Old Houses aren’t safe: House of Mystery – Part 1


HoM1

Once more unto a DC anthology series, a long-running series that stretches over three decades of existence, 321 issues in unbroken order, but a series that went through many and varying themes in its lifetime. It’s a series that straddled the entire Silver Age, indeed first appearing in that early Fifties period I’ve chosen to call the In-between Age. It’s a title that belies DC’s history of failure in that period, by being a title created between the end of the Golden Age and the first appearance of Showcase, and being a success. I speak, of course, of House of Mystery. Let’s go back to the very beginning.
The first issue, cover-dated November-December 1951, edited by Whitney Ellsworth, positioned itself as a horror anthology, with stories about marrying a witch, a female werewolf, and a frankensteinian murderous monster. Horror was big, especially from market leaders EC Comics, and House of Mystery was clearly an attempt to cash in on the market. But whereas EC were whole-hearted blood and gore producers, whose deep understanding of horror and their refusal to compromise would lead, in the near future, to their destruction, DC were mainstream. They were clean and wholesome. The witch wasn’t a witch, it was all coincidence that every boyfriend she kissed died. The female werewolf was also human, being drugged as part of an attempt to steal her fortune.
As for the monster, that was down to a chemical formula unleashing inhibitions, whilst the guy in the fourth story was scared of something he saw in the haunted house but died from carbon monoxide poisoning after forgetting to switch his car engine off.
Was this going to be the pattern? Spookiness undercut by rational explanations without any genuine supernatural elements? Very much so. A rational explanation was to be provided, though usually accompanied by enough maybe-maybe to suggest that something more was indeed going on.
It makes for weak stories that have no conviction in them, but horror was big and House of Mystery was an instant success, going from bi-monthly to monthly in just six issues. None of the one-off tales displayed any distinction, until the final story of issue 8, which was not out of the ordinary in any way except one: it was narrated by Mr Thirteen. Yes, Terry Thirteen, accompanied by his secretary Marie Leroux. Dr 13 had run in the last nine issues of Star-Spangled Comics and transferred here after that series was cancelled.
Though apparently it was only to use up one outstanding story, as his next appearance was in 1968, alongside The Phantom Stranger in Showcase.

HoM2

Already, by issue 10, the trappings of horror were falling by the wayside. EC were provoking controversy, DC wanted nothing to do with it. Mysteries were mysteries, and nothing but elaborate hoaxes. History would prove them right, aesthetics would turn its back on them.
Having said all that, issue 11 partially refuted me in the story ‘The Bewitched Clock’, which I’d read before as a reprint back-up in, I think, The Phantom Stranger, with a genuinely supernatural theme, a clock that allowed its owner to manipulate time only to trap him in a Groundhog Day 24 hour loop, only in total, unchangeable isolation.
It was the same in issue 12, three stories with over-complicated explanations for the supposedly supernatural circumstances, one without any rational explanation. That appeared to be just a one-off, or rather a two-off.
As an aside, in common with the other series of this era, this Inbetween Age, that I’ve read, there are half-pages devoted to DC’s Editorial Approval Board, that little panel of experts in children and their psychology that, in those pre-Comics Code Authority days, were the guarantee to the parents that their cute little monsters wouldn’t develop any psychoses as a result of reading a DC comic.It all sounds so quaint now. But each little reassurance was coupled with a complete list of all DC’s comics. I find these fascinating, as a picture of an era that’s scorned because it isn’t dominated by superheroes. Western, War, Funny Animals. Funny Teenagers. Mystery titles. Radio/TV show adaptations. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Even Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Just once I would love to read this panoply, all the issues for one month, to get an impression of the range. What DC were in, say, November 1953, two years before I was born. Just to gain an insight into what was thought entertainment for Americas children. How much might that explain?

HoM17

Back on point. Issue 20 included a story, ‘Mr Mortem’ that rips off Somerset Maugham’s famous epigraph, ‘Appointment in Samarra’ but was otherwise undistinguished.
Twenty issues is enough to pass a judgement on this early phase, and it’s not a positive one. There are four stories per issue, each setting up supernatural situations, some of which are led genuinely unexplained, but must of which end up being elaborate hoaxes, usually by the Police, to get murderers to confess, or with concrete explanations that try to leave open that sliver of doubt, that what-if-it-wasn’t-coincidence nod. Several of these hoaxes are impossibly complicated but the endless repetition of such outcomes makes the series dull: no sooner does a story start than you’re looking for the trick ending.
The one superstition theme the series hasn’t dealt with yet is vampires, but that’s hardly surprising: no vorvulka would have been seen dead around stories so bloodless.
Nor is the art anything special yet. It’s dull and drab and even the ghosts and demons are lacking in inspiration. Of the artists, I recognised one story drawn by a young Gil Kane, but the only artist signing their work was Ruben Moreira. What surprised me most was that, in a comic aimed at children, the overwhelming majority of the male characters were middle-aged or older, and looking like it. The women, of course, were young and fair.
Issue 26 made me think. It was cover-dated May 1954, the year of publication of Dr Frederic Wertham’s infamous Seduction of the Innocent and the convening of Senator Kefauver’s Committee examining juvenile Delinquency, which combined to put the blame on comics and shift it off everyone else’s shoulders. I don’t know when in the year the book actually appeared, or what was known about it in advance, but the first iteration of the Comics Code Authority would censor anything out of the horror tradition out of existence, crashing EC (whose owner, William Gaines, had proposed the self-regulation of the CCA in the first place) almost completely.
And House of Mystery, which padded its pages with short features on ‘real-life’ ghosts and mysterious goings on, suddenly ran a one-page cartoon featuring Professor Eureka. A scientist, with no irrationality involved (except among those who thought it was funny). Hmm.
Though if Eureka’s arrival was foreshadowing anything, it wasn’t soon in coming as the series continued unchanged. It wasn’t until the end of 1955, early 1956, issues 46-48, that a couple of SF stories started to get slipped in, amongst the fake mystical and the was it reallys to draw away from the horror style. And issue 49 had no mystical stories whatsoever, just pure science from start to finish.

HoM86

But after fifty issues, at four stories an issue, House of Mystery had failed to produce even one story that was memorable. So far, this is not turning out to be worth my time. And as I read on, it seemed like the stories without even a suggestion of the supernatural were even blander than before. There isn’t even any kind of quantifiable categories to which stories can be assigned, which could at least be said of the non-series stories in Mystery in Space.
However, issue 61 bucked the trend by reverting to the mystical, with not a single rational explanation in sight, though the most (only) interesting thing about it was that the last story was drawn by Jack Kirby.
Kirby was back in issue 63 and again in 65, lending an air of distinction to the magazine. It’s not prime Kirby, and the stories are too restrained and plain to be his writing, but it’s Kirby and that’s enough. He was next seen in issue 70.
It took until issue 82 to get a change of pace, when the series switched from four six-page stories per issue to three eight-pagers. There was no immediate difference to the content from a thirty-three percent increase in length. We’re definitely a Science Fiction anthology now, with very little pretence otherwise and though Whitney Ellsworth is still credited as editor, I suspect the hand of an assistant with the initials JS. Incidentally, I was amused to see that the star of the first story was Detective Martin Crane, though there was no suggestion that he spoke with a Droylsden accent.
However, my assumption looks to have been terribly wrong for, with effect from issue 83, editorship passed to Jack Schiff, with Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan listed as Associate Editors.
Kirby was back with the cover story for issue 84, about a ‘Negative Man’, an energy being, emerging from a scientist’s body in a manner that suggested a possible source of inspiration for the Doom Patrol. And he had the same spot next issue with a story about ancient stone sentinels that foreshadowed his forthcoming departure to Martin Goodman’s unnamed company to work on Stanley Leiberman’s monster tales.
And the change in editorial control made no discernible difference to the content or quality of the stories.

HoM91

House of Mystery‘s 100th had a cover date of July 1960. Nearly one-third of the full run is an appropriate point to end Part 1 and consider what we’ve had to date. Which, in my eyes, is not much at all. The stories featured a giant Aztec warrior who was really an American using ‘old’ science to steal Aztec gold, the rationalist Mayor of a superstitious Mexico town exposing its legends of a curse by hiring an illusionist to create and explode them and a monstrous beast from an alien planet temporarily running ravage on Earth.
Is this really only me? There’s not a worthwhile idea in any of those three tales, and the hundredth issue is no better or worse than the ninety-nine that came before it. After one hundred issues, the only thing I’ve found of significance is less than half a dozen stories drawn by Jack Kirby. Yet this is a very successful title, appearing monthly. Nor am I unfamiliar with the Fifties and with its entertainment. So why has nothing been remotely satisfying?
Is it really as simple as there being no serial characters? No returning figures about whom further stories can be told? Every single story has no consequence beyond its final page, it’s sixth, eighth, ninth. In such limited spaces, with a gimmick or twist ending to be set up, executed and rationally explained, there is no room for the least personality trait. What cannot think or feel cannot inspire the empathy that lies behind every successful story.
What I’ve seen so far is an anthology title that tried to piggy-back off the horror boom initiated by EC Comics, but crippled both by DC’s self-sought image as the most mainstream of mainstream comics, the company whose titles guaranteed you could leave Little Johnny alone with them without reading them first, and by the company’s inbuilt instinct for science-oriented rationalism that refused to allow anything stronger than a well-maybe ending.
Then, in mid-decade, with EC destroyed for wanting to be serious, with the Comics Code Authority hamstringing the business, the title slid into being a cheap, unimaginative SF series paying the lippest of lip service to any supernatural explanations, with pot-boiler shorts that live or more usually die by their ‘twist’ endings. The series was merely primus inter pares with stable-mates such as Strange Adventures, My Greatest Adventure, Tales of the Unexpected, and its own shadow, House of Secrets.
There are two more parts of this to follow, and House of Secrets after that. Aren’t you glad I’m doing this, not you?

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