Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Ghostly Tales #135

Ghostly Tales #135, May 1979, Charlton Publications

With Halloween less than a week away, I hoped that Ghostly Tales, a classic horror comic compared to the contemporary quarter bin fodder I’ve been reading lately, would crank up the creepiness. Although this issue was unsatisfying – I’ve grown to appreciate these old Charlton jam titles and it’s been too long since I’ve read one – I was disappointed that these self-proclaimed Ghostly Tales weren’t more . . . well, ghostly. Only one of the three stories actually featured a ghost, and while the others were promisingly disturbing, their respective resolutions were so affected by odd twists that I was left with a sour aftertaste, if that illusion makes sense. What’s it take for a comic book to actually scare me out of my skin?

The first story, “Throne of Power,” wasn’t a paranormal chiller, but rather a political thriller, as an Oriental lord strategies the fall of his niece, a mystical empress, by replacing her with an impoverished look-alike. In the end, the empress transforms into a fox and her devious doppelganger is ironically assassinated instead. Four of the eight pages in this strange tale are dedicated to the look-alike’s training, a six month process to assure that her ascension to the throne as a puppet empress is successful, yet her carelessness in the end is more disappointing than the real ruler’s completely unexpected metamorphosis. The writer implies with a line or two that the empress has a connection to nature, and I feel that some elaboration of that element would have been both more ethereal for the book’s general theme of ghostliness and more satisfying from a storytelling perspective. This story was more haunted by its potential than anything.

The second story, “Laffey’s Tombstone,” actually stars the ghost of this issue, specifically the specter of an Irish hero with whom this tale’s heroine’s grandmother had an affair. Visiting Laffey’s grave, the hero mistakes the introspective woman for her departed relative, and in a too predicable and unnecessarily sappy ending, a kiss brings the lad back to life, so he can pick up where he can left off with his lover’s granddaughter, we’re more than led to believe. Just my luck, the only real ghost story here is a romance, but this woman’s contentment to live happily ever after with her grammy’s dead lover is eerie enough for me. Nice to know that if chivalry really is dead, someday it’ll come back to life.

The final yarn, the issue’s cover story called “A Lovely Night in Paris,” stars a woman abducted by a band of zombie children and offered to their large underground rat god as a sacrifice. A valiant patrolman, with whom the woman share a brief salutation at the beginning of the story, races to save her, and for eight pages we’re led to believe that the cop will face supernatural odds way over his head – literally, at least, considering the size of the deistic vermin. In fact, when the woman’s shriek echoes in the sewer tunnel, the wayward hero proclaims, “It is the girl . . . She is terrified! So am I!” A very human and vulnerable moment, I marveled. Then, when the cop bursts into the creatures’ chamber, he pops off two shots, boasting, “A bullet in the brain . . . another in the heart . . .that does it!” Hunh? That easy, eh? I’ve seen regular rats put up a bigger fight than that! To make matters worse, in the end, the lady and her champion lock lips, as if their single panel’s worth of how-do-you-do was enough to bring them together. Only a story starring a big rat could end with so much cheese.

Even if this comic wasn’t scary in the classical sense, I enjoyed these brief, fun stories, and I wonder why horror anthologies aren’t popular anymore. I know Vertigo tried their hand with Flinch several years ago, but its popularity waned like a scream in the night. Could it be that mainstream comic book readers have been too conditioned by the thralls of continuity to really appreciate short story anthologies? Do comics have to be a part of something bigger, a thread in a larger tapestry if you will, to be embraced and appreciated, or at least to fly off the shelves with any considerable, marketable success? I know some anthologies are thriving out there, like Image’s Flight series, but I can’t imagine that enough new material exists for fans of horror comics to thrive. They’re the dying ones. The real ghosts in the ether.

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