RETRO REVIEW: House Of Mystery #202 (May 1972)

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Or – “A Holiday Fright For Ghouls And Boils Alike!”

There’s something really fun about a good comic book horror story (or, for that matter, even a BAD one.)  One of my horrifying memories of childhood was in reading a tale of the uncanny in which an unscrupulous pool hustler was somehow transported to a world of giants and crushed by the very 8-ball he used in life.  What was most horrifying was in seeing the giant player rubbing the bit of schmutz that used to be our protagonist on a rag before re-racking his table, seeing a life reduced to nothing more than a tiny splotch.  (Anybody who can tell me where this story appeared will get a coveted Bronze Blok Award for service above and beyond the Spoilerite call of duty.)  As for today’s fright-fest, I think one sentence sums it up:  Sergio Aragonés drawing a legendary tale of the uncanny.  Your Major Spoilers (Retro) Review awaits!

HOUSE OF MYSTERY #202
Writer:Gerry Conway/John Albano/Steve Skeates
Penciler: Michael W. Kaluta/Mike Sekowsky/Nestor Redondo/Gene Colan/Sid Greene/Sergio Aragonés/John Prentice
Inker: Michael W. Kaluta/Frank Giacoia/Nestor Redondo/Gene Colan/Sid Greene/Sergio Aragonés/John Prentice
Colorist: Uncredited
Letterer: Uncredited
Editor: Joe Orlando
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: 25 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing:

Previously, in House Of Mystery:  There was a time when the most popular comic books were horror anthologies, when the likes of the Crypt-Keeper and the Phantom Stranger would bring us monthly lessons about what ensues when bad things happen, usually to bad people.  Those 1950′s tales started waning about the time that superheroes became a going concern at the dawn of the Marvel Age, and by the 1980s, the last of the original wave of horror books finally went under.  In 1972, though, there were a number of going concerns in the horror anthology department, including Eve’s ‘Secrets of Sinister House’ and ‘Weird Mystery Tales,’ Abel’s ‘House of Secrets,’ and this book, the home turf of the pointy-haired Cain (reported modeled after comics writer and Wolverine-creator Len Wein.)  This issue is also an award-winner, taking home a 1972 Shazam award for something we’ll get to in a moment.  First we kick off our festivities with the brilliantly named “Shearing Of A Soul.”

Apparently, every night at midnight, a young man named Carson Shrew is visited by the ghosts of his past, leading him to screech in mortal terror while his servants listen in either terror or utter revulsion.  Years before, Shrew’s parents seemingly engaged in some sort of deal with the literal debbil, allowing the elderly father to inhabit his son’s body upon his death.  A series of accidents led to the mother burning to death, and the child grew to manhood without ever speaking, save for each midnight when he screams like a banshee.  What’s his problem?

Creepy, sure, and well-realized by Mike Sekowsky, an artist that I associate more with early Justice League stories and the awesome period wherein Wonder Woman gave up her Amazon powers to be a kung-fu hipster clothing designer.  The second tale in this double-sized anthology is interesting as well, featuring early artwork by Filipino comic master artist Nestor Redondo.  I love Nestor’s work, often seen in Warren’s black-and-white horror books as well as in Aztec Ace (always a fave-rave at my house.)  A man named Franklin Owen trades his soul for sorcerous power, but finds only woe, nearly dying before deciding he wants his soul back…

Cain himself makes a cameo in the story as the magician who imbues Owen with his power, a common practice in ‘House Of Mystery’ issues.  (He probably gets it from Rod Serling.)  Speaking of comics legends, perhaps you’ve heard of a man named Gene Colan?

If you haven’t, you’ve got some learnin’ to do.  As for this story, it’s a particularly silly tale of a Reed Richards lookalike who finds a space-grenade, and has to hold it 24/7 lest it destroy the entire Earth.  It’s pretty silly, actually, even if it looks better than your average throwaway horror tale, owing partly to its being reprinted from a 50s-era issue of ‘My Greatest Adventure.’  Speaking of throwaway horror tales?

Um…  I…  This…  Yeah, we’ll just move on, shall we?  It’s time to get to the story for which people actually REMEMBER this issue, a little poison bon-bon called “The Poster Plague…

KLOP IS COMING!  Unfortunately, young Warren (named, perhaps, for Warren Publishing, where writer Steve Skeates did much work in the 70s) has a suspicion that the endless number of posters across his campus have a more sinister purpose behind them.  Sneaking out in the dead of night, Warren and Debbie actually find a mysterious man hanging the ominous messages around campus.

The plot thickens, as they have 100% proof that something odd is occurring, but Warren wonders what possible motivation the mysterious stranger could have.  Why in the world would anyone hang meaningless posters all over campus?  It is a puzzlement…

Warren comes to the realization that one of the posters MUST be important, and that the others are there to camouflage it.  What really makes this story sing for me is the characteristic Aragonés business going on in the backgrounds of each panel, with each page of the story jam-packed with fascinating characters doing interesting things.  While trying to figure the mystery out, the college is wracked by a sudden earth-tremor, a moment which fills Warren with sudden dread…

According to some sources, this story may have been part of the impetus for 1973′s black horror anthology series Plop!, a book that featured not only Cain, but Skeates and Aragonés in early issues.  With a little gem like that under its belt, the issue finishes up with another 50s-era reprint, this one featuring a seemingly haunted limousine…

The story isn’t really all that memorable, but it at least ends with a nice “WHAAAT?” fillip moment, and the art is quite solid.  There’s always a little bit of crap shoot involved in an anthology book (although, for me, that’s kind of the joy of it all) but for all the parts that don’t quite gel, there’s nothing in this issue that is anything less than a pleasant diversion, even the goofiness of the space-grenade or the haunted Rolls.  With the brilliance of ‘The Poster Plague’ for buoyancy, House Of Mystery #202 ends up as a winner overall, delivering a couple of solid scares, at least one good chuckle, and an admirable little mean-streak in the writing, earning 4 out of 5 stars overall.  You could do much worse for your Halloween entertainment, Faithful Spoilerites.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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