Friday, October 21, 2016

Chamber of Darkness # 1, October 1969

Marvel Comics were still making history with their groundbreaking super-hero stories when Chamber of Darkness was published. This was a better series than most people thought it would be, although it never achieved the acclaim that its creators had hoped for. I suppose the main criticism then as now being that the tales fell short of the stark terror and often gruesome images that made comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror such collector’s items. The stories lack that horrific punch and come across as watered down ghost stories for general audiences. I agree with that criticism, but I still found merit in the series. The first story, “It’s Only Magic,” is credited to Stan Lee and John Buscema, with Buscema’s artwork being the highlight. Lee’s story falls flat. It’s about a teenager who taps into some arcane literature and awakens a Djinn, but there’s nothing scary here. Buscema’s artwork captures a nice October mood. I enjoyed the next story, “Mr. Craven Buys His Scream House!” by Dennis O’Neil with artwork by Tom Sutton. This seven-page tale is about a bitter old man who wants to destroy a house, but can’t. This is the best story in the issue, made palpable by Sutton’s artwork. O’Neil’s story is good, but might have been better if it had been longer. The final story is fair. “Always Leave ‘Em Laughing” is credited to Gary Friedrich with artwork by Don Heck. A scientist, tired of being ridiculed, travels to the past where he hopes to gain respect, but instead he finds himself yet again an object of ridicule. All of the stories are introduced by Headstone B. Gravely (H.P. Headstone), a pale imitation of so many better sepulchral horror hosts. I enjoyed the autumnal feel to Chamber of Darkness, and I still love that first issue’s cover. Marvel was also publishing Tower of Shadows and soon, Chamber of Chills, in their effort to capture the horror comics market. The days of the truly great horror comics had passed, but as most of you know, Marvel Comics struck gold with Tomb of Dracula in 1972, a series that lasted only a few years but left a lasting impression. Chamber of Darkness lasted eight issues.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Haunter by R. L. Stine

That remarkable fellow R. L. Stine is at it again. This time around he created a rather traditional haunted house story that’s campy, creepy and fun. It’s all about this kid named Sammy Baker who happens to be a bit shy. His problems are magnified when his friends decide to visit the Marple House, an abandoned mansion that’s reportedly haunted by a kid who was burned to death inside. Sammy meets “The haunter” rather quickly when he experiences a freezing sensation. To complicate matters, his school chums are not all that friendly, and Sammy takes the brunt of their practical jokes. Of course, there’s a girl he sort of likes, and maybe she even likes him, too, but Halloween is going to be a very long night, and Sammy isn’t convinced any of them will survive their visit to the Marple House. Stine is masterful at creating situations and characters that young readers can relate to, and that’s why his stories have remained popular for so long. Stine delivers the chills, suspense and youthful angst that his readers have come to expect. I just can’t let Halloween slip past without a nod to Stine who remains as creative and creepy as ever. The Haunter is great fun, but don’t let that fool you. This is still a ghost story with some delightfully scary moments. Read it at night when the doors are locked.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

An Evening With Boris Karloff and His Friends

This album was released in 1967 and for many years was available through the back pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. I don’t think people realize today that by this time Karloff was a cult figure for every kid in every neighborhood. His movies played constantly on television, and even then, over thirty years after its release, Frankenstein (1931) was considered too scary for kids and played predominantly on the late night television when we were all presumably in bed. Not a chance. Every kid in the neighborhoods across the country stayed up late and saw that movie. And it was scary! It scared the hell out of us. Karloff was creepy, Karloff was scary. Shortly before Karloff died in 1968 he was doing commercials, and in one of them he held up a bottle of sauce and said, “Experiment with it!” This album was given to me at Christmas, and I was thrilled. Years later I learned that Forry Ackerman wrote the script and Karloff recorded his bit in one take. The album is really a verbal tribute to horror films, punctuated by audio snippets from Frankenstein, The Wolf-Man, The Mummy, Dracula, and a few others. There is no in-depth analysis like the nonsense we see all over the Internet; no pretending this was anything other than what it was – a fond remembrance of great films. Karloff’s voice was perfect for the job, easily recognizable to every kid in the country. The audio from the films simply added to our desire to see and appreciate the films again. Long before video or DVD or Blue-Ray, we had limited television, record albums and radio. These days you can download all of this in a nanosecond. An Evening With Boris Karloff and His Friends is available on CD. Play it on Halloween, and let the Master take you back to an era of haunted castles, a mad scientist’s laboratory, an Egyptian tomb, or an autumnal forest where a wolf prowls the moors.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Strangely Enough! By C. B. Colby

Another Scholastic Book from my childhood, this is the 1967 edition, an abridged version of the 1959 original edition. I loved this paperback as a kid. Included are 91 short one or two page stories about incredible happenings, buried treasure, oddities of science and nature, tales of ghosts and witches, flying saucers and other weird things. Black and white illustrations by David Lockhart add some mood. Taken from a wide variety of un-credited sources, author C. B. Colby repeats some well known tales, such as the legend of treasure on Amelia Island, or the lost city of Machu Picchu, interspersed with little ghost stories or modern tales of flying saucers. I recall one of my childhood favorites was a story titled “The Balls of Clay.” It’s a bout a traveler who wanders into a Florida cave and discovers a cache of small clay balls about the size of a small bird’s egg. Taking a handful, the traveler thought it might be fun to skip the balls across the water as he walked along the beach. Later, this traveler hears a story that pirates centuries past hid precious gems in balls of clay. Remembering that he has one clay ball left, the traveler cracks it open to discover a small blue-white diamond. Had he thrown away a fortune? Another favorite was “The Man Who Fell Forever” about a sailor named Curly who, upon visiting an abandoned lighthouse, wraps his lucky coin in a kerchief and tosses it over the edge. After losing sight of the kerchief, Curl himself decides the fastest way down is to jump, and so he does. But Curly’s body is never found. All that’s left is the kerchief with Curly’s lucky coin also missing. The story ends with the line, “Perhaps that too, like Curly, has vanished on the way down.” There’s nothing too detailed here or gruesome, just mysterious capsules to wet your appetite and fire up your imagination.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Boris Karloff Horror Man by Peter Underwood

Boris Karloff-Horror Man was first published in England in 1972, and I bought my copy that very year from the Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood. A later, American edition was published with a different cover. Peter Underwood wrote the first major biography on Karloff and it has stood the test of time, as does Karloff himself. What distinguishes this biography from later retellings of the Karloff story is the fact that Underwood knew Karloff and respected him, perhaps even idolized him. Further, Underwood understands the craft of filmmaking and he understands acting. He was a member of the British Film Institute and published numerous articles on film, psychic activity and extra-sensory perception. He was also president of the famed Ghost Club and an investigator into paranormal activities. In short, Peter Underwood was a fascinating whirlwind himself. Boris Karloff-Horror Man offers a precise and factual account of Karloff’s life and career, accentuates the major film accomplishments, and adds the necessary details regarding Karloff that demonstrate his love for the stage, his dedication to acting, and his humble nature. Included is a bibliography, filmography and discography. A middle-section of photographs highlights Karloff’s many roles. The book covers Karloff’s early struggles in England, his efforts to find work in Canada, and his luck in traveling to Hollywood in 1917. From that point on his luck would change, albeit a tad slower than he might have preferred. Karloff was broke by 1923 and desperately trying to land a job. He took a job as a lorry driver which led to some contacts that resulted in several film roles. This in turn resulted in Karloff slowly building a reputation as a capable and reliable actor. He eventually made the transition to sound films in 1929 with The Unholy Night directed by Lionel Barrymore (filmed under the title The Green Ghost). His eventual casting as the monster in Frankenstein is the stuff of legend. Perhaps the crucial aspect of this book belongs to the fact that Underwood documented Karloff’s feelings about being typecast as a “Bogey Man” for the remainder of his career. In fact, Karloff was more than an armchair student of thrillers and ghost stories. He embraced his roles with relish, worked studiously at each performance, all of which were far removed from his own gentle personality. The portrait of Karloff that emerges here is one of a highly intelligent, caring and modest individual who quite simply loved being an actor. An excellent biography, and in my opinion, the only Karloff biography you need.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Superman: The Dailies, 1939-1940

This 1999 Kitchen Sink Press paperback reprints the historic first year of the Superman newspaper strips. I re-read this volume right after reading the first few issues of the DC Comics “Rebirth” titles. The first thing that jumped out at me was the fact that Clark Kent and Superman were always meant to be one and the same. They have two distinctive personalities, and it’s NOT the glasses that differentiates them. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster depicted Kent as a straightforward, sometimes brash reporter intent on doing a good job. He was at times timid, and that stereotype would develop continuously throughout the series. For Siegel and Shuster there was never any danger of Kent’s Superman identity being uncovered because they followed a logical pattern of development for both characters. Kent was exactly what a reporter should be in 1939; he was patriotic, fair-minded and possessing of those qualities that embody the ideology of truth, justice, and the American way. By comparison, Superman was more like a carnival strongman in a gaudy costume, but equally fair-minded and patriotic. Superman’s curl is akin to Samson’s long hair, a symbol of his masculinity, and the “S” shield on his chest shining like a policeman’s badge. Superman and Clark Kent are believers in the American Dream, but go about embodying that dream’s reality in opposite ways. The idea that the two could be the same person would appear far-fetched to everyone – except, of course, the readers. Both Siegel and Shuster and their loyal readers were all willing to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the roller-coaster adventures printed here in Superman: The Dailies, 1939-1940, or in the pages of the comic books themselves. These early Superman strips are a goldmine of vital Superman history. Superman’s origin on the planet Krypton was embellished here, providing his father a name, Jor-L, later revised as Jor-El. Lois Lane is here, and The Daily Planet under editor George Taylor. Perry White had yet to arrive on the scene. The cover artwork on this collection is by Peter Poplaski.