Monthly Archives: October 2014
Greetings from the boneyard as we celebrate All-Hallows Eve. Tonight, we head into the past for one of the earliest examples of horror in the last century, horror made with ink and pen and paints for children of all ages. Today, we end October with a look at the grand history of horror comics.
Horror comics can be traced back to the early 19th century in America, with Prize Comics’ “New Adventures of Frankenstein” widely considered the first of the genre in the States. While many other publishers produced such books, the most well known was EC Comics, and its three series Haunt of Fear, Vault of Horror, and Tales From the Crypt. These comics reached a massive high in the 1940’s, with famous artists such as Johnny Craig and Reed Crandall writing and drawing the frightening tales.
Unfortunately, these books also experienced a tremendous backlash as parents of the time preached on the bad influences of horror and crime in comics. Dr. Fredric Wertham also published Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that violent caused children to be violent, painted the comic industry as a shadowy, Mafia like operation, and even pointed to Batman and Robin as propagating homosexuality. In response to the claims (which were based on largely undocumented anecdotes), the Comics Code was formed, which put a ban on many of the essential details for horror and crime comics. As a result, most horror comics faded away, though some were repackaged under sci-fi and mystery.
However, horror comics did find their way around these guidelines, and in the 1970’s the code did relax enough to allow Marvel to create the vampire Morbius, and even their own version of Dracula. Alan Moore also had great success at DC resurrecting the Swamp Thing and modern comic writers have found success with characters like Hellboy, and series like 30 Days of Night, Deadman, The Midnight Sons, and Marvel Zombies.
While many horror comics were generally simple horror tales, their influence has allowed for much of the creativity in comics today. Without their influence, it is unlikely their would be much, if any, supernatural influence in the comic world today, or any real seriousness. Indeed, many look at the Silver Age of Comics (done under the Comics Code), as one of over the top stories, with such gimmicks, as Lion-Headed Superman, and Bat-Baby (really. They both happened). Even a long lived character like Batman suffered without the elements of those early horror comics, becoming farther and farther removed from his grim beginnings until the 70’s and the loosening of the Code. Because of that, comic writers today have further freedom and creativity to weave not only frightening tales, but to explore darker, more serious elements that challenge readers instead of merely satisfying them.
As mentioned the EC Comics are largely among the most popular horror comics, with various anthologies existing today. The titles mentioned previously are also worth looking for the modern ramifications of horror. However, those with a taste for the silver screen can also be satisfied. The classic TV anthology Tales From the Crypt, is based on the comic of the same name, and many episodes are direct adaptations. Stephen King and George Romero’s Creepshow is a feature length tribute to EC, featuring graphics and stories straight out of the classic comics. So if you’re looking for a way to get some scary fun next Halloween, take a trip to your local comic story. Until then, boils and ghouls…
Welcome back to the literary graveyard, as we continue our Halloween journey. Today, we take on one of an American horror legends, located in the Hudson River Valley region of New York State. In particular, a small village that plays host to a story of death, ghosts, and mystery- Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Familiar to many, Sleepy Hollow is the tale of Ichabod Crane, a schoolteacher that journeys to Sleepy Hollow and pines for the hand of local beauty Katrina Van Tassel. However, Katrina has another suitor- Abraham ‘Brom Bones’ Van Brunt, who delights in pranking and frightening the superstitious Crane. Then at the Van Tassel’s autumn party, Van Brunt spins the tale of the local ghost, the Headless Horseman, a Hessian solider decapitated by a cannonball, and who now rides the countryside looking for his head. Crane is frightened by the story and later leaves the party, presumably after being rejected by Katrina. On his way home, he runs across the Horseman, and endures a panic filled ride to the Church bridge, which is supposedly a barrier to the Horseman. However, the Horseman hurls his flaming head at Crane, who is never again seen in Sleepy Hollow, with many wondering what became of him.
What Writers Can Learn: Ambiguity, Mystery, Suspense
One of the most fascinating things about Sleepy Hollow is its ambiguity. For example, none of the main characters are purely likeable. Ichabod is depicted as an overly strict and moral teacher, but a glutton in his private life, who desires Katrina as a way to access her father’s vast fortune. Van Brunt is a local hero, but a vicious prankster and a bully in many depictions. Even Katrina is hinted to be only interested in Ichabod to make Van Brunt jealous. Each character is genuinely flawed and imperfect, which makes who is likeable up to the reader.
However, that ambiguity also extends to the story itself. Nowhere is this more seen then in the final fate of Ichabod Crane. While it is plausible to believe Ichabod was spirited away by the Horseman, the story also suggests that he escaped and left the town to become a judge in another county. But it is also suggested that his spirit haunts the area. However, the strongest suspicion is placed on Van Brunt, who was described as an agile rider. The story mentions that he always had a knowing look upon his face when the tale was told, hinting that he dressed as the Horseman to frighten off Crane and get Katrina (whom he does marry). What actually happened is left up the reader, and with all the options seeming plausible, the terror of not knowing the truth makes the tale even more frightening.
Of course, no discussion of the story would be complete without the famous chase. Irving wisely builds the section to pulse pounding intensity, beginning with the superstitious Ichabod traveling down a dark road, the ghost stories of the party still ringing in his ears. As the Horseman approaches, Crane demands for his identity, until the ghoul’s frightful visage is revealed. Crane runs off, pushing his horse to the limit as he races for the bridge, the Horseman in pursuit. Crane reaches the bridge, but turns just as the Horseman hurls his flaming at him, ending the chase so suddenly, the reader is left drenched in sweat, stunned into shock and uncertainty, elements that all great suspense stories should.
Sleepy Hollow has been adapted many times in film and television. The Disney adaptation is best for younger viewers, as it maintains a fine balance between Disney charm and frights. Older audiences would be well served by Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, which is loose with the story (Crane is now a NYC constable, called in to investigate the Horseman) and adds a compelling murder mystery and well done gore element, while still paying homage to the original story. The TV movie The Hollow is also a fine choice- a sequel of sorts that deals with The Horseman returning for the descendants of Ichabod Crane, with many dark and genuinely frightening elements. Finally, there is the current TV series Sleepy Hollow, which resurrects a British turncoat version of Ichabod Crane in the modern day, along with the Horseman. While it expands on the story, adding Biblical, historical, and mythical elements as well as a modern crime drama, it is still an enjoyable and fun version, good for anyone looking to expand on the original story.
Come back next time for our final unearthed grave, one filled with ink and paint and plenty of ghouls….
Welcome back to the dark side. As promised, today’s entry will take us up several feet into terror, but also into a gigantic household world, the afterlife, the end times, and the outer limits of our imaginations. How? Because today’s entry is on one of the great American horror writers, the late Richard Matheson.
Who He Is
Richard Matheson began writing at eight years old, which is when he saw his first story published in the local papers. Since then, he created a legacy of entries in the fields of horror and science fiction genres, not only as an author, but often as a screenwriter. Some of his best work were the many stories he donated to the classic TV show, The Twilight Zone. These include ‘Steel’ (the story of a future robot boxing promotion, also adapted in the 2000’s film Real Steel) and his most well known episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” in which William Shatner is terrorized by a monster on the wing of a plane (the story proved popular enough to be remade for the 1980’s Twilight Zone movie). Matheson also wrote the screenplay for the ‘Little Girl Lost’ episode (about a girl lost in the fourth dimension).
On his own, Matheson also wrote countless short stores, ranging from suspense to science fiction and beyond. He also wrote many classic novels, including I Am Legend, about the last human left in a world of vampires (which has been adapted for the screen four times) and the metaphysical What Dreams May Come, a tale of a man experiencing the afterlife and rescuing his wife’s spirit from Hell (also adapted for film). Matheson was fortunate enough to write many of the screenplays for these films, such as The Incredible Shrinking Man, and even worked with famed horror director Roger Corman on a series of Edgar Allan Poe films.
What Writers Can Learn- The Basics and Best of Horror and Sci-Fi
Matheson’s contributions to these genres are invaluable; it is no surprise Stephen King refers to him as a great influence. His stories make up some of the best of horror and sci-fi, and are required reading for anyone looking to write in those genres. Matheson’s work utilizes suspense and drama, knowing how to build a story to heighten tension and grab the reader by the throat. He also understood the use of ambiguity, as many of his stories use paranoia to help throw the reader off track (even in 20,000 Feet, the original text never makes it clear whether the monster is real or the hero is mad). However, Matheson can also add unexpected elements- in Legend, the protagonist spends time trying to scientifically understand the vampire- why garlic and the cross are repellant, for example. And finally, Matheson understands the use of the twist ending- check out Legend for arguably the greatest one he produced.
The works mentioned above are really the best primer for Matheson’s work, and there are many collections of his stores in print or available digitally. His filmwork is generally well received, though The Last Man On Earth is perhaps the best of the four Legend films.
Come back next week, as we head to upstate New York and see if we can withstand the terror without losing our heads…
Greetings and Happy Halloween season to you all. I’m returning to the blog to kick off a favorite tradition- the October reviews of horror classics in literature and film (which will have increased entries to make up for their late start). To kick things off, we examine a horror masterpiece that is currently seeing a revamp in the theatres- Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Jonathan Harker, an English lawyer, travels to the mountains of Transylvania to finalize the sale of Carfax Abbey to the enigmatic Count Dracula. As Harker’s stay becomes further extended, he slowly begins to realize that Dracula is an undead vampire that has terrorized the region for decades. Harker is able to escape, but is unable to stop the Count’s journey, as he reached England and begins a new reign of terror. As he attacks Harker’s friends, they band together and with the help of Dr. Van Helsing, work to stop the vampire, who has begun to turn Harker’s fiancée Mina.
What Writers Can Take- Imagination, Morality, Desire
Dracula has gone through countless revisions and rebirths over the years, but they often overshadow the brilliance of the original text. To begin with, Stoker uses Dracula in a way that is often forgotten by the horror films of the modern day- he has little actual time in the novel. The story is told as a series of journal entries from Harker and other sources, and we see a much greater view of their world then we do of Dracula’s, save Harker’s early writings in the castle. However, Dracula himself hangs over each page, an invisible presence fueled by the reader’s knowledge of him, and the characters’ growing fear. This builds him into a much greater force, painting him as a force of tremendous evil, but leaving his exact nature to the reader’s imagination, which makes fearful to all, but in a very individual way for each reader.
However, there are aspects of Dracula that are clear, and those are the moral and even sexual undertones the character and vampirism bring to the novel. After all, Dracula lives with three brides that attempt to seduce him before biting him. And the fact that Dracula’s victims are all women, who become more and more enamored of their escapades as his power over them increases. It paints Dracula, and vampirism itself, as a sexual temptation, a force that would speak volumes in Victorian London. Both are seen as a sense of freedom, of release from society and all else. But the cost is high- continual murder and the loss of one’s soul. It is no surprise that the affected characters struggle to hold on to themselves even as their vampirism increases. They know that while their new desires whisper of freedom, they come at the cost of their very souls and morality- often the price for an overabundance of freedom and what makes Dracula so very dangerous.
As mentioned before, there have been countless adaptations of Stoker’s work. However, fans of the silver screen are required to view Universal’s original Dracula, with Bela Lugosi’s career making performance. Another excellent entry is Hammer Film’s Horror of Dracula, which is loose with the original story, but holds to the spirit of the novel, and contains some effectively seductive and horrifying scenes (as well as an original death scene for Dracula). Francis Ford Coppola’s version is best for a pure adaptation, though it adds its own romantic touch that still works with much of the original plot. And there are several group monster films that feature Dracula in a fine light (Monster Squad, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). However, fans should avoid the 2009 book sequel, Dracula Un-dead, which is written by Stoker’s great grandson and a film writer, which retcons much of the novel and is largely seen as an attempt by Stoker’s family to reclaim the Dracula name (which has long been in public domain). And as for the current revision film, Dracula Untold?
Skip it. Just skip it.
Keep your eyes open, as I will soon be taking us on a red-eye flight, where there just might be something outside your window…