The Readthru is designed to take you through the issue run of a comic book or magazine. It will be an ongoing series of capsule review guides to famous titles of yesteryear.
After a few horror-oriented tales tested well in one of E.C.’s crime comics, William Gaines and Al Feldstein saw the gory writing on the wall and added the genre to the company’s roster. Vault Of Horror debuted simultaneously alongside Tales From The Crypt and followed the same creative dictates: it was an anthology with four stories per issue, all tales were framed by a host who leavened their narration with gruesome puns a-plenty and the stories were punchy affairs with excellent art and twist-happy denouements.
As with all E.C. horror titles, their trio of resident horror hosts appeared here but the main host was the Vault Keeper, who would lead off each issue in a tale usually drawn by Johnny Craig. He also plotted out his Vault Keeper-lead stories, which was unique for an E.C. artist (plotting was usually handled by other writers). The first five issues of Vault show that the house style settled in quickly and effectively…
VAULT OF HORROR #12: The title starts well with a quartet of what would become familiar E.C. archetypes. “Portrait In Wax” is a Craig-helmed riff on Mystery Of The Wax Museum retrofitted to E.C.’s greed-gone-wrong theme, featuring plentiful corpses, an acid facial and a dramatic unmasking. “The Werewolf Legend” is identical in concept to a tale from the first issue of Crypt Of Terror but is told with better plot hooks and superior, downright phantasmagorical art from the team of Wally Wood and Harry Harrison. “Horror In The Night” is one of those nightmare-never-ends tales of circular fate set at a motel with some noirish Harvey Kurtzman art. “Terror Train” closes things out with a crazy-or-not tale of a woman on the run from an ominous husband she can’t escape: Feldstein handled the art, putting his classically styled heroine through the ringer with a tale that includes knives, a coffin and an open grave.
VAULT OF HORROR #13: It’s a shame Feldstein didn’t have more time for art as E.C. Comics gained success because he does ace work on the opening tale “The Dead Will Return,” bringing shadowy style and a sense of growing madness to a tale of a corpse that won’t stay hidden. “The Curse Of Harkley Heath” is a darkly humorous tale of greed dividing a group of murderous relatives told with gothic visual flair by the Wood/Harrison team. “Doctor Of Horror” is a tale of ambition gone amuck at a med school: the punch of the final twist is curiously muffled here but the Graham Ingels art captures the grotesquery of its antihero nicely. “Island Of Death” closes things with a riff on The Most Dangeous Game: it feels more like adventure-lite than horror but the Kurtzman art suggests his future greatness in war comics.
VAULT OF HORROR #14: Craig’s lead-off tale for this one is “Voodoo Vengeance,” a voodoo doll narrative that gets a charge from how his charming cartoon stylings of characters get subverted by the story’s mix of deceit, jealousy and magic-assisted violence. “Werewolf” is a supernatural-inflected murder mystery with a novel mountain setting and slick art from the team of future screenwriter Jules Feiffer and Harry Harrison, including a fun final panel. “Rats Have Sharp Teeth” brings Ingels’ trademark ghastly-gothic touch to a tale of grave-robbing: he nails the anti-hero’s rising greed and the crypt interiors with equal skill. “The Strange Couple” is another one of those E.C. ‘woke up from a nightmare… that’s real!’ tales, with appropriately moody Feldstein art and a kitchen-sink final twist.
VAULT OF HORROR #15: “Horror House” brings Craig’s clean comic-strip stylings to a familiar tale of pranksters getting pranked by the great beyond but it has an amusing meta-element by having a horror specialist writer as its protagonist. “Terror In The Swamp” is one of Schlockmania’s favorite tales drawn by Feldstein, a tale of mad science in the title location with elements that predict both The Blob and Swamp Thing. “Report From The Grave” is one of the lighter horror tales that Jack Kamen specialized in, handsomely illustrated. It redeems its convoluted plot with a clever final twist. “Buried Alive!” ends things on an entertainingly macabre note, spinning a yarn of cheating, double-crosses and faked deaths with gripping Ingels art that captures both the lust and the cruelty of its participants.
VAULT OF HORROR #16: “Werewolf Concerto” is another Craig-helmed tale that uses protagonists with a comic-strip look to offset its horror themes: the double-twist isn’t that hard to predict but it’s carried along by its macabre good cheer. The H.P. Lovecraft-inspired “Fitting Punishment” is a revenge tale with gothic trappings ideally suited to Ingel’s style, particularly its depiction of its elderly cheapskate villain. “The Grave Wager” is another twist-happy tale of pranks gone wrong, atmospherically illustrated by lite-horror pro Kamen. The best is saved for last: “Escape” mixes crime comic characters into an ironic tale of fate with very cinematic storytelling by Feldstein.
Note: The following tales from the above issues were all adapted for the Tales From The Crypt t.v. show – “Horror In The Night,” “Doctor Of Horror,” “Report From The Grave,” “Fitting Punishment” and “Werewolf Concerto.”