volcano people with her kiss. Gerald and Pyra live happily ever after.

“The Burning Truth!” is truly a relic of olden days even in 1954. The “Lost City” saga had been a linchpin of the funny books for decades but had become somewhat passé by this time (ironically, it would become en vogue again when Lee and Kirby revolutionized superheroes in the early 1960s). “The Burning Truth!” does not add anything new to the canon but contains a few points of interest. There is no villain here (unless you consider the adulterous Linda) nor greedy explorer searching for the gold of Krakatoa nor world-threatening plot. Just a decent fantasy about true love. Gotta admit that the panel of Linda’s ashes made me laugh out loud. How sick am I?

A sadistic white hunter has the tables turned on him when his boat sinks in a storm and he’s left to defend himself against his animal prisoners. “Violence!” has a clever twist in its tail but one must first wade through some truly awful writing (To him, the great beast was the symbol of Africa… Africa which he hated, but to which he had fled from his own kind and their social system when he had been outcast because of his rottenness…) and the art of Savage and Abel, which has the same effect as general anesthesia. 

Escaped maniac, Kirk Reed, hides from the police in an old tailor’s store. He forces the man to make him a suit and the man complies. The police break in and shoot Reed, commenting that it’s weird that Reed would hide in the shop of a shroud-maker. “Fit for a Corpse” gives away what little surprise it holds in store right smack dab in the title. No matter, this is strictly amateur hour in both script and art departments (this was Carl Hubbell’s tenth and final foray into the Atlas Horror Universe). The only chuckle I got was unintentional. When Reed first escapes, he steps into a bar, only to hear on the radio: “—Kirk Reed was last seen in the waterfront area! He is armed and dangerous! About 5 feet tall, dark hair —- tattoo on his right arm —-“). Kirk should have felt pretty safe since, according to Hubbell’s visuals, Reed is just as tall as every other man in the strip, he’s wearing a suit coat (which covers up his tattoo), and he’s blonde! So much for artists reading their scripts.

Professor Standish and a group of his colleagues have invented a better, more fair system of government and they are about to set wheels in motion. But before they launch their brainstorm, Standish decides he needs to take a trip into the future to see what that government might look like. He’s appalled to see the common man in chains and restricted to their small homes every night at curfew. The government makes all decisions for its people. Sorta like communism. 

Anyway, Standish decides he’s going to assassinate the “Leader,” the man who holds control over everything. The professor breaks into the palace, shoots the leader, and heads back to his time machine, with soldiers chasing him. As he’s entering, he hears one of the men scream to another that the man fleeing just killed Standish, the Leader. “The Madman!” serves a dual purpose; to remind everyone that Stan was still reading those EC sci-fi comics, and for Stan to remind everyone in the Senate which side he was on.

Mystic 34

Cover by Russ Heath

“The Murder That Wasn’t…!” (a: Tony DiPreta) ★★1/2

“The Thing in Space!” (a: Tony Mortellaro) ★★

“The Man Who Couldn’t Come Back!” (a: Sid Check & Harry Anderson) ★★

“Why?” (a: Chuck Winter)

“Ivan the Terrible!” (a: Tom Cooke) ★★

At a gathering of friends, Joe Ryan pulls out a “mystery film” he picked up at a curio shop on his way home. The film comes with no label so Joe has no idea what will flicker across the screen but his friends are up for a good flick. What is unveiled though is not what Joe had been hoping for: the short reel shows Joe himself, murdering a rough character on the street. His friend, Frank, stands up and immediately slaps cuffs on the shocked Joe, and hauls him off to the police precinct. Joe is put on trial but has a good lawyer, one who asks the jury how they could convict a man when there is no corpus as evidence. Our hero is released but his wife has left him and his friends still think he’s a murderer. Heading home from the court, Joe is approached by the man he “murdered” in the film, who tells him he saw the pictures in the paper, realized the film was from the future, and wants to kill Joe before he’s killed himself. Joe turns the man’s knife back on him and then turns himself in to the authorities. 

There’s a very intriguing idea running through “The Murder That Wasn’t…!,” but it’s not handled well enough. The idea that Joe would randomly pick a “mystery movie” at the curio shop makes me wonder if he was looking for a “peeper reel” to liven things up at the get-together. Poor Joe goes into custody wearing that awful orange suit with yellow tie and that’s what he’s wearing in the courtroom. Though it’s probably better we don’t get the answer to the magical questions “what’s going on with the man in the movie” and “why does the curio shop vanish when Joe takes his so-called friend, Frank, by to check out his story,” there’s still way too many plot holes to go unnoticed (did Joe’s wife leave him for tough guy Frank?).

A strange red sphere just outside our atmosphere suddenly appears in telescope lenses across the world. The Russians suspect the US of outer space warfare and vice versa but, once an astronaut has been dispatched and returns with the big red ball in tow, the real identity of “The Thing in Space” becomes evident. At least, it does in the last panel’s wild theory. In “The Man Who Couldn’t Come Back!,” a Hollywood insurance salesman is called out to the home of an eccentric professor who wants to insure his time machine. Though the old guy seems like a nut, the salesman suddenly sees dollar signs and agrees to a demonstration. The machine (actually a helicopter) takes off but then crashes, killing the professor. The salesman climbs from the wreckage and sees an approaching T.Rex, has a heart attack, and dies. Turns out the professor’s house was located next to a movie lot, where they’re filming a dinosaur flick. The salesman’s sudden turn towards greed is hard to swallow, but the reveal that the scientist had never perfected his time machine (or did he?) is good for a smile.

“Why?” is a good title for the story of Marlo, a skid row bum who’s suddenly gifted a life of leisure and money. Then just as quickly as the gift is granted, it’s taken away and Marlo turns to crime to reacquire the easy life. The climax reveals that Marlo was a guinea pig to see if a man who had gained easy wealth could adjust to poverty again. Really, really dumb. In the finale, “Ivan the Terrible!,” a Russian prisoner commits suicide and Ivan, a member of the secret police, is ordered by his boss to frame an innocent for murder, avoiding embarrassment for the state. Ivan latches onto a mousy, out of work clerk named Franz but, no matter the torture and sleep deprivation, the man will not sign the confession. 

At last, Ivan decides he must go into the interrogation room himself and get his own hands dirty. After a short while, the clerk exclaims, “I did it! I killed him! I’ll sign the confession!” Ivan’s comrades enter the room to congratulate him but find him dead, strangled, the victim of the now-quite-mad Franz. This issue’s entry in the Better Dead Than Red sweepstakes, “Ivan the Terrible!” isn’t bad; its ironic twist is a hoot. What’s not so grand is the art of Tom Cooke, an artist who popped in for a mere two appearances in the Atlas horror titles (the other being “Walking Horror” in Marvel Tales #128) and then disappeared from the Marvel bullpen altogether. Cooke isn’t quite as scratchy and amateurish as Myron Fass, but it’s a similar style.

Uncanny Tales 26

Cover by Joe Maneely

“How?” (a: Bill Benulis) ★★1/2

“The Spider Man!” (a: Ed Winiarski) ★★

“Don’t Count Your Chickens!” (a: Dick Ayers & Ernie Bache) ★★★1/2

“Fair Exchange!” (a: Mort Lawrence) ★★1/2

“Saucer Scare!” (a: Sid Greene) ★★

A “mysterious stranger” is pulling off heists and getting away scott-free. When the detective handling the case catches up with the perp, the witnesses always claim it’s not the right guy. In the end, the thief is actually two dwarves who take turns standing on each other’s shoulders. Some more very sharp graphics from Bill Benulis; it’s always a pleasure to discover another Benulis gem. “How?” has an odd final panel, a long two panel shot of the criminal printed horizontally, rather than vertically. 

The parents of Professor Kravadka’s students are worried the eccentric teacher loves his spiders more than the children. “Of course I do!” exclaims the Professor on his last day as a teacher in Gyor. Now, with lots of extra time on his hands, Kravadka perfects his serum for spider-enlarging and prepares to conquer the world with giant arachnids. The best laid plans and all that. “The Spider Man!” (catchy title that) works because of its humor and Ed Winiarski art. I’m the first to admit that diving into a tale with Winiarski work is a 50/50 bet; Win could be scratchy and ugly in an amateurish way and then pull off the same feat effectively an issue later.

Professor Hennings has made a monumental discovery: there is another planet located between Mercury and the Sun! But, as he is being congratulated by his colleagues, he bangs the doom gong: that planet has cracked apart like an egg and unleashed a giant organism, now wandering the universe. Hennings is convinced that Earth has a similar organism at its core and when the time is right, Earth will break apart. If he’s correct in his theories, Mercury will be the next to explode.

The government authorizes Hennings to oversee a digging expedition to the center of the Earth. Once the crew has broken through to the molten lava, Hennings’s fears are justified. A boatload of nuclear bombs are sent down and activated but the massive explosions only wound the creature. Hennings sighs and delivers the verdict: Earth is doomed. Knowing that the world will panic upon hearing the news, the government has Hennings hold a press conference where he recants his theories but the news is shunted aside the next day with the headline: “MERCURY HATCHES!” A wonderful, imaginative, and downbeat sci-fi tale, “Don’t Count Your Chickens!” Is proof that, even in the waning days of the pre-code, Stan and the boys could whip up something original. 

Mort Lawrence is the star attraction of “Fair Exchange!,” about a uranium trader who is visited by a man from the future. The trader is promised millions in jewels for what is essentially worthless uranium but the laugh is on him when the deal is done. The man from the future gets enriched (by time) uranium and our dopey salesman gets hunks of coal. In “Saucer Scare!,” a desperate reporter needs a good headline so he creates a phony flying saucer sighting. That whips up a panic and he’s forced to admit the whole thing was a fraud. Then the aliens land.

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The Return of Bill Everett!