The world of Witches Tales is a frightening place. It's full of all kinds of bizarre menaces: haunted houses, supernatural gloves. There are mummies and phantoms and the devil and a deranged crazy man who works in a darkroom and despises a pair of newlyweds. There's a man who turns into a tree and a man who gets the teeth of a shark and a man who tempts voodoo vengeance. There's a woman who throws her husband off a cliff and a woman who is possessed by evil and kills all her houseguests.
Yes, the world of Witches Tales is a frightening place. And I loved spending some time in that place.
It's very easy to fall into a calm and sanitized version of history these days, to remember the past in the way we want to remember it rather than the way it really was. That's true both in the history of a particular era and in the way that we approach art from an era.
On one level we like to think of the early '50s as a kind of utopia compared with our chaotic world of 2011. The pace of life was slower, America was unquestionably on top in the world, a new world was in the midst of being created out of the ashes of World War II, and the greatest baby boom in American history was in full swing. Men loved their wives, people were moving to the suburbs, and a great national unity was at hand.
And some of those things were true, but the worst war in the history of the world was fresh on everyone's mind. Everyone above the age of 10 in 1951 had fresh memories of atrocities, had proof on some level of the existence of pure evil at the hands of Hitler and Stalin, and yes, in Dresden and Hiroshima, in the hands of the so-called good guys. Even worse, on some level the war seemed to be futile as the great army of the Soviet Union swallowed up the once free countries of Eastern Europe and marched into Korea. Those Commies even had the atom bomb, which meant on some level that they were even as great as the United States.
We had just escaped the horrific maw of pure evil just to stare down the face of more pure evil. It was enough to make Americans of the 1950s despair of ever finding happiness.
And that's the world that Witches Tales was created in, a world where sensitive men and women tried to make their way in peace and happiness while haunted by the feeling that – just out of their reach, just at the periphery of their vision – the world was a horrific place, teeming with cruelties and horrors and deprecations, a world that was as likely to offer torment as it was to offer true peace.
A striking number stories in Harvey Horrors: Witches Tales Volume One involve happy couples that have horror visited upon them through no fault of their own. "Murder Mansion" tells the story of Lucy and Jerry Williams, a happy honeymooning couple who decide to spend their honeymoon in a family mansion that they had never visited. But the mansion is, of course, haunted, and Lucy feels the touch of death and ends up massacring her husband and several guests in the house. With gorgeous and spooky artwork by Lee Elias, this story is as bleak and arbitrary as any modern horror story. Neither Lucy nor her victims are evil before entering the house; instead, the house inflicts its evil on the people. Is that an analogy to the pain or real life corrupting joy and optimism?
"The Clinging Phantom" tells the story of another newlywed couple who meet pure evil, this time at the hands of a demon conjured by a jealous man working in an old darkroom, developing their happy vacation photos. Spurred on by nothing more than a perceived mocking, the demon leads the new wife to have an affair with her pallor-faced nephew (!) and drives the new husband to murder. Like the best of Shakespeare's tragedies, nobody escapes a horrific fate.
"Curse of the Statue" splits a couple by using an arbitrary evil. George and Carol seem awfully happy as they visit a gift shop while on a drive in a dark, deserted country road. At the store the couple find a statue and impulsively buy it – after all, in an increasing affluent post-War America, it's easy to spend money on unnecessary things. But without any warning we learn that the statue is inhabited by a horrifically evil being, and a horrific fate meets both the husband and the wife through absolutely no fault of their own. Is this a critique of conspicuous consumption, of the aspirations of middle class Americans to bring some class into their lives? Whatever the intent of the author, the completely inexplicable events of the story are wonderfully spooky.
Nobody in these stories is ever allowed to find happiness. There is no respite from the never ending horrors of the world.
Even the stories where evil-doers meet their appropriate fate contain scenes of horrifying evil. "The Puppets that Became Men" tells the story of an evil couple, puppeteers Ezra and Liza Krutch, who enslave and torture a group of tiny men and women from some exotic place in Asia. We witness scene after scene of beatings, starvation and verbal cruelty as these noble people are forced to perform in order to serve their literal masters. The horrible couple meets their ultimate fate at the hands of those that they victimized, but the really horrific ending comes as the tiny people swear "Vengeance on all men! Vengeance!"
These amazing stories are illustrated by several really wonderful cartoonists. The great Bob Powell has work featured in all seven issues presented here and does a magnificent job emphasizing and deepening the horror in the stories that he presents. His sharp eye for detail and great feeling for grotesqueries even makes ridiculous stories like "The Sewer Monsters" carry weight.
Other terrific artists are featured in this book. Rudy Palais is a master stylist who does several stories, and the bland art of Vic Donahue is great at conveying the horror that lives beneath '50s blandness, like Jack Kamen over at E.C. Comics. But my real favorite cartoonist in this book is the very stylized Manny Stallman. Stallman's designs are intriguingly simple and flat, with a fascinating two-dimensional feel that emphasizes the strangeness of the dinosaurs and demons that he depicts. Stallman's art is haunting in the way that only comic art could be, full of arbitrary analog horror that seems channeled directly from 1950s nighmares.
Harvey Horrors: Witches Tales Volume One feels like the secret history of the early 1950s. Beneath the seeming placid surface of happiness and bliss of the post-War era was a lurking horror and fear of pure evil. These stories are all awesome on thei
r surface, but when you read a whole bunch of them together, you suddenly realize just how much World War II fucked everybody up.