Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Fine Art of Twisting Young Minds

Just about every horror fan that I know can trace back their love of the genre to one particular book or story, movie or TV show. It usually happens when we’re kids. Not always, but more often than not. Mine can be traced to a single 1950’s monster movie I happened to catch when I was in the the third grade. At the time, I was a voracious comic book reader—Sgt. Rock, Batman, Spiderman—and as soon as I realized that horror was my thing the superheroes got kicked to the curb and replaced by the Warren magazines—Creepy, Eerie—and the great Skywald magazines like Scream and Nightmare, the Gladstone E.C. reprints of Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear that you could order out of the back of Creepy and Famous Monsters, and the occasional pre-code horror comic from the 1950’s that I could lay my greedy little hands upon (unlike today, in the early 1970’s pre-code books were not that uncommon, you could buy them cheap, and often find them in basements and attics, the cast-offs of a friend’s older brother in my case).

I left no stone unturned as I sought out my horror comic thrills. And although I read mags like Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula and Monster of Frankenstein, DC’s Swamp Thing and Weird War Tales—and loved them, oh yes—I knew they were basically pretty weak in comparison to the Warren’s and Skywald’s and the various pre-code anthology-type books. They lacked a certain edge, courtesy of the much-dreaded, weak-kneed Comics Code that watered everything down after 1955 (the Warren’s and Skywald’s skirted the code because they were full-sized magazines, not comic books by definition). Even some of the Marvel’s I enjoyed like Dead of Night and Crypt of Shadows seemed to lack a certain bite I found in the pre-codes. Later, of course, I would learn that a lot of the stories in these two mags were actually swiped from pre-code books and sterilized: the blood was removed, zombies made less rotten, violence and gore toned down until it was practically nonexistent so it did not warp the mind of ‘70’s kids like it had with kids in the ‘50’s.

Then one day, when I thought I’d exhausted every possible avenue of grue, I spotted a magazine called
Horror Tales.

I was in love.

The stories were grotesque and bloody, the covers practically indescribable and splashed with vibrant, nauseating color—wolfmen tearing off the heads of ghouls, headless bloody mummies pounding stakes through the chests of well-endowed green-fleshed vampire women, demonic hunchbacks yanking rotting corpses from graves, mad doctors transplanting monster heads. I soon discovered more magazines of this ilk: Terror Tales, Tales of Voodoo, Tales from the Tomb, and Witches’ Tales. Put out by a company called Eerie Publications—of course!—these books lacked the artistic sophistication of the Warren’s and Skywald’s. There were no Frank Frazetta’s, Berni Wrightson’s, or Bruce Jones’s to be found in these pages. But what they lacked in style, they more than made up for in impact. The stories and artwork were crude, lurid, and dripping with blood. But given that horror, in its most basic state, is crude, lurid, and gory, this worked perfectly. Schoolmates and teachers who had seen me reading Creepy and Scream on the playground and thought, this kid is weird, now saw me reading Tales from the Tomb and Witches’ Tales and no doubt thought, no, this kid is more than weird, he’s twisted.

Not that I cared. For how could I not be in love with these magazines? How could I not love stories like “I Chopped Off Her Head” or “House of Monsters,” “Bloody Mary” or “The Slimy Mummy?” Quite a few of these stories were reprints from old pre-code books from Ajax-Farrell and Comic Media. Stories that were far too gruesome to be “sterilized” by Marvel, were instead pimped-up by Eerie Publications with more blood or sometimes re-drawn to accentuate the gore. This under the leadership of “Mad” Myron Fass, an old hand at crime and horror comics back in the 1950’s. Although much-maligned in the comic book industry, there was and is nothing quite like Eerie Publications.

As a kid I loved Halloween, of course. It was a special night of magic and mystery to me. I loved staring at those wonderful old Halloween decorations put out by the Beistle Company you would see taped in windows and tacked on school room walls—skeletons frolicking through cemeteries with screaming pumpkins under their arms, evil-grinning dead trees and ghosts swarming about ruined haunted houses and witches stirring cauldrons. To me and my fertile imagination, this represented the secret world of Halloween. A place humans would never see where the ghouls and ghosties paraded about in shadowy burial grounds and abandoned houses on Hallowneen night. The Eerie Pubs had the same effect on me. Those grisly covers, my imagination told me, illustrated the secret world of monsters and graveyards, torture chambers and ghastly laboratories. This was the sort of thing that went on in churchyards by night—Frankensteins and zombies, werewolves and vampires, ghouls and mad doctors, all cavorting about dismembering each other and violating graves and stitching things together that were never meant to walk or be seen by sane eyes. I was a highly imaginative kid. But these were the worlds that I thought existed through some eldritch mist after sundown.

If you haven’t read these, you should. For a cheap and garish thrill, nothing beats ‘em. These days, the issues go for a high price on Ebay. Ten years ago I picked up a near-complete set of Tales of Voodoo on Ebay for sixty bucks. These days you’d be lucky to get four of five issues for that price. But no need to despair or empty your wallet because of the Ebay scalpers, there is an alternative. Scanned comics that you read on your computer. Several sellers offer sets of Eerie Pubs out on
www.ioffer.com and the one I bought also has a huge selection of Skywalds and even oddities like Stanley’s Ghoul Tales on it. For under twenty bucks you can have a nearly complete collection of Eerie Pubs and this without going in hawk or damaging your very collectible paper issues.

The complete story of Eerie Pubs will soon be told by Mike Howlett in his upcoming book The Weird World of Eerie Publications. Join his Facebook group, become a fan:


In closing, I can only say that nothing so completely twisted-up my young mind as these magazines. And if I write horror stories these days, I tend to track it all to a single source. Because ever since finding that copy of Horror Tales, I have never, ever been the same again.