THE READTHRU: HAUNT OF FEAR Part 1 (15-17, 4)

E.C. Comics clearly had faith in their line of “New Trend” horror comics from the jump because they launched a third title one month after the first issues of Tales From The Crypt and Vault Of Horror. Haunt Of Fear followed the same format as its predecessors: four self-contained horror stories, usually introduced by ghastly hosts who laced their storytelling with plenty of macabre puns to let the reader know that the stories were all in grisly good fun. These tales would soon become known for their gory punchlines but the early issues are a bit more restrained with their displays of grue.

In the case of Haunt Of Fear, the main host was the Old Witch. That said, she didn’t begin her reign until the second issue. It’s also worth noting the quirky numbering early in the comic’s run: the first three issues were numbered 15, 16 and 17 because the E.C. crew saved money by resuming the numbering from a prior Western title, Gunslinger. This ended after the U.S. Post Office told them to restart their numbering with the fourth issue.

HAUNT OF FEAR #15 (1): The first issue bucks the E.C. horror trend in one way: there are no hosts for the stories, though all feature narration. “The Black Cat” is a blackly comic variation on the famous Poe tale, with Johnny Craig’s art weaving in surreal touches to effectively capture the growing madness of its anti-hero. “The Mad Magician” is a densely plotted affair in which artists Harry Harrison and Wally Wood lay on the gothic trappings for a tale of crazed vaudevillian trying to perfect the old “saw a man in half” trick (note: the gruesome punchline’s kept just off-frame). Editor William Gaines must have liked this issue because he’d recycle its other two stories in his other horror titles: “House Of Horror” would appear again in Tales From The Crypt #21 and “Terror In The Swamp” would be reprinted in Vault Of Horror #15 – click on the aforementioned titles to read the entries on those two stories.

HAUNT OF FEAR #16 (2): The Old Witch makes her debut with this issue’s finale tale, “The Mummy’s Return.” It’s a Jack Kamen-illustrated tale that plays like a Reader’s Digest condensed version of a Universal Studios mummy flick.  Elsewhere, “Vampire” benefits from a unique swamp setting for its twist-happy tale of a mystery bloodsucker, a milieu rendered stylishly by Craig, and “Horror-Ahead!” utilizes noir-ish work from Wood to render its tale of voodoo doings, which have an amusing theme of cultural plundering come back to haunt the perpetrators. That said, Schlockmania’s favorite here is “The Killer In The Coffin,” a twisty-turny crossbreeding of the ‘murderous adulterers’ E.C. story archetype with faked death and burial-of-the-undead motifs. Graham Ingels supplies the art and his feverish, lurid style really sells the scenario.

HAUNT OF FEAR #17 (3):  This one offers a really strong crop of tales, packed with evocative art and clever storytelling hooks. “Nightmare” uses crisp Craig art to tell the tale of a man who tries to combat his morbid, Poe-ish fear of premature burial with psychoanalysis. His freak-out dreams are worthy of a Wes Craven flick and the twist ending is as clever as it is mean. “Television Terror” is an ahead-of-its-time tale of a smartass t.v. host taking a live camera into a haunted house. It’s a found-footage tale decades before anyone would dream up that concept, innovatively illustrated by Harvey Kurtzman, and was later adapted for the Tales From The Crypt t.v. show. “The Monster Maker” reinterprets Frankenstein with a poetic justice twist, with gorgeous gothic art from Ingels. However, the most unique tale is the finale introduced by the Old Witch: “Horror Beneath The Streets” has E.C. main players William Gaines and Al Feldstein playing themselves as they spin a fanciful meta-yarn explaining what led them to publish horror comics. This issues is a blast from start to finish and highly recommended.

HAUNT OF FEAR #4: The final issue of this quartet has all the E.C. horror hosts in play, with the Old Witch emceeing two tales and her two Keeper pals picking up the slack elsewhere. “The Hunchback” takes its inspiration from a Robert Bloch story: it’s perhaps a bit too rushed for its own good but has suitably morbid Ingels art and a final twist that anticipates Basket Case. “The Tunnel Of Terror” is a surreal piece involving a twisted underground club and cannibalism. It doesn’t get gory but it gets a creepy reality-slips-away vibe from its Kamen art. “The Living Mummy” is an action-packed mixture of mad scientist and Mummy elements powered by playful Jack Davis art. The best tale is saved for last: “Man From The Grave” is the tale of a struggling artist who gets the fame he wants through evil methods and lives to regret it. It’s got an acid facial, a dying man’s curse and flamboyantly creepy Wood art (dig those creepy canvases painted by the cursed artist!).

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