Sunday, October 30, 2016

Halloween on the Highway, or Unending Roads

The open highway has a mystique to it. It fascinates me to think that the humble road outside my door can ultimately lead me anywhere. The vast network of roads and highways can seem to have a life of its own, humming silently with potential. It also carries life, allowing the movement of commerce which is the lifeblood of any society.

When I was a teen, I can recall my friends and I hanging out beside the road near one of their houses. A streetlight, a dry, grassy, shallow ditch, and warm summer nights became our world. This was when where I lived was more rural, and traffic was rare. Yet I could almost believe I heard the faint roaring of tires on a highway emanating from this quiet stretch of asphalt in a backwater Ohio town. We discussed dreams of our future there, the road looming within our souls, ready to take us somewhere far away, someplace we imagined to be our destiny.

As time flowed along, roads and highways became less and less the enabler of hopes, and more a simple tool by which we carried out our daily tasks. Still, on certain days or nights, when thoughts would rise up from the depths of memory, the road would again become a pathway into dreams. Roads are strange things when you think of it; they are permanent structures, unmoving, yet they feel as if they move beneath us as we travel along. They seem to stay the same as the lands around change. At night, the Moon paces us, stationary as the land slides and undulates below it. At those times, the highway is at its most mysterious, carrying us as we hurtle forward into a nightscape.

Tales from the highway are particularly engrossing. Just as roads carry us through the temporal world, it's captivating to think they may also somehow reach into another dimension. Time and space often seem to change and morph as we drive along the temporal world, and it's easy to believe that, perhaps, we can breach the barriers between worlds, between the lands of the living and the lands of the dead. It's a spooky thought, especially when traveling at dusk or at night. Or at Halloween.

A few authors have explored this mysterious aspect of roads and highways.

Haunted Route 66 by Richard Southall

 It's appropriate, given the time of year and the mood I'm in as I write this post, to start off discussing a book about the ghost of a road. For decades, Route 66, the "Mother Road," connected one side of the US to the other. One of the early parts of the interstate highway system, it was finally decommissioned in 1984 with the advent of larger and more efficient highways. Yet it can still be traced, wending its way from Chicago to Santa Monica, a few gaps here and there, and with many of the towns that it sustained gone or much reduced. While a book using the defunct highway as its subject could have been written as a continuous narrative, author Southall chooses to chronicle in a matter-of-fact way the haunted locations that 66 passed through or near. Where history is known, it is recounted, along with the common accounts of what form the hauntings take. This is less a book to be read late on a Halloween evening and more a travel planner. Good, solid info, and occasionally a bit of spookiness comes through in the descriptions of the locations.

Haunted Highways by Tom Ogden

This book is something of an opposite of the previous volume. The author takes oft-told tales and urban legends and writes them as coherent stories rather than the often disjointed and context-free accounts that are heard third-hand and beyond. Phantom hitchhikers, ghostly horse-drawn hearses, and helpful motorists from beyond the grave all get their turns, and famous names like the Hawaiian goddess Pele, abolitionist John Brown, and even Telly Savalas check in. Roads from Colonial Boston to the teeming streets of modern Tokyo offer up their ghostly travelers for the reader's perusal.

Trucker Ghost Stories by Annie Wilder

This is my favorite of the bunch here. I was a kid during the CB radio craze of the mid-1970s, and was endlessly intrigued by the truck-driving culture. Barreling from coast to coast seemed like the life for 10-year-old me. I wore out the few truck driving music tapes I managed to get hold of. I even bought sets of stickers with CB radio lingo illustrated on them. Driving a truck was my aspiration back then. And I get why even today; the highway still calls to me occasionally. Seeing new people and places, exploring roads little-traveled by's a quest to simply know more about the world, and while the internet can take us places we could never go otherwise, there's still a certain satisfaction in going and seeing and experiencing in person far-off places.

Many of the stories in this book have an immediacy to them, reading like dispatches from the road. Brief moments of high strangeness are illuminated like highway signs that catch the beams of headlights. A number of them seem to be transcribed almost directly from email or message board posts, with flawed grammar and misspellings lending them authenticity. So much of this book comes directly from those who make the road their homes most of the year, and that underlays it all with a kind of excitement that is akin to that felt listening to busy CB radio channels way back when. The book strays from its mission statement a bit too often, with stories by actual truckers becoming too few later in the book. Yet, as the subtitle on the cover says, it contains tales of haunted highways, weird encounters, and legends of the road. And that is good enough for me.

With Halloween just about upon us as I write this, I can't let the opportunity slip by to post the ultimate in ghostly truck driver songs (and yes, there was virtually a subgenre of dead trucker songs at one time). Take a listen to Red Sovine's signature song, Phantom 309.

Happy Halloween!

Halloween Hocus-Pocus: Fear in Four Colors

I have a special fondness for Halloween-themed comic books. In recent years, fewer and fewer have made it to the racks of bookstores and comic shops, perhaps because horror has become such a constant in pop culture. After all, weekly zombie and ghost hunting television shows can tend to sap the impact of the once-a-year allure of Halloween. Still, there is a certain atmosphere that arrives with the advent of October, one that is apart from the grisly splatter horror that dominates most of the rest of the year.

All that said, I thought I'd exhume a few choice comic volumes to share. Ironically, none of them are specifically Halloween-themed, but they clearly occupy a shadowland that exists apart from most modern horror. Let's dive in with some of the most innocuous entries in my cobwebbed longboxes:

Spooky, the Tuff Little Ghost 

Spooky, May 1972

Spooky Haunted House, February 1973
Casper's belligerent cousin Spooky is a derby-wearing, pseudo-Brooklyn-accented ghost who takes delight in scaring the living. Or other ghosts, too, when he can get away with it. Obviously, this being Harvey Comics, his efforts are generally limited to yelling "BOO!" and letting others know that he is, indeed, a ghost. Spooky's world - and, by extension, the world of Casper - is a gentle dreamscape, populated by other ghosts, fairies, and not-very-monstrous monsters. Here, ghosts are distanced from their downbeat origins, existing in a world where they can apparently exist without anyone actually dying. It's a bright, sunny world, with the only concessions to horror being dilapidated houses and an instinctual fear of ghosts by most of the inhabitants. And the latter doesn't hold true universally.
That second panel, from Spooky Haunted House, may be my single favorite thing in Harvey Comics.

Most stories in Spooky's books are short, often single-page gags. Here is one that actually lasts a few pages, and is "continued" later on in the same book. Weirdo scientists subject Spooky to some creepily bizarre tests, including being photographed.
"We're NOT movie producers and STOP ASKING QUESTIONS!" did make my skin crawl when I read it, though.

Turns out, these geniuses are wanting data to build a ghost robot. Yeah, I know.
Seriously, these scientists didn't even think to become defense contractors?
And that gives an idea about Spooky and his (mis)adventures. There are cameos by Casper, Wendy the Good Little Witch, and even that ghost horse that hangs around for some reason. Quick, silly stories for kids that tread only on the far outskirts of Halloween.

Supernatural Thrillers Featuring the Headless Horseman

Supernatural Thrillers #6, November 1973
Over at Marvel at roughly the same time as the Spooky comics above were being published, the House of Ideas was beginning to get its horror comics up into full steam. The gruesome comics of the early 1950s that had brought about the Comics Code Authority and the attendant self-censorship of the comic book industry were receding into memory, and horror was starting to come back into comics. Here we see a definite Halloween connection, as one of the holiday's most iconic tales is mined for plot ideas. But, it's a tenuous connection, as the story is mostly about the machinations of mobsters. It's not a particularly spooky story, and much of it is development for characters that never appear again (as far as I know).
You get the idea.
Still, it's a cool cover, right? Marvel's move back into horror throughout the '70s would become less tentative fairly soon. DC would also make forays into horror in the '70s, but by 1986, most of the horror comics of Marvel and its Distinguished Competition would be gone, or at least in decline. Still, an up-and-coming pop culture phenomenon who would hold closer and closer ties to Halloween would show up to attempt to breathe new life into at least one title.

Elvira's House of Mystery

Elvira's House of Mystery #1, January 1986; Halloween makes the cover!

The venerable House of Mystery series finally gave up the ghost in 1983, after surviving for decades in one form or the other. Then it was revived in 1986 to showcase the titular (heh) character. Gone was former "host" of the comic, Cain, though not really; Elvira would search for him in her wrap-around framing story, as well as try to find her way out of peril by piecing together clues from the various stories in the book. It's a grab bag, including a story of people playing a game based on Dungeons & Dragons, but with a magical twist, as well as the usual guilt-ridden killers and bullied kids who get their revenge. Oddly, the longest story is a folk-tale-like story of ancient Asia, with aged sorcerers and demons, and a plot centered on two young but doomed lovers. It's not a bad anthology, though some of the stories seemed rather unfinished to me, but it often felt like the stories were left over from the old run of House of Mystery, and didn't really fit with Elvira's quip-tossing brand of "hosting." Still, Elvira is a treat in most formats.
Well, maybe more like eleven issues, El.

Haunted Horror

Haunted Horror #11, June 2014; originally the cover for Mister Mystery volume 6 #3, December 1946; art by Warren Kremer
What else is there to say? Look at that cover.

Haunted Horror collects choice stories from the early horror comics of the 1940s and '50s, and they sure know how to pick them over there. That's the most spectacular cover to a horror comic I've ever seen. It tells a story on its own, which is good, since it doesn't reflect any of the stories in the book. And, really, no story could measure up to that cover, anyway. But the book itself is crammed with content; these comics are from an era dense with dialogue, so it takes considerably more time to read a given tale in them than modern comics. And they're often rife with grue that would comfortably fit into an episode or more of The Walking Dead. The no-holds-barred approach to gore and evil (though they were quite chaste when it came to sex) would cause a crackdown on horror comics in general, until publishers like Marvel and DC began to push back (see the issue of Supernatural Thrillers above). But even at their most blood-soaked, few of the more modern comics could compete with these old comics for outright lunacy.
Peripatetic noggins, for example.

Added for emphasis.
Jilted lovers, restless corpses, crazed killers, unexpected twists that you'll expect, vengeful sun gods, and even the Devil himself show up in these stories.

I always imagined Ol' Scratch as a bit more suave, but OK...
Direct narrative connections to Halloween are few, but the vibe is very much akin to that of the holiday.
Certainly those old comics have few peers amongst today's offerings when it comes to pure atmosphere, but there are some who tower among the greats even today.

Hellboy: The Crooked Man and Others

Mike Mignola's signature character delves into the shadowy realm of horror quite often. And that's to be expected; after all, we're talking about a character who is half-devil and was born in Hell. Mignola's art, with inky shading and a certain sketchiness that conjures a spooky feel, is masterful. But, though the cover above is by Mignola, and the story I want to point out was written by him, it has art by one of the modern masters of illustration: Richard Corben.
Even the grotesque has a certain beauty at the hands of Corben.
I've been a fan of Richard Corben since the '70s. His cover for Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell is a quintessential image of that decade. His work on magazines like Heavy Metal opened up a world that was both lush and bizarre, with outrageously voluptuous women and improbably endowed men traveling in nightmare worlds. Here, Mignola's strong writing provides a framework for Corben to clothe, both of them creating a hellish Appalachia that is familiar to someone like me who has family history there.
Few artists know how to balance shadow and light, and detail and blank space, like Corben.
And Corben has the ability to render insanity and evil in the faces of his characters in ways that unsettle me deeply.
I think I've run the gamut here, or at least A gamut, of spooky and eerie comics that suit the Halloween season. All of them have their place, from the sunlit afterlife of Spooky to the harrowing evil lingering in backwoods hollers my grandmother would have recognized.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Late Night Ruminations: Frazetta and the Dark Dimension

Jongor Fights Back, Frank Frazetta, 1967

Deep into the quiet nights of my youth in the '70s, before the endless murmuring of the electronic ether, I would sit and read and reread all the books and magazines and comics I had at hand. The silence focused my attention on the images and words, with them evoking, in turn, images and emotions beyond what was on the pages before me. Eventually, gradually, I began to grasp that some of these works, the ones that most deeply stirred me, were by certain writers and artists. Among the first artists I began to appreciate for what their talent could conjure within me was Frank Frazetta.

Frazetta's universe is dark and whirling. Each image is a lightning-flashed frozen moment, a glimpse into a dark dimension. So much of his work is of a lone protagonist fighting for his life, sometimes the life of another, but the battles are often lonely. Empty stone halls, twilight-lit wilderness, dank swamps, and frozen mountains are often the stages upon which these tableaus play out to their grim conclusions.

There is no implied glory here; these struggles are personal. Some might argue this is not heroism, but simply survival. But I have often thought that in Frazetta's universe these battles are, indeed, heroic, with the protagonist's demon-grappling a fight to shrug off their own shadow, to bring a hero forth from within that can make the world a better place, or at least a bit less dark.

In Frazetta's universe, the antagonist is often unseen or a force of nature. It is more about what the protagonist is doing, how he prepares for and prosecutes battle. In that universe, readiness for war is always a virtue.

The image accompanying this post may seem like a strange choice. Yet, it is quintessential Frazetta. The title, Jongor Fights Back, while unnecessary, is perfect. We already know everything we need just from the image. Somewhere in Frazetta's endless dark dimension, a warrior defends himself and his companion, awkwardly perched on a reptilian mount, with threatening aerial creatures in a gyre above and about them. The spare background adds to the dreamy feel of the picture, a timeless moment that is a reflection of eternity. The action is the real protagonist here, as in so many Frazetta works.

I bought a print of the above painting. Its presence is a portal into that dark dimension to which my thoughts are so often drawn, even now, so long after they were first lured there.