Anthologies – HAUNTED HORROR #5

Haunted Horror No 5

Once again, it’s time for spine-tingling terror from the deepest pits of pre-Code comics. HAUNTED HORROR #5 varies the kinds of stories this time around. From the baseball diamond to the gallows to the dark days of prehistory.

All the while our self-appointed horror host, Forlock The Warlock, continues to phone in his job.

Hope you enjoy sports stories, because the first three contained herein are sports related. And not the kind of sports horror stories like the Chicago Cubs winning. No, these aren’t nearly as far-fetched.

In truth I know jack all about sports. I’m sorry if I sound like an idiot.

“The Man Who Lost His Body” (Worlds of Fear #4, 1952) tells the tale of Rick Demoine, an up-and-coming pitcher for generic baseball team. A semi-competent but arrogant player, Rick is pulled from a game for showboating, the shock and rage causing him to sit in the dugout until the stadium clears and the lights go out. And when it happens, Rick discovers a bizarre truth of the stadium: deceased baseball stars use it to play as ghosts!

Ghosts whose forms can apparently be broken off and added to one’s own body, giving one their skills and talent. Rick, ever hungry for acclaim, opts to manhandle as many famous baseball ghosts and eat their powers until he’s the greatest star in the league. But as can be expected, this turns out to be a very bad idea.

The idea of tearing spirits apart with one’s bare hands killed any tension this story had. It’s so absurd, I can’t take it seriously. Then again, it does give me a great conversation piece. “Hey, did you hear about the comic character that rips the head off a ghost with his bare hands?”

“Skin ‘Em Alive” (Mysterious Adventures #18, 1954) covers American football; I specify American for any international readers who would confuse it with Soccer. Tad Reynolds of the Chicago Blue Devils is a punting master, to the point where he holds a perfect streak of extra points won. All apparently a result of his “lucky ball”. Naturally, two members of an opposing team, the St. Louis Tigers, grow tired of Tad’s suspicious string of success.

We’ll leave alone why Tad can apparently be allowed to use a custom ball for games whenever he wants, instead of having to use a standard ball provided by the stadium itself.

So the two rivals decide to break into Tad’s house and figure out his secret. I would have tried something that didn’t involve trespassing, but then again I’m not a football player so maybe I just don’t understand their world. It’s probably the same reason why I can’t understand how football players get away with violence and bullying and sexual assault. Because it’s obviously me in the wrong on such things.

Sorry, I got in a rather unpleasant tangent.

Anyway, the story ends about how one expects, given the title of the story. It’s only four pages long; just enough to pay off in a satisfyingly horrific manner.

“Night Owl” (Horrific #6, 1953) moves to the obvious next most popular sport…bowling! Fred Martin loves bowling, and will attempt to go out as often as he can. Unfortunately his wife Marj sees it as a huge drain on their home’s income, and commands him to cut it down to once a week. Disappointed by the turn of events, Fred wonders how he can make his wife see reason (from his point of view). His solution? Trick her into coming to bowl with him, in the hopes that it makes her a bowler too.

And it works…too well. Soon it’s obvious Marj has a greater obsession with the game than even Fred, and quickly begins neglecting the home, the chores, and their two children. Really, we see the kids eventually get left alone at night while their mother is away. It’s an absolute disgrace, even by more contemporary standards. When a house is in shambles because the stay-at-home spouse doesn’t stay at home, and instead spends time and money at the alley, it doesn’t really matter if it were the wife or the husband. And Fred is not happy about his life falling apart.

So clearly the only way to solve this problem is with murder.

It might seem like the sudden bowling obsession on Marj’s part is odd, but if the artwork is any indication, she had a few screws loose before then. Nor is Fred particularly calm at all times. I’m going out on a limb here, but despite a few silly aspects (especially the resolution), this one is a pretty well-constructed horror tale. We’ve got a plausible escalation leading to the climax, something a lot of horror stories of the era have massive trouble with.

In “Valley Horror” (Web Of Evil #8, 1953), the newly married Jim and Betty Drake travel by road in a westward direction. But night is treacherous, and their attempts to save time cause them to take short cuts. In a point that was probably fresh at the time, they defy the warnings of a local farmer to not take a specific road…leading them to a city inhabited by the dead!

And what’s worse, they’re workers for the underworld, and are already expecting a Drake to come their way! When one steps into the domain of the dead, one is not expected to leave!

A pretty cliché story by today’s standards, or the setup is, yet it’s still pretty decent. As a society we’ve become too accustomed to wrong turns and ignored warnings. It’s also one of those kinds of stories I like to see in horror: good people (or at least sympathetic ones) that I as a reader would like to see get out of a terrible situation. Whether it’s the fifties or modern day, horror writers for whatever reason have trouble with this very simple premise.

“Dragon Egg” (Fantastic Fears #7, 1954) pits the modern world against a terrible relic from ages past. An egg of a terrible lizard man creature from the days of the dinosaurs hatches inexplicably in present day 1950s America. How? Because the night watchman at the museum it’s housed at turned the thermostat too high. Warped by eons of confinement and hungry for delicious meat, the monster sets out on a quest for blood through a world it never made.

Gonna spoil it a bit by saying after a great deal of trouble and several people dying – making me think this creature is just stupidly lucky – the forces of man finally kill it. But not with bullets, oh no. We can’t have ordinary guns killing the creature of flesh and bone! That wouldn’t do! They need to blow it up with dynamite! Because TNT shrapnel is so much more powerful that projectile weapons!

It gets better though. Somehow in the hours since birth, the monster managed to generate and lay an egg of its own and bury it in a swamp, hinting the nightmare isn’t over. This despite there being no other members of its species to breed with. If the thing is capable of breeding with humans – a feat that wouldn’t even begin to fly if we consider basic biology – it would still need to have raped a guy, and the only prolonged contact it had with any human it didn’t just eat was with a woman. Or are we working on American Godzilla rules, and the thing came born pregnant?

So let’s gather this thing’s traits. Survives eons of time underground, unmolested and still alive, before it was even hatched. Hatches fully developed and ready to start killing everything around it. Clever enough at hours after birth to ambush armed men and take hostages. Resistant to gunfire. And can reproduce asexually, also within hours of birth. This life form is more ultimate than the Pillar Men from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure!

“Ghoul’s Bride” (Voodoo #6, 1956) might be one of the newest stories featured in HAUNTED HORROR as a whole. A murderess set to hang desires more than anything to kill the judge that refused to pardon her. She gets the opportunity for new “life” when Death visits her cell. He offers a deal: a chance to escape the grave and wreak vengeance, in exchange for her hand in marriage.

Because even the reaper needs companionship, right?

My biggest problem with this tale, like many others from that era, is the ending. It’s kind of forced, like the story bent over backwards to deal karmic justice to the character. Frankly I consider it preferable if the resolution was that the murderess gets her revenge and escapes oblivion, but must fulfill her end of the bargain and remain with death. A fate worse than death that is, in fact, Death. Wrap your head around that.

Why not? Death here is played by the Phantom of the Opera, so it’d be punishment enough to make that the face she sees in bed every night.

And finally, we have “The Night Of Friday 13” (The Hand Of Fate #22, 1954). No, not Friday the Thirteenth, just Friday Thirteen. This one also stars Death, although this time channeled by the Phantom Stranger. A rather talkative, refined version of the abstraction of mortality, Death comes to the mansion of the wealthy old Winthrop Morganson in order to claim his soul, among others. Those others would be among the group of Winthrop’s closest family/friends, all of which want him dead as quickly as possible. Winthrop drove himself to the grave with constant work, never allowing himself a moment’s rest to enjoy his plenty. A fact which reminds Death than he never gets a break either.

Because even the reaper needs a chance to relax, right?

So Death takes one, reading Winthrop’s books and smoking his cigars like a boss. And when Death takes a break, that means no one gets to die until he’s back on the job. Not even if some of them were counting on it.

Also for some reason one of the characters is a vampire. I don’t know why a story costarring Death needed the addition of a vampire. It just does.

I think this is my personal favorite story in this issue, primarily because of the charisma of our leading bone man. The comics utilizes shadows heavily to obscure Death’s visage until the paramount final reveal. Not that we weren’t already aware who he was. Does make me wonder how a skull smokes a cigar. Then again, how does a skull with no visible eyes see anything?

HAUNTED HORROR #5 sure was a packed issue. We’ll see issue six out within the next two months. Less in fact, since I procrastinated so much on this one.

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