By Joe Orlando, Otto Binder, Jack Miller, Bob Haney, Neal Adams, Arnold Drake, John Albano, Marv Wolfman, Howie Post, E. Nelson Bridwell, Gil Kane, Mike Friedrich, Bob Kanigher, Jack Oleck, Joe Gill, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Virgil North, Alan Riefe, Francis X. Bushmaster, Lee Elias, Doug Wildey, Carmine Infantino, Mort Meskin, Sergio Aragonés, Bernard Baily, George Roussos, Jack Sparling, Sid Greene, Bill Draut, Jim Mooney, Win Mortimer, Jerry Grandenetti, Bernie Wrightson, Wally Wood, Wayne Howard, Alex Toth, Al Williamson, John Celardo, Tony DeZuñiga, Leonard Starr, Tom Sutton, Ric Estrada, Jim Aparo, Gray Morrow, Don Heck, Russ Heath, Jack Kirby, Nestor Redondo, Lore Shoberg, John Costanza & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0786-1 (TPB)
These days DC – particularly its prestigious Vertigo sub-division – are acknowledged leaders in comic book horror and dark fantasy fiction, with titles and characters like Swamp Thing, Sandman and Hellblazer riding high beside anthological and creator-owned properties all designed to make readers think twice and lose sleep…
As National Periodical Publications, the company was slow to join the first horror boom that began in 1948, but after a few tenuous attempts with supernatural-themed heroic leads in established titles (Johnny Peril in Comic Cavalcade, All Star Comics and Sensation Comics and Dr. Terry Thirteen, The Ghostbreaker in Star-Spangled Comics) bowed to the inevitable.
The result was a rather prim and straitlaced anthology that nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles. The House of Mystery launched with a December 1951/January 1952 cover date and neatly dodged most of the later flak aimed at horror comics by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency (April- June 1954). When the industry adopted a castrating straitjacket of self-regulatory rules, HoM and its sister title House of Secrets were dialled back into rationalistic, fantasy adventure vehicles, without any appreciable harm. They even became super-hero tinged split-books (with Martian Manhunter and Dial H for Hero in HoM, and Eclipso sharing space with mystic detective Mark Merlin – latterly Prince Ra-Man – in HoS)…
Nothing combats censorship better than falling profits and when the Silver Age superhero boom stalled and crashed at the end of the 1960s, it led to the surviving publishers of the field agreeing to loosen their self-imposed restraints against crime and horror comics. Nobody much cared about gangster titles, but as the liberalisation coincided with another bump in global interest in all aspects of the Worlds Beyond, the resurrection of scary stories was a foregone conclusion and obvious “no-brainer.” Even ultra-wholesome Archie Comics re-entered the field with their tasty line of Red Circle Thrillers…
Thus with absolutely no fanfare at all issue #174, cover dated May-June 1968 fronted a bold banner heading demanding “Do You Dare Enter The House of Mystery?” whilst reprinting a bunch of – admittedly excellent – short fantastic thrillers originally seen in House of Secrets from the heady days when it was okay and quite profitable to scare kids…
Incomprehensively, these classic yarns are still unavailable in digital compilations, although there’s a new (and rather expensive) hardback Bronze Age Omnibus edition out if you aren’t afraid of wrist strain. If cost is an issue and you don’t mind monochrome reproduction, this classic trade paperback – collecting the contents of The House of Mystery #174 -196 (May 1968 to September 1971) – is still easy to find and impossible to not enjoy…
Starting off with The House of Mystery #174, the opening shot is ‘The Wondrous Witch’s Cauldron’, by an unknown writer and compellingly illustrated by the great Lee Elias. It comes from 1963’s HoS #58, as does the tale that follows it. Equally anonymous, ‘The Man Who Hated Good Luck!’ is limned by Doug Wildey and leads to the only new feature of the issue – one which would set the tone for decades to come.
Page 13 was a trenchantly comedic feature page scripted by Editor and EC veteran Joe Orlando, suitable cartooned by manic genius Sergio Aragonés. It states quite clearly that, whilst the intent was to thrill, enthral and even appal, it was all in the spirit of sinister fun, and gallows humour was the true order of the day.
The comic then continued with an Otto Binder/Bernard Baily tale of the unexpected: ‘The Museum of Worthless Inventions’ (from HoS #13) and concluded with Jack Miller, Carmine Infantino & Mort Meskin’s fantasy fable ‘The Court of Creatures’ (a Mark Merlin masterpiece from HoS #43).
The next issue can probably be counted as the true start of this latter-day revenant renaissance, as Orlando revived the EC tradition of slyly sardonic narrators by creating the Machiavellian Cain, “caretaker of the House of Mystery” and wicked raconteur par excellence.
Behind the first of a spectacular series of creepy covers from Neal Adams lurked another reprint, ‘The Gift of Doom’ (from HoM #137, illustrated by George Roussos) followed by ‘All Alone’, an original, uncredited prose chiller.
After another Page 13 side-splitter, Aragonés launched his long-running gag page ‘Cain’s Game Room’ before the issue closed with all-new new comic thriller ‘The House of Gargoyles!’ by veteran scaremongers Bob Haney & Jack Sparling.
With winning format firmly established and commercially successful, the fear-fest was off and running. Stunning Adams covers, painfully punny introductory segments, interspersed with gag pages (originally just Aragonés but eventually supplemented by other cartoonists such as John Albano, Lore Shoberg & John Costanza).
This last feature eventually grew popular enough to be spun off into bizarrely outrageous comicbook called Plop! (but that’s a subject for another day…) and supplied an element of continuity to an increasingly superior range of self-contained supernatural thrillers. Moreover, if ever deadline distress loomed, there was always a wealth of superb old material to fill in with.
HoM #176 led with spectral thriller ‘The House of No Return!’ by writer unknown and the great Sid Greene after which young Marv Wolfman (one of an absolute Who’s Who of budding writers and artists who went on to bigger things) teamed with Sparling on paranoiac mad science shocker ‘The Root of Evil!’
Reprinted masterpiece of form from Mort Meskin, ‘The Son of the Monstross Monster’ – having previously appeared in House of Mystery #130 – leads off #177, and a 1950’s fearsome fact-page is recycled into ‘Odds and Ends from Cain’s Cellar’ before Charles King and Orlando’s illustrated prose piece ‘Last Meal’ segues into dream-team Howie (Anthro) Post & Bill Draut produce a ghoulish period parable in ‘The Curse of the Cat.’
Neal Adams debuts as an interior illustrator – and writer – with a mind-boggling virtuoso performance as a little boy survives ‘The Game’, after which Jim Mooney’s spooky credentials are affirmed with ‘The Man Who Haunted a Ghost’ (first seen in HoM #35) and E. Nelson Bridwell, Win Mortimer & George Roussos delineate an eternal dream with ‘What’s the Youth?’ before ‘Cain’s True Case Files: Ghostly Miners’ closes the issue.
Bridwell contributes the claustrophobic ‘Sour Note’ as lead in #179, rendered by the uniquely visionary Jerry Grandenetti & Roussos.
A next generation of comics genius begins with Bernie Wrightson’s first creepy contribution. ‘Cain’s True Case Files: The Man Who Murdered Himself’ was scripted by Wolfman and is still a stunning example of gothic perfection in Wrightson’s Graham Ingels-inspired lush, fine-line style.
This exceptional artist’s issue also contains moody supernatural romance ‘The Widow’s Walk’ by Post. Adams & Orlando: a subtle shift from schlocky black humour to terrifying suspense and tragedy presumably intended to appeal to the increasingly expanding female readership. The issue ends with another fact feature ‘Cain’s True Case Files: The Dead Tell Tales’.
Going from strength to strength, House of Mystery was increasingly drawing on DC’s major artistic resources. ‘Comes a Warrior’, which opened #180, is a chilling faux Sword & Sorcery classic written and drawn by da Vinci of Dynamism Gil Kane, inked by the incomparable Wally Wood, and the same art team also illustrate Mike Friedrich’s fourth-wall demolishing ‘His Name is Cain Kane!’
Cliff Rhodes & Orlando contribute text-terror ‘Oscar Horns In!’ and Wolfman & Wrightson return with prophetic vignette ‘Scared to Life’ before an uncredited forensic history lesson from ‘Cain’s True Case Files’ closes proceedings for that month.
Scripted by Otto Binder and drawn by the quirkily capable Sparling, ‘Sir Greeley’s Revenge!’ is a heart-warmingly genteel spook story, but Wrightson’s first long tale – fantastical reincarnation saga ‘The Circle of Satan’ (scripted by horror veteran Bob Kanigher) – ends #181 on an eerily unsettling note before #182 opens with one of the most impressive tales of the entire run.
Jack Oleck’s take on the old cursed mirror plot is elevated to high art as his script ‘The Devil’s Doorway’ is illustrated by the incredible Alex Toth. Wolfman & Wayne Howard follow with ‘Cain’s True Case Files: Grave Results!’, after which an Orlando-limned house promotion leads to nightmarish revenge tale ‘The Hound of Night!’ by Kanigher & Grandenetti.
In collaboration with Oleck, Grandenetti opens #183 with ‘The Haunting!’ after which, courtesy of Baily ‘Odds and Ends from Cain’s Cellar’ returns with ‘Curse of the Blankenship’s’ and ‘Superstitions About Spiders’ before Wolfman & Wrightson contribute ‘Cain’s True Case Files: The Dead Can Kill!’ and the canny teaming of Kanigher with Grandenetti and Wally Wood results in the truly bizarre ‘Secret of the Whale’s Vengeance.’…
The next issue features the triumphant return of Oleck & Toth for a captivating Egyptian tomb raider epic ‘Turner’s Treasure’ whilst Bridwell, Kane & Wood unite for barbarian blockbuster ‘The Eyes of the Basilisk!’
House of Mystery #185 sees caretaker Cain take a more active role in the all-Grandenetti yarn ‘Boom!’, Wayne Howard illustrates the sinister ‘Voice from the Dead!’ and prolific Charlton scribe Joe Gill debuts with ‘The Beautiful Beast’: a lost world romance perfectly pictured by EC alumnus Al Williamson.
The next issue tops even that as Wrightson limns Kanigher’s spectacular bestiary tale ‘The Secret of the Egyptian Cat’, whilst Adams produces some his best art ever for Oleck’s ‘Nightmare’: a poignant tale of fervid imagination and childhood lost. Nobody who ever adored Mr. Tumnus could read this little gem without choking up… and as for the rest of you, I just despair and discard you…
Kanigher & Toth deliver another brilliantly disquieting drama in ‘Mask of the Red Fox’ to open #187, and Wayne Howard is at his workmanlike best on ‘Cain’s True Case Files: Appointment Beyond the Grave!’, before John Celardo & Mike Peppe render the anonymous script for period peril ‘An Aura of Death!’ (although to my jaded old eyes the penciller looks more like Win Mortimer…)
Another revolutionary moment occurs with #188’s lead story. Gerry Conway gets an early credit scripting ‘Dark City of Doom’: a chilling reincarnation mystery simultaneously set in contemporary times and Mayan South America, as the trailblazer for a magnificent tidal wave of Filipino artists debuted.
The stunning art of Tony DeZuñiga opened the door for many of his talented countrymen to enter and reshape both Marvel and DC’s graphic landscape and this black and white compendium is the perfect vehicle to see their mastery of line and texture…
Wrightson was responsible for time-lost thriller ‘House of Madness!’ which closes the issue whilst Aragonés opens the proceedings for #189, closely followed by Kanigher, Grandenetti & Wood’s ‘Eyes of the Cat’ and ‘The Deadly Game of G-H-O-S-T’ (from HoM #11: a 1953 reprint drawn by Leonard Starr) before another Charlton mystery superstar premiers as Tom Sutton illustrates Oleck’s ‘The Thing in the Chair’.
Kanigher & Toth team for another impeccable graphic masterwork in ‘Fright!’, Albano fills Cain’s Game Room and Aragonés debuts another long-running gag page with ‘Cain’s Gargoyles’ before this issue ends with Salem-based shocker ‘A Witch Must Die!’ by Jack Miller, Ric Estrada & Frank Giacoia.
HoM #191 saw the debut of Len Wein, who wrote terrifying puppet-show tragedy ‘No Strings Attached!’ for Bill Draut, as DeZuñiga returns to draw Oleck’s cautionary tale ‘The Hanging Tree!’ before Wein closes the show, paired with Wrightson on ‘Night-Prowler!’: a seasonal instant-classic that has been reprinted many times since.
Albano wrote ‘The Garden of Eden!’, a sinister surgical stunner made utterly believably by Jim Aparo’s polished art, Gray Morrow illustrates Kanigher’s modern psycho-drama ‘Image of Darkness’ and superhero veteran Don Heck returns to his suspenseful roots drawing Virgil North’s monstrously whimsical ‘Nobody Loves a Lizard!’
Wrightson contributes the first of many magnificent covers for #193, depicting the graveyard terrors of Alan Riefe & DeZuñiga’s ‘Voodoo Vengeance!’, whilst Draut skilfully delineates the screaming tension of Francis X. Bushmaster’s ‘Dark Knight, Dark Dreams!’
For #194, which saw House of Mystery expand from 32 to 52 pages (as did all DC’s titles for the next couple of years, opening the doors for a superb period of new material and the best of the company’s prodigious archives to an appreciative, impressionable audience), the magic commences with another bravura Toth contribution in Oleck’s ‘Born Loser’, swiftly followed by Russ Heath-illustrated monster thriller ‘The Human Wave’ (from House of Secrets #31), Jack Kirby monster-work ‘The Negative Man’ (House of Mystery #84) before Oleck and the simply stunning Nestor Redondo close the issue and this volume with metamorphic horror ‘The King is Dead’.
These terror-tales captivated the reading public and comics critics alike when they first appeared, and it’s no exaggeration to posit that they may well have saved the company during the dire downward sales spiral of the 1970. Now their blend of sinister mirth and classical suspense situations can most usually be seen in such series as Goosebumps, Horrible Histories and their many imitators. However, if you crave beautifully realised, tastefully, splatter-free sagas of tension and imagination, not to mention a huge supply of bad-taste, kid-friendly creepy cartooning, The House of Mystery is the place for you…
© 1968-1971, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.