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This was a formula, to be sure, the horror version of sitcom: sit-dram or, considering the effect it had on some people’s stomachs, sit-vom. And it originated in Feldstein’s storytelling savvy and gift for lovingly elaborate narration. (As he recalled: “The old joke was that I got to write such heavy captions and balloons that the characters had to be drawn with a hunchback.”) Though Craig, Davis, “Ghastly” Graham Ingels and other EC artists had distinctive styles and built up discriminating fan bases, words were what sold the magazines more than pictures. It was Feldstein’s pustulating imagination of unearthly vengeance and pummeling descriptions of extracted body parts that gave the stories their lingering chill. For example, Davis’ illustration of the climax of the infamous “Foul Play” (Haunt of Fear #19), in which a murderous ball player gets his comeuppance and an instant autopsy is fairly mild. It’s the Crypt Keeper’s (Feldstein’s) narration of midnight retribution that curdles the blood...
“So now you know, fiends. Now you know why there is a ball game being played in the moonlight at midnight in the deserted Central City ball park. Look closely. See this strange baseball game! See the long strings of pulpy intestines that mark the base lines. See the two lungs and the liver that indicate the bases... the heart that is home plate. See Doc White bend and whisk the heart with the mangy scalp, yelling... ‘Play ball!’ ... See the batter come to the plate swinging the legs, the arms, then throwing all but one away and standing in the batter’s box waiting for the pitcher to hurl the head in to him. See the catcher with the torso strapped on as a chest-protector, the infielders with their hand-mit[t]s, the stomach-rosin-bag, and all the other pieces of equipment that once was Central City’s star pitcher, Herbie Satten...”
THE CASE OF THE PURLOINED HORROR STORY
From 1950 to 1953, Gaines and Feldstein dreamed up, and Feldstein wrote and storyboarded, an average of three full six- to eight-page thrillers every week 144 a year (168 after Shock SuspenStories joined the fold). True, the tales were often inspired by, or stealing from, previously published material: anecdotes (in Bennett Cerf’s “Try and Stop Me”), pulp fiction (they eventually agreed to credit Ray Bradbury and pay him a princely $25 for each of his stories they illustrated) and James N. Young’s 1946 book “101 Plots Used and Abused” (which has 125 plots thin anecdotes, really none of which, to my mind, are worth stealing). But Gaines, Feldstein and their artists generated a terrific line of illustrated fiction at a pace that was breakneck and brain-hemorrhaging.
So the EC writers would borrow and steal story ideas. But sometimes they were ahead of the narrative curve. Kurtzman’s “Television Terror” (Haunt of Fear #17, Sept.-Oct. 1950) was one of the first pieces of fiction to convey the seductive power of an entertainment box in America’s living room. The story has an Arthur Godfrey-like TV host taking a portable camera into a haunted house and, as things go horribly wrong, forcing viewers to witness the spectacle of a man literally scared to death. It predates “The Blair Witch Project” by nearly a half-century and “Fear Factor” by more than that. A Feldstein fable, “The Ugly One” (Weird Science #21, Sept.-Oct. 1953), about a beautiful woman deemed repulsive by the deformed people around her, precedes Rod Serling’s famous “Twilight Zone” episode “Eye of the Beholder” by seven years.
The s-f writer’s favorite O. Henry twist ending “Good Lord! We’re on Earth!” is routinely associated with Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel “Planet of the Apes” and the 1968 film (co-written by Serling, who worked in an echo of “Eye of the Beholder” when human Charlton Heston tells monkey doctor Kim Hunter, “I’d like to kiss you goodbye,” and she replies, “All right, but you’re so damned ugly”). But Feldstein used the Earth punch-line early and often. So often, he sometimes felt the need to cap his no-longer-surprising ending with another surprise. A twist top.
In “The Exile” (Weird Fantasy #14), a space crew of two men, named X-51 and Z-7, is transferring a sedated convict across the galaxy to a prison planet where all the sociopaths are kept so as not to contaminate the good people back home. (Sort of like “Escape from New York,” but global.) We learn that the prison planet is Earth; that it has been bred, from Adam and Eve onward, with the human refuse of a more peaceful civilization; and that in Earth years it’s the early 1930s. Just before the ship lands, X-51 stares at the sleeping convict it’s Adolf Hitler and muses, “He looks evil, Z-7! I... I wonder how much effect he will have?” Beneath the last panel is an editors’ note: “Would you like it in round numbers, X-51?” The freezing frisson of a twist, followed by a blast of holocaustal sarcasm.
Sometimes the capper is less an Ugh! than a Huh? “A Strange Undertaking” (Haunt of Fear #3), EC’s first unauthorized use of a Bradbury story, ends with lawmen staring into a mean man’s coffin, their faces bloated with nausea, but there’s no “reveal.” Instead of showing us the befouled corpse, the Old Witch cackles, “Want to know what they did to Ezra? What’s the most horrible thing you can think of? Hee, hee... That’s it!”
EC horror comics had a lot of hee-hee. There was wordplay in the characters’ names (Mrs. Thaumaturge, in the Robert Bloch rip-off, “Daddy Lost His Head!”) and in the story titles (“Horror We? How’s Bayou?” for a Louisiana swamp saga, about a hermit and his deranged, voracious brother the sickest EC story I’ve read). The Grim Fairy Tale series ran cynical variations on old fables, often turning them into parables of gluttony. (Don’t read too much into this, but Gaines was always on a diet.) In one fable, peasants in a kingdom plagued with rats storm the castle, force huge hungry rats down the throats of the morbidly obese king and queen, and cheer as the rats eat their way out of the royals.
The mags were also studded with in-jokes, frequently about Bill and Al, who appeared in seven stories, including one that purported to tell the origin of the horror titles (the lads were trapped in a sewer by the Vault Keeper, Crypt Keeper and Old Witch). In “The End” (Weird Fantasy #13), a comet that explodes near Earth renders all humans sterile. “As the last generation of children to be born grew up, the toymakers went out of business... comic magazine publishers* closed their doors...” A caption strip below the panel explains the asterisk: “* With the exception of EC, which continued to appeal to an adult readership.”
In a sense, then, two years before MAD, and throughout the New Trend period, these EC horror titles were comic comic books.
“The comics business brought censorship down on its head because of the kind of things the horror comics were doing,” Kurtzman opined, with unnecessary smugness, to The Comics Journal in the 1980s. “I always thought the horror comics were vile. At some certain point they turned sick, I thought, and I think they reached that point when EC was running short of classic book plots and had to turn inward; what came out was sheer gruel ideas that sniffed of necrophilia. When the investigation turned to EC, it was like, ‘I told you so! Look what you did to us.’”
Kurtzman had made glancing reference to Gaines’ plight in a MAD (#16, Oct. 1954) parody of tabloid newspapers. “Comics Go Underground” screamed the headline, above a “photo” of a bespectacled, Gainesian publisher flashing his product to a kid like the old dope peddler near a schoolyard. In fact, Kurtzman’s magazines rarely got censored or censured, though they were graphic (Two Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat) or irreverent (MAD). Feldstein was the culprit: in the horror mags, in Crime and Shock SuspenStories and, a bit of a surprise, with EC’s own MAD ripoff, Panic.
In many ways Panic was a pure clone: same four-story format, same artists, same subjects (movies, TV shows, comic strips) for parodic skewering. Where MAD was subtitled “Humor in a Jugular Vein,” Panic was “Humor in a Varicose Vein.” Kurtzman signed his covers with a Kurtz and a stick man; Feldstein’s signature became a Feld and a beer stein. The man who had “borrowed” so many horror-story motifs from other writers was doing what came naturally: creating a ripoff, and parody, of EC’s most valuable title....
...but with the old Feldstein sadistic flair. The cover of the very first issue (Dec. 1953-Jan. 1954) a Christmas Eve hearth with a bear trap awaiting Santa’s foot and a kid giggling maliciously to one side immediately set the tone. The two less incendiary inside stories were a parody of the TV show “This Is Your Life” (which ends with the guest of honor under arrest for the murder of his wife) and another Grim Fairy Tale, “Little Red Riding Hood” (Red and her grandma are both werewolves). This wasn’t your Uncle Harvey’s lampoon magazine; it would be edgier than Kurtzman, an angry MAD.
The lead story in that first issue “My Gun Is the Jury,” a conflation and spoof of Mickey Spillane’s enormously popular and violent Mike Hammer crime novels has a Tarantinish body count (six, many of them beautiful women) and eight pages of vivid dialogue familiar to readers of Vault, Crypt and Haunt. On page 2, private eye Mike Hammershlammer is seen dispatching his first va-va-voom babe: “She gurgled up at me, spitting blood. She was still alive. I rammed my heel into her face and did a graceful pirouette on her nose, grinding in...” The image (Davis did the art) is of Mike twirling on one foot, as blood and pulp splatters up from the bottom of the panel and the gumshoe shouts, “Die, Sadie, die!”