Old Houses Aren’t Safe: House of Secrets – Part 1


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Long before the late Sixties transformation of House of Mystery and House of Secrets into horror anthologies hosted by that first and foremost pair of siblings, Cain and Abel, House of Secrets was a brother title to the long-established House of Mystery or, to inject a note of surely unwarranted cynicism, a blatant attempt to cash in by doing more of the same, only different.
House of Secrets debuted exactly five years after its companion title. It never matched it in success or longevity, being cancelled twice before its final issue, no 154, a run almost exactly half the length of its exemplar. What distinguished it from House of Mystery? Did anything distinguish it? These questions and any more I come across I am here to answer.
Not at first sight. House of Secrets started under the Comics Code Authority seal offering four short stories, two of which had supernatural incidents and one a more common or garden SF explanation. The content was fairly even over the first few issues, six page shorts with twist endings that fell flat because they lacked pacing, removing any element of drama from the twist, or offering something so out of left field that it felt disconnected from what had come before.
In addition, the art is terrible. It’s flat, banal and lifeless and, in many cases, amateurish. Once again, the only signature is that of Ruben Moreira, and his prior commitment is obviously to House of Mystery.
I may be finding HoS to be a weak and pallid imitation of its forebear but somebody was liking it because it shifted to monthly frequency with effect from issue 12.
Proof popped up in issue 17 of one of my theories as the issue included a story later reprinted in HoM. Like the vast majority of the stories to date the art looks archaic. It has no qualities that I can recognise or ascribe to any period. It doesn’t even look characteristic of DC, and it’s disturbing to see that when the Public Service pages do look fresh and crisp, even though they definitely are work of the Fifties.
It took HoM 143 issues and thirteen years to introduce a continuing character but HoS beat it by a country mile, needing only 23 issues to introduce Mark Merlin, detective of the supernatural, and his secretary, Elsa. The first story was one I’d already read, in reprint. Mort Meskin provided the art, and I don’t know how significant this was, but all the art seemed to have leapt forward into the Fifties, with sharp, definite, black lines and an angularity of style. Jack Schiff had been the editor of credit since issue 18, with Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan as his accredited Associates as always.
House of Secrets still promoted itself as an anthology, the Mark Merlin stories getting plugged on the covers as Extras, but only until issue 25. And given the touched-up reprint that appeared in HoM, I can report that Elsa’s skirts are continually a modest length below the knee. Of course, that didn’t stop the shameless hussy slipping into a jungle onesy for the cover of issue 29, but I suppose every girl wants to show, every once in a while, that she’s got a great pair of legs, especially when she’s brainwashed.
Anyway, the Mark Merlin stories quickly captured the cover and moved to the front of the magazine, leaving the two anthology stories to do their thing behind. Until issue 32, that was, when the policy of putting the cover story at the back returned.
By having a continuing character, House of Secrets automatically put on more interest for me, but how good is the Mark Merlin series? For a start, he’s billed as the Far Famed Sleuth of the Supernatural but, just as in House of Mystery, there’s no room for the supernatural. Each story sees Merlin deal with monsters from alternate dimensions, freaks created by advanced science or aliens from other planets. It quickly gets repetitive. Then there’s Elsa. Elsa is Mark’s secretary. She tags along with him everywhere. Frequently, she insists on going into the danger with him, though why is a mystery, as she has no skills (she can probably type real fast but we never see a typewriter) and often she just hangs around saying nothing.
Ok, I’m being cynical, and it’s all a product of the times, when women were weak, helpless creatures – this is 1960 – who cooked, sewed and cleaned and were good for nothing else, except for the one thing no-one mentions in a comic book, and if Mark isn’t doing what I assume he’s doing whilst dragging the fair Elsa around the world, ‘travelling’, then he’s a bigger idiot that I think, or else she’s got a copy of the Comics Code sewn into her knickers.
But Elsa may just have been too much of a lady to lower herself to such animal levels. Why else should she keep turning up to all these encounter with strange beasts in isolated forests and jungles wearing those immaculate white gloves on her delicate hands?

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Looking away from Mark and Elsa for a moment, the lead story in issue 41 says a lot about the inadequacy of these supposed mystery stories. Three men are kidnapped by three alien crooks who plan to rob Earth of gold to make them the richest ‘men’ on their home planet. The story rests upon the notion that gold is as valuable on their world as on ours, but why should that be so? Alien life in the DC Universe is never alien except in appearance. They all want the same things, from power to money, as humans do, and it’s so trivial.
The first sign that House of Secrets might be struggling came in issue 52 when the title was abruptly cut to bi-monthly. But was it such a surprise? The lead story was another one-off about discovering an alien spaceship on Earth where there was an alien criminal being pursued by two alien policemen and helping the criminal until the twist – by now as much of a ‘twist’ as a straight line – is discovered. I haven’t counted but that story comes up every three to four issues, if not more often.
Another recurring theme was that every alien who wanted to thank an Earthman for helping him did so with a chest of pure radium. Obviously this was in demand in the early Sixties but I know too little about the era, or the radium, to understand why this became the gift of choice for the discerning offworlder.
After a straight run of over fifty prose pages telling a mixture of real-life strange incidents and very short stories, issue 55 announced the introduction of a lettercol by first profiling Mark Merlin’s creators, artist Mort Meskin and writer Jack Miller. It also sneaked in a reprint. I thought the same thing occurred next issue, only with a reprint from the Forties from the art style, but it turned out to be art by Lee Elias, the Mancunian artist.
For perhaps the first time, one of the anthology stories impressed me in issue 57. Four people – a failed sculptor, a miser who has lost all his money share a rollercoaster ride that rises into the clouds and strands them in a strange cardboard time where a lion is running free. The strangers have to help each other escape, and to do so each has to rise above their own obsessions. There was a genuine air of uplift to the little tale that I found warming.
Next up, Merlin’s origin was told in an extended, two-part tale. It introduced him as a college graduate whose Uncle was a successful stage musician – for whom Elsa was his lovely, leotard-clad assistant – and a genuine magician, exposing frauds and fakes in order to let the real stuff operate. When his uncle is killed, Mark solves his death before taking over his sleuth job. And I was right about him and Elsa, warmly recalling this adventure for ‘bringing them together’. Spiritually, of course.
There was another familiar story in issue 59, one reprinted in the Seventies when I was eagerly buying The Phantom Stranger. It was all part of a re-direction of the series. Instead of his office, Merlin now resided in a gloomy old mansion on Mystery Hill, inherited from his Uncle, and the monsters and aliens were gone as he actually started handling magic. But this was also the first time the lovely Elsa missed a story: they couldn’t, could they?
Not immediately anyway. With an unusual gesture to real continuity, Elsa returned from her ‘month’s vacation’ next issue, throwing her arms round Merlin in her enthusiasm for being back with him.
Decent as Mark Merlin had been all these years, he was still an ordinary human being in the Silver Age, the renewed age of superheroes, so with issue 61 the anthology aspect of the title was dropped and Merlin gained a co-feature in the highly-regarded Eclipso. Eclipso was a departure for DC, a morally complex figure who was both hero and villain in one form. Created by Bob Haney with Lee Elias, Dr Bruce Gordon gets scratched by a black diamond and finds himself transforming into the evil figure of Eclipso – signalled by the shadow of darkness partly eclipsing his face – whenever there’s an eclipse somewhere.
Tough minded, vigorous and with lots of potential, the new feature was an immediate plus, though the one aspect of it I didn’t like was how Gordon treated his fiancee, Mona, not only keeping her in the dark but also calling off their wedding. Not just dumb but cliched.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that HoS, which spent its entire existence in the shadow of HoM, showed the latter the way to proceed as the title entered the superhero era, and in rather more style than the combination of the Martian Manhunter and Robbie Reed’s Hero Dial.
Back at the front of the title, Mark Merlin was now using his own ‘super-power’, this consisting of an Egyptian ‘cat-charm’ which, when he gazed into its gleaming eyes, allowed him to transfer his ‘life-force’ into his pert black cat, Memakata.

HoS68

Elias only drew the first two Eclipso stories before being replaced by Alex Toth, who re-designed Eclipso’s face so that it was no longer identical to Bruce Gordon’s, but for the shadow, and Mona Bennett’s haircut to something a lot less ordinary. Haney still had Gordon treating her like shit, though.
Issue 64 led with another Mark Merlin story that I read in reprint in The Phantom Stranger. My familiarity with it made the art look archaic, whilst there was a sloppy moment when Elsa and the story’s ‘victim’ Henrietta follow Merlin against his orders and then not only does nothing happen that involves then but they vanish from the story. Very poor writing. Then again, in Eclipso, Mona suddenly knows Bruce’s dual identity, and they’re going to tell the story of how next issue… Crazy, man, crazy.
Inevitably, Eclipso hit the cover as early as issue 66, though Mark Merlin retained lead position. Perhaps this is the time to mention that, for the 42nd time in 43 stories (remember, she missed one), Miss No-Surname Elsa was wearing a red dress. The designs, if not the hemlines, would change but the girl had decided that red was her colour with a vengeance! There was an interesting comparison with Mona in the Eclipso story, one that I knew from reprints, in that Toth drew her with skirts just above the knee, a reflection of the slowly-changing times of 1964.
Of course, no sooner do I mention it but Elsa changes into a white top with purple skirt in the next story: women, so fickle.
Issue 68 switched things around, with Mark Merlin on the cover but Eclipso as the first story, but without Toth on art. I didn’t like the new artist. Mostly, his art was ok, adopting some of Toth’s style and his heavy black lines, though he made Mona Bennett’s hair look like a freak, but the worst aspect was his drawing of Eclipso’s split-face, with the mouth of the eclipsed side open and loose and hanging, as if Eclipso was a stroke victim.
Though she’s still being described as his secretary, Elsa is now getting more openly affectionate with her boss, twice calling Merlin ‘darling’ in the next issue, whilst he responded with an affectionate ‘my love’: but when are this blasted pair ever going to kiss (onscreen)? Not in a nadir-story where the villain is a mongoose, calling itself the Mongoose, much smaller than a human being until the final panel when he turns out to be a human being in a costume: what a lot of crap.
But wait! What’s this on page 1 of the story in issue 70: Elsa, his ‘secretary-fiancee?’ When did this happen? And why’s the girl got her white gloves on again? And, more to the point, why is she going out with columnist Henry Mason and leaving Mark behind? It’s an awkward contrivance to enable Mark to turn up in disguise and, still in disguise, kiss her for that proverbial first time. Yes, I know I’m ragging on this subject, and for good reason, given how inconsistent the background elements of the story have been presented for so long, but yet again this is an example of the genuinely twisted sexual psychology that underpins so many Silver Age stories.
But House of Secrets‘s sales weren’t regaining any ground. Eclipso brought acclaim but not an increase in readership. A decision was made to replace Mark Merlin with a new character, in the hoping of reversing the trend. For a final appearance, Merlin had to face his recurring enemy, Doctor-7, and his recurring servant, the Morloo, for which Elsa changed into purple.
Ans then in issue 73, Mark Merlin did not just drop out but instead appeared in a story titled ‘The Death of Mark Merlin’. In front of Elsa’s eyes, Mark is blasted by his old enemy, the Gargoyle, and shrinks out of existence, or rather into the other dimensional world of Ra, under a hexagonal green sun, from which he can never return. That’s all right, there’s already a black-haired bird, Rimah, a sorceror’s daughter, pointing out how fit and tasty she is and offering Mark some Egyptian delights (how long has he been engaged? Three issues and he’s eyeing her up like strawberry ice cream).
But if he’s trapped for eternity, Mark first laments the loss of the woman he loves, then within two panels is sticking his tongue down the throat of Rimah. That’s until she gets kidnapped. So Mark uses his cat charm to get the cat-god to let go of the hexagonal green jewel, as a result of which he explodes with new mystical powers, which essentially amount to Mind-over-Matter.
And lo and behold, Mark can go back to Earth, only not as Mark Merlin. Instead, he has to take over the body of the died-when-young Prince Ra-Man, in whose form he wipes the floor with the Gargoyle before telling Elsa that Mark’s dead and he’s here to take over for him, at which point, with the tears still wet on her face, she starts leaning on Ra-Man.
Where do I begin? What a shitty story this is, and so unnecessary. I assume the intent was to hype up the magic content of the feature in order to make it more superheroic whilst trying to hang on to the Mark Merlin fans in the process, but what a hooting, hollering mess they made of it, and how cruel did it have to be towards Mark Merlin’s girl?
And it would do no good, because just over a year later, HoS would be cancelled. Meanwhile, Elsa and her red dresses stayed on with Prince Ra-Man, who’d moved lock, stock and barrel into Merlin’s mansion on Mystery Hill as Merlin’s chosen successor, a claim that Elsa accepted without a scintilla of proof, accompanying heavy mournful sighs with a rapidly developing crush on the newcomer, even as he was having wet dreams about Rimah – oh, but this really is god awful stuff, besides which the Prince has a personality of kapok.
Eclipso is still gadding about, producing new twists on his every transformation out of Bruce Gordon, with his slack, hanging lip prominent in any right-sided view of his face. Ra-Man got the cover on issue 75 but Eclipso was still at the front of the book. This time Elsa appeared in a bright blue dress which transformed into red on the last page of the story. Meanwhile, the Prince got back to Ra briefly, for just long enough to have Rimah trying to get her hands into his tunic.
I’m going on about this deliberately, because the comic is almost at the end of its first run, and Schiff is flailing about desperately with no sense of direction in both features, and especially his new one, wrecking what had been a decent series instead of simply starting afresh. He’s lost the plot on Batman in the late Fifties, to the extent that the character had flirted with cancellation. Now it seemed clear that he had just gone, lost all ideas of editorial standards whatsoever. Prince Ra-Man is a slow-motion car crash.
Issue 76 teamed the two features up in a book-length story that combined the weaknesses of both characters. It’s noticeable that the lettercol had been excised in favour of more one page features on superstitions: were there just not any letters of praise?
Of course, Schiff then printed a page of letters demanding another team-up in issue 78, as a preliminary to printing just such a story. But it was very much a swan song. There were separate stories in issue 80 and then House of Secrets was abruptly cancelled, and both series came to an abrupt conclusion.
Eclipso would return in the future, his background transformed, Although this initial twenty issue run was not all that good once Alex Toth departed, the character, the idea was too inherently attractive to be forever abandoned. Prince Ra-Man, however, died alone, unmourned and unloved and few ever cared about a resolution of any of the story issues that died with him. Fifteen years later, a ‘Whatever happened to…’ back-up story tried to deal with the fates of him and Mark Merlin, but Ra-Man’s last appearance was a one-panel death scene in Crisis on Infinite Earths, just one of many DC nobodies, has-beens and neverwases to be thrown out with the bathwater, and good riddance.
House of Secrets would be gone for one bi-monthly issue short of three years. That’s where we’ll pick up the story, in 1969 and Part 2.

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