Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tales From the Vault: CHAMBER OF CHILLS #1

Do you dare descend into the... Chamber of Chills?! No, this isn't about that episode of Brady Bunch where they locked themselves in the meat freezer; it's actually an early 70's Marvel horror comic. Let's check it out!

Details: This is from November, 1972, right when Marvel was really putting out a lot of (short-lived) horror titles. The credits vary from one story to the next, as does the quality and, you can be quite sure, my level of interest.

Synopsis one: The first story is credited to a writer named George Alec Effinger. Effinger? I hardly know her! Of more interest is the art, which is by "Craig Russell and Dan Adkins". This must be pretty early in P. Craig Russell's career if he hadn't adopted the P. yet; it also bears little resemblance to his later, more distinct style. Little known fact: the P. in P. Craig Russell stands for “Puffy”.

"Moon of Madness, Moon of Fear" begins with a shirtless guy being chased by wolves. Then we cut to a group of young tourists, heading off into the Bavarian wilderness for a camping trip. They are suddenly interrupted by a withered crone who...

OMG, you have to be kidding. Yes, a withered crone shows up out of nowhere are says "Perhaps the fraulein can sense it, eh? It is the frachtdorf EVIL!" She then warns them that werewolves are around and that it's a full moon and that they best heed her warning and you really, really have to be kidding me with this.

But no. Anyway, they go into the woods, and suddenly the shirtless man shows up, being attacked by wolves. The youths, being red blooded American men, jump in and save him by smacking the wolves with tree branches, then bring him back to the fire. The wolves circle the camp and the guys fend them off all night long with torches. Finally the sun comes up...

... and the guy turns into a werewolf. See, he's actually a werehuman -- the full moon turns him into a human, but the rest of the time he's a wolf. That's why the wolves were attacking him, because he turned into a person. Then, to punctuate his story, he eats them all. And finally, there's an epilogue later where the same thing happens again, only to some old people in an RV. RIP, John Madden.


Synopsis two: Up next is... a dirty reprint!!! ARRRGH! But, wait. This is actually interesting -- it's a reprint of a pre-code horror story by Stan Lee with art from Russ Heath. Called "They Wait in Their Dungeon", it originally appeared in the first issue of an Atlas comic called Menace in 1953. So, I'm going to read it even though it's a dirty reprint.

Oh, and it's a doozy. It's written from the perspective of a warden in a maximum security prison like Alcatraz. This warden is a sadistic monster, whipping inmates with his bullwhip and reveling in their execution. In one sequence he puts a guy in the gas chamber and we get this bit from Lee:

"Your heart beats faster as the doomed prisoner is led into the little gas chamber! You would prefer to watch the guillotine, but execution by gas is better than nothing! As the jets are turned on, you rush to your specially built window to watch the doomed man squirm in terror... His movements become slower as the gas begins to enter his lungs... Finally he starts to slip to his knees... the life ebbing from him... until at last he lays still... dead! You feel cheated! The last one remained alive for 4 minutes, struggling and... screaming! It was wonderful to watch!"

Anyway, at dinner, he eats some soup that he doesn't like, so he forces the cook to drink dishwater then has his guards drag the guy off to the torture chamber. However, he makes a critical mistake here: the rest of the guards have been overwhelmed, so this leaves him alone. The inmates close in and chase him through the building until his only choice is whether to hide in the gas chamber or face them outside it.

"The choice is yours, Warden Drury! Do you go thru the door and die... or do you wait and die? Think fast, Warden Drury... your time has run out!!" This final panel has a closeup of the red and sweaty face of the warden with a look of terror on his face as the convicts aproack "hands outstretched... fingers reaching, clawing, each fighting to be the first to choke you..."


Synopsis three: The third story is called "Delusion for a Dragon Slayer" and it is credited to Gerry Conway "adapted from an original story by Harlan Ellison". Oh, Christ, great. Seeing that byline makes me want to burn my whole comic collection. But, anyway, I guess I’ll go ahead and read the story. You better appreciate this.

A dude is walking along when a wrecking ball flattens him. He wakes up to find himself on a sailing ship, in the body of... Ka.-Zar by the looks... holding a magic sword that spouts expositional dialogue at him. The sword says he's in heaven, but he has to earn it. He can do this by sailing through some rough seas and saving a maiden from a demon. The thing is, he has to do this in a manner which is in keeping with his ethics. Man, Smax would totally tell this sword to shove it.

This guy takes it seriously though, so he sails the ship through the straits. Unfortunately, he manages to wreck it, killing the entire crew:

"And his men -- who trusted him not to gamble them away so cheaply -- wail till their screams become water-logged -- and, choking -- ARE GONE!" This accompanied by an eerie drawing by Syd Shores of the drowned men floating under the surface of the ocean.

The main character's reaction to this: "Well, I certainly messed that up."

You think?!

Anyway, he comes to a clearing and sees the maiden and the deamon, which looks like Sasquatch, and is horrified when they start totally making out. So, he runs up and stabs the demon in the back and pitches him into a river. Then he grabs the maiden and basically is about to rape her when a giant dragon appears and eats the holy hell out of him.

Then we get the moral: he killed the men with his vanity, he murdered the demon through cowardice, he revealed himself filled with lust, therefore he didn't earn heaven. Instead, he is sent back to the present, where he is crushed to death by the wrecking ball. Because being eaten by a dragon sometimes just isn’t enough.


Extras: Um. Actually, this comic wasn't all that bad. Better than a lot of the DC horror at the time, anyway. The dirty reprint was actually the best part, and even the Conway/Ellison mash-up didn’t quite put me under for good. This whole “let’s adapt all of Harlan Ellison’s short stories into issues of Patsy Walker and Ringo Kid” phase is one of the more annoying chapters in Marvel history, right up there with “Halloween in Rutland, Vermont”. But in that context, this story could have been a lot more offensive. And I also have to admit that the first story about the werehuman was.... actually, that one was stupid.

My grades: I'm going to give this a B overall. That's a C- for the opener, an A- for the glimpse at Sadistic Stan, and a C for the Ellison adaptation. I’m giving bonus points because there’s a cool in-house ad for Tomb of Dracula, the comic that the readers wish they had bought instead of this one. Plus it features a nice Gil Kane cover (as almost every Marvel from this period also did -- a good choice by Marvel).

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