As I’ve written in several previous posts, I was something of a wuss as a kid, at least when it came to my choices in entertainment. (Oh, who do I think I’m kidding? I was an all-around, all-purpose wuss.) To put it plainly, I was scared of being scared.
So I pretty much eschewed all forms of scary media: horror movies, eerie TV shows, spooky comic books… you get the idea.* That is, until a friend took me gently by the hand (metaphorically speaking) and showed me that a walk through the cemetery at midnight could actually be kind of fun.
In 1969, Ann Cummings lived down the street for me, and had been my friend for as long as I could remember. We were into most of the same TV shows of the mid-to-late Sixties — The Wild Wild West, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Monkees — and I trusted her tastes. And while I don’t recall that Ann was into comic books in all that big a way, at least, not at the same level as me (but then, who was?), she did read some — and it was at her house that I first remember seeing — and eventually reading — some issues of DC Comics’ “mystery” titles.**
I don’t recall exactly how many of these comics I read at Ann’s, but the two that made the greatest impression on me were the 181st and 182nd issues of House of Mystery, both of which featured covers by Neal Adams (a factor that would have definitely enhanced the comics’ appeal for me at the time). Alas, since I didn’t buy ’em off the stands myself, neither of those comics is eligible for its own blog post — which is a shame, considering the long-lasting impact they both had on my tastes (and not just in comics). It’s possible that when I get around to posting about the first issue of House of Mystery that I did buy, I won’t be able to resist telling you a bit more about them — but for now, let me just say that my readings of the two stories that provide the bases for Adams’ covers — #181’s “The Siren of Satan”, by Robert Kanigher and Bernie Wrightson, and #182’s “The Devil’s Doorway, by Jack Oleck and Alex Toth, provided some of my earliest experiences of the pleasurable frisson of being scared by a story. The final panels of both stories are seared into my memory as deeply as any graphic images I’ve ever encountered, before or since; indeed, in the first few weeks after I initially read the comics where they appear, these stories may have even kept me up a night or two.
What they didn’t do, however, was keep me from wanting to read more stories like them — which I suppose is the main reason why, when I soon thereafter had the opportunity to pick up House of Secrets #81, I yielded to impulse, and bought it.***
This comic book might have had a “No. 81” on the cover, but it was a “first” issue in some ways. The last issue of House of Secrets to appear prior to this one had been published almost three whole years earlier, in July, 1966, and the title, then featuring the superhero genre characters Eclipso and Prince Ra-Man, had been a very different sort of comic book than the revived version would prove to be. I had begun buying and reading comics in the summer of 1965, so I probably saw at least a couple of issues of this iteration of House of Secrets before its demise; but an issue of Brave and the Bold that co-featured Eclipso with Batman was the closest I ever got to buying one.
The series got its new lease on life as part of the late -Sixties “artist-editor” movement at DC Comics, a change of course for the industry leader that began with the ascendancy of Carmine Infantino (himself previously a freelance artist) to an executive role at the company. Joe Orlando was one of several veteran artists who accepted Infantino’s offer to join DC’s staff as an editor. Among the first titles assigned to Orlando was House of Mystery — and while it might have not been Orlando’s original idea to transition that series from superheroes to “mystery” (i.e., horror) — according to an interview Carmine Infantino gave Comic Book Artist in 1998, the initiative to bring back mystery came from DC Publisher Irwin Donenfeld — the move was a natural one for him. After all, he’d been a member of the stable of artists responsible for crafting the most-acclaimed horror comics ever — those published by EC Comics — back in the Fifties; and more recently, he’d been a contributor to Warren Publishing’s black-and-white horror comic magazines Creepy and Eerie, even playing an editorial role on the first issue of the former (his actual masthead credit read “Story Ideas”).
Orlando’s first issue of House of Mystery, #174, was an all-reprint issue presenting relatively tame fantasy tales from DC’s vast library; but with the next (cover-dated July-Aug., 1968), he began featuring new material, and also introduced his original creation, Cain — the “able caretaker” of the series’ titular domicile. Cain made his debut on issue #175’s first page, written and drawn by Orlando himself:
Cain fell squarely in the grand tradition of the sardonic, punning “horror hosts”, which had first emerged in the Forties in radio programs such as Inner Sanctum Mystery, and then had entered the comic book medium through such figures as EC’s famous “GhoulLunatics” (the Crypt Keeper, the Vault Keeper, and the Old Witch). Following the imposition of the Comics Code Authority in the mid-Fifties, and the subsequent banishment of horror from American comics, the tradition had been kept alive in popular culture through television film hosts like Vampira and Zacherley, before returning to comics in the Sixties with Warren’s Uncle Creepy and Cousin Eerie, who were both clearly inspired by their predecessors at EC.
Cain appears to have been a hit, as he was joined at DC by a number of other brand-new host-storyteller characters within less than a year. The first was the Mad Mod Witch, who debuted in The Unexpected #108 (Aug.-Sept., 1968); she was followed by the Three Witches (Mordred, Mildred, and Cynthia) in The Witching Hour #1 (Feb.-March, 1969). Lastly, there came Judge Gallows, who alternated appearances with the Mad Mod Witch in Unexpected, beginning with issue #113 (June-July, 1969). Both Unexpected and Witching Hour were, like House of Mystery, mystery anthology titles (the former having been newly repurposed from featuring science fiction stories); and though neither were edited by Orlando, in their development of these hosts, the series’ editors (DC veteran Murray Boltinoff on Unexpected, and Orlando’s fellow artist-editor and DC “newbie”, Dick Giordano, on Witching Hour) followed the EC and Warren alumnus’ lead.
The last of these first DC hosts, Judge Gallows, arrived on the scene just in time to appear in DC Special #4 (July-Sept., 1969) — a one-shot reprint anthology edited by Orlando, in which all of the above-named hosts took turns telling tales to a group of hard-to-please kids. A framing sequence, written by Mark Hanerfeld and drawn by Bill Draut, introduced all the established yarnspinners on the book’s first page — along with one new face:
By the spring of ’69, House of Mystery and its two sister titles were all apparently doing well enough that DC decided it was time to bring back the publisher’s other “House” title. Orlando was given the job of re-launching House of Secrets (though he’d almost immediately relinquish his editorial role to Dick Giordano, who would take the reins beginning with the second new issue, #83) — and he quite reasonably hit on the idea of making the “new” title a sort of companion to the existing series, with a host who would provide a strong contrast to Cain even while being (literally) related to him.
Orlando had of course derived the name of his House of Mystery host from the story of Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis; as he told interviewer Paul Levitz for the 6th issue of Amazing World of DC Comics in 1975: “[I] felt I couldn’t go wrong with the original Biblical names.” So the host of House of Secrets would be Cain’s brother Abel — and, following the lead of his scriptural source, Abel would be the less assertive, seemingly weaker of the pair — easy prey for Cain’s acerbic wit (and perhaps worse than that).
Abel was designed to contrast with his older sibling in his physique as well as in his personality. While the long, lean Cain had been visually based on a young fan-turned-pro named Len Wein (later to write the single most famous story ever to appear in House of Secrets, issue #92’s “Swamp Thing”), the shorter, heavier Abel was based on yet another fan-turned-pro, Mark Hanerfeld (who would go on to write Abel’s first appearance in DC Special #4, and afterwards would become Orlando’s editorial assistant).**** Orlando’s early sketch of Abel (shown at right) suggests that the artist-editor was considering giving him a beret at one point; by the time DC Special #4 went to press, however, that notion appears to have been discarded.
DC Special #4, featuring Abel’s debut appearance, went on sale May 22, 1969. Not quite two weeks later, on June 3, it was followed by House of Secrets #81.
And some time after that — perhaps quite some time after that (see my third footnote, below) — is where yours truly came in.
As of June, 1969, Neal Adams had been turning out multiple covers for DC Comics on a monthly basis for almost two years. In this month alone, his output included the full art for the covers of Unexpected #114, Brave and the Bold #85, and Adventure Comics #383, as well as inks for the covers of five additional titles in the “Superman” family of comics. (Adams was also the regular cover artist for Superboy, Tomahawk, and of course House of Mystery, but they were all published bi-monthly, and June was an off month for them.) His art would come to define the look of DC’s mystery line during this era, though that may have had as much to do with the consistency of subject matter as it did Adams’ skill as setting an eerie mood. As Joe Orlando would tell Comic Book Artist‘s Jon B. Cooke in a 1998 interview:
Bill Gaines [EC Comics publisher and co-editor] told me a long time ago that the best-selling covers he had published were ones that depicted boys in danger. He got the idea from an illustration in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer where Tom was in a graveyard and witness to a murder. That concept, in many different ways, worked over and over again.
Orlando and Adams did indeed use the “boys in danger” concept “over and over again” — though they usually mixed things up by showing one or more girls in jeopardy as well, such as the young lady on House of Secrets #81’s cover. And, of course, they raised the stakes even further here by adding a dog to the scene — maybe the most authentically terrified-looking pooch that had ever appeared on a comic-book cover. (If your heart doesn’t go out to that poor dog… well, then, I don’t think I want to know you.) But I don’t recall being motivated to pick up this issue — or any other DC mystery comic, for that matter — by the presence of children on the cover. What usually sold such a book to me was the object of the kids’ terror — here, of course the House of Secrets itself, given vividly malevolent life by Adams’ “realistic” style of illustration. And, as I’d soon discover, though there were no children (or dogs) to be found within the comic book’s pages, the cover’s emphasis on the House was absolutely appropriate.
The comic’s first page, rather that giving us an introductory frontispiece, or a traditional splash panel with a story title and creator credits, drops us cold into the beginning of the first story:
As a young reader, I was already hooked. I just had to turn to the next page to find out what this huge, mysterious, clumping thing could be.
As of page 3, we finally get a “proper” splash page with a story title; but still no credits. According to the Grand Comics Database, however, the script was by Mike Friedrich, while the art was by Jerry Grandenetti (pencils) and George Roussos (inks). I’ll have to take the GCD’s word as far as Friedrich and Roussos are concerned; but Grandenetti’s art, showing his characteristic flair for grotesque distortion and eerie atmospherics, is unmistakable — and probably would have been even in 1969, due to my having seen it in several latter issues of the recently-cancelled Spectre title. Among those was issue #9, which had seen the series shift direction from the superhero genre towards the mystery anthology format, with the Ghostly Guardian himself filling a role somewhere in between that of a mere “horror host” and that of an active participant in the stories. I suppose that that particular comic book could even be said to be my “gateway drug” into the DC mystery line, in a way; although in a broader sense, the whole run of Spectre, as well as my ever-increasing exposure to and growing affinity for the other superheroes who worked the “occult” side of the street — most notably, Marvel’s Doctor Strange — had already done a lot to prepare me to better appreciate the more macabre flavors of comics material.
Returning to our story… the quotation marks that frame the captioned text indicate that this tale’s narrator must be someone who themselves will eventually emerge as a character in the comic, though at this point we readers have no idea who.
The narrator goes on to describe how, by the time Mr. Barkus reached the door of the House, the strange screeching that only he could hear had stopped; and yet…
After retrieving his gun from the tractor’s cab, Barkus returned to the second floor and attempted to shoot off the door’s padlock:
From here, it’s all downhill (if you’ll pardon the pun):
That’s the end of the story… sort of. As we transition into the next segment, itself titled “House of Secrets”, we’ll begin to see how this issue’s individual parts are intended to fit together to make up a greater whole:
The first page of the second story (or should that be Chapter 2 of the same story?) reveals the identity of the narrator of the previous segment, and brings our series’ “star”, Abel, on-panel for the first time. The segue from “Don’t Move It!” to “House of Secrets” is all but seamless, belying the fact that the story and art (still uncredited) are now provided by a different team — Gerry Conway and Bill Draut, respectively (again according to the GCD).
Gerry Conway, all of 16 years old at this time, was, like Cain and Abel “models” Len Wein and Mark Hanerfeld, a comics fan-turned-pro; though, in fact, it was with this very comic that he turned pro, as his scripting for House of Secrets #81 represents his first professionally published work. Bill Draut, on the other hand, was a veteran comics artist, active since the late Forties.
The identity of the mysterious figure who frightens Abel, revealed on the very next page, probably came as no surprise to any reader in 1969 who’d been keeping up with DC’s other “mystery” books. (I don’t remember if it surprised me, newbie that I was; but I’d like to think it didn’t.)
In my post about Spectre #9 a few months back, I described Bill Draut — who’d be a mainstay of DC’s “mystery” line through the next decade — as “a competent illustrator, whose pedestrian style rarely did much to evoke the eerie mood generally called for by the material.” That remains my honest opinion of the bulk of Draut’s work; but even I have to acknowledge that his art in this vignette is effectively spooky.
I love the expression on Cain’s face in the last panel; he’s weirded out, but there’s no way he’s going to let his little brother know that. It’s more nice work from Draut.
The next segment, “Aaron Philips’ Photo Finish!” is remembered by Gerry Conway (in a 2015 interview for Alter Ego) as being his first story “that appeared in print at DC”, suggesting that the preceding “House of Secrets” may have been scripted after this story, as a way of linking it to the issue’s lead-off, “Don’t Move It!”. (It’s also worth noting that, in the same interview, Conway speaks of selling House of Secrets stories to Dick Giordano, and doesn’t mention Joe Orlando in this context at all — which indicates that Giordano may have had a more active role in putting the first issue of the “new” HoS together than Orlando’s credited status as #81’s sole editor “of record” would otherwise imply.)
As elsewhere in the issue, the artist for this story is uncredited, but by all accounts (which include the aforementioned Gerry Conway Alter Ego interview, as well as the GCD) he was Jack Sparling — another journeyman illustrator, who’d been working in the comics field since the early Fifties.
When Mr. Willis balks at this baldfaced attempt at blackmail, photographer Philips sneeringly tells him that there are others who will happily pay his price to see this picture in print; and then drives away from the scene, abandoning his unfortunate victim to his fate:
Senator Sandsfield of Kentucky? Gee, that sounds familiar. But waitaminute — isn’t Abel narrating this story? I thought he didn’t know anything about the House before being filled in by that “realty agent” from the previous segment. What gives here?
Jack Sparling, like Bill Draut, is one of those artists who’s never exactly set my world on fire — but he seems to have had a particular knack for depicting unsavory characters who’ve been isolated and then placed into a frightening situation that you know they probably deserve, but you still can’t help feeling just a little sorry for them. (His “Shadow Show” in Spectre #9 is another great example of this, from around the same time.)
Readers of the original, printed edition of House of Secrets #81 would have encountered the image shown just above in a somewhat different context than you’re currently seeing it on your device or computer’s screen. To wit:
Is the story over? Even if the reader barrels right past the house ads for the Jimmy Olsen and Scooter summer giants and the editorial message explaining DC’s price increase from 12 to 15 cents, the physical structure of the comic book inevitably imposes a delay on them learning the answer to that question… at least for as long as it takes for them to turn to the next page:
Bill Draut takes over again on the art, as Cain makes his exit, and Abel offers an explanation (of sorts) for his puzzling ability to tell a story of the House’s history that he shouldn’t know (at least not yet). But our hypothetical reader of HoS #81 still has one last page to turn of their physical copy before they reach the story’s (and issue’s) end:
And that’s all she wrote, folks. I’d call that last half-page a highly effective ending to the initial issue of House of Secrets, version 2.0 — a comic book that I think still holds up quite well a half-century after its original publication.
If you’ve never read this comic before (or if, like myself prior to preparing this blog post, you have read it, but it’s been a reeeaallly long time), you may be wondering if the number one Secret still being held by the House at the end of this issue — the identity of whatever (or whoever) is behind that locked door on the second floor — was ever revealed. I can’t claim to have read every single one of the seventy-plus issue of House of Secrets that followed this one — and so can’t provide a definitive answer — but as best as I’ve been able to determine, it never was. Though framing sequences featuring Abel (mostly written by Gerry Conway) would continue to appear in each issue during Dick Giordano’s editorship — and though even the House itself was soon given a “voice” of sorts, as it began “answering” the missives of fans in the book’s letters column — that locked room on the second floor never did give up its Secret. In fact, the whole approach taken to the anthology format in issue #81, where the individual tales were really all about the same thing, would prove to be an anomaly; future issues wouldn’t only not be about the history of the House, they wouldn’t be about any other single subject, either.
Though I enjoyed House of Secrets #81, I didn’t immediately become a regular reader of the series — or any of its peers in DC’s mystery line, either. That would change over the next couple of years, however, as my taste for “scary stuff” grew, and such “stuff” became a larger part of my entertainment consumption overall, not just in comics.
And while the superlative artistic contributions of illustrators such as Adams, Wrightson, Toth, and Grandenetti contributed greatly to these titles’ appeal (as did, to a lesser extent, the frequently clever, sometimes chilling, and occasionally even moving scripts by Wein, Oleck, Conway, and others), the books’ hosts had a lot to do with it as well. For whatever reason, DC’s hosts — Cain, Abel, and the Three Witches, especially — had much more of a presence in their comics than did Warren’s Uncle Creepy and Cousin Eerie, or Marvel’s Digger and Headstone P. Gravely (from Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness), or just about any other comics anthology host I ever became familiar with.***** How this presence was made manifest depended on the particular comic book, or, more properly, its editor; Joe Orlando, for example, liked to work Cain directly into the stories of House of Mystery on occasion, and also regularly featured the caretaker (sometimes joined by brother Abel) in gag cartoons by Sergio Aragonés; while Dick Giordano gave both Abel and the Three Witches considerable exposure in multi-page framing sequences that linked the individual stories in House of Secrets and The Witching Hour, respectively.
My younger self was also fascinated by the notion that Cain, Abel, and company might actually exist in the same DC Universe as the publisher’s superheroes — an idea I first encountered in The Brave and the Bold #93 (Dec., 1970-Jan., 1971), which “teamed up” the House of Mystery with Batman, in a tale which opened with a fugitive criminal attempting to take refuge in the House (located, for this story at least, in Gotham City!), only to be refused entry by Cain — thereby making it possible for the Caped Crusader to ultimately collar the bad guy. While Batman and Cain never actually “met” in the story, Cain as the unseen narrator maintained the same generally benign attitude throughout; and I recall being pleased by the suggestion that the devilish-looking caretaker might actually be on the side of the angels, grisly sense of humor and constant bullying of his brother notwithstanding.******
We’ll fast forward now, more than a decade, to the year 1985. By this time, I hadn’t picked up an issue of a House book in quite a few years — neither Mystery nor Secrets******* — and probably hadn’t given much, if any thought to Cain and Abel in just about as long. I was nevertheless delighted to see them brought back (in Swamp Thing  #33) by a brilliant young British writer named Alan Moore, in a story that would firmly establish their precise nature and role in the DC Universe — creating a new status quo that would last from that time until, well, now.
Collaborating with artist Ron Randall on a 12-page sequence whose two parts bookended a reprint of Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s classic 8-page “Swamp Thing” story from House of Secrets #92 (June-July, 1971), Moore brought the Swamp Thing’s sleeping human lover, Abigail Arcane, to “the Dreaming” — where she made the acquaintance of a couple of familiar (to us longtime DC fans, anyway) folks:
I imagine that Alan Moore may have given more thought to the difference between a mystery and a secret than anyone actually involved with either of DC’s House series ever did, but who cares? The conceit works wonderfully. By the end of the story, Moore has not only revealed that of course Cain and Abel are the same personages as their Biblical namesakes; he’s also underscored this bit of information by having Cain brutally murder Abel before our (and Abby Arcane’s) eyes. (This ain’t no Code-approved “mystery” comic book, folks.) Of course, as Cain immediately assures the horrified Abby, Abel will “be up and about tomorrow, bumbling around just as good as new… at least until the next time.” He then adds, by way of explanation: “It’s all we have to do now that nobody wants to hear the stories anymore.”
A few years later, when Moore’s fellow British writer — the somewhat younger, almost as brilliant Neil Gaiman — came along to create The Sandman for DC, and needed to build out the realm of his Lord of Dreams, Morpheus, he began with the edifice of “the Dreaming” already erected (but thus far only sparsely populated) by the Mage of Northampton. Not only did he pick Cain and Abel up right where Moore had left them, but he followed his predecessor’s lead in drawing from DC’s repertory company of horror hosts to build out his series’ cast. Thus, the readers of Sandman soon came to meet such additional denizens of the Dreaming as Eve (from Secrets of Sinister House and Weird Mystery Tales), Lucien (Tales of Ghost Castle), and the Fashion Thing (formerly known as The Unexpected‘s Mad Mod Witch). Another important Sandman character, Morpheus’ brother Destiny, had gotten his start in comics as the host of Weird Mystery Tales (before being supplanted by Eve, that is). And The Witching Hour‘s Three Witches turn out to be merely one expression of the Triple Goddess — Maiden, Mother, and Crone — who also manifest in The Sandman as the Fates, the Furies, and other aspects. Ultimately, just about the only DC horror host Gaiman didn’t bring into Sandman during its seven-year run was good ol’ Judge Gallows from Unexpected; and even he eventually got the call to join The Dreaming — though in his case, it was for a special issue of the Sandman spin-off series of that name; and the writer calling him up from DC’s deep storage wasn’t Neil Gaiman, but that veteran of DC’s old mystery line, Len Wein.
The original Sandman series ended in 1996, but its mythos lives on at DC Comics, most recently emerging in a new family of “Sandman Universe” titles, conceived and edited by Gaiman, but written by others. There, Cain and Abel and their fellow hosts (even Judge Gallows) continue to thrive. House of Mystery, House of Secrets, and the rest of DC’s horror anthology titles may never return — at least, not in the classic format that first captivated me fifty years ago, sitting and reading comics at Ann Cummings’ house — but I’m glad that the weird but strangely endearing host-narrator characters that helped make them so memorable are still around, and probably will be for many years to come. As Cain might say, you can’t keep a good ghoul down.
*One possible exception to this that I have to mention is The Thing at the Foot of the Bed and Other Scary Tales, a classic children’s compendium of spooky folktales — written by Maria Leach, illustrated by Kurt Werth, and originally published in 1959 — which I checked out of my elementary school library I don’t know how many times. Maybe it was the somewhat cartoony-looking ghost pictured on Werth’s cover (who looks like he might enjoy hanging out with Casper), that helped this book get through my self-imposed ban on “scary stuff” before other, more visual cultural products did. On the other hand, I was still in 6th grade in the spring of ’69, so it’s at least possible that I discovered this book around the same time I got into the comics discussed in this post.
**They were really horror titles, of course (even if it was a mild sort of horror compared to the classic EC. horror comics of the Fifties, or even the stuff that Warren Publishing was concurrently putting out in their black-and-white magazine line) — but ever since the institution of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, “horror” was a forbidden word as far as mainstream color comics publishers were concerned.
***The chronology is a little murky here, as House of Mystery #182 actually came out in July, 1969 — a month after House of Secrets #81 — but I’m positive that I read the former comic before I bought the latter. I’m guessing, therefore, that I bought HoS #81 either at a Ben Franklin five-and-dime or at some other retailer that, like the local B.F., left comics on sale for a couple of months or even longer, rather than send them back to the distributor for credit as soon as the next issue came out.
****Neither Wein nor Hanerfeld appear to have much minded serving as Orlando’s models for the two host-brothers, as evidenced by this photo of them in costume at a Halloween celebration in Rutland, Vermont, circa 1970.
*****Conversely, Murray Boltinoff’s group of “mystery” titles — which in addition to The Unexpected would also eventually include Ghosts and (post-Giordano) The Witching Hour — routinely downplayed (or, in the case of Ghosts, dispensed with entirely) the role of the host-narrator. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those titles had exponentially less appeal to my younger self than did Orlando’s and Giordano’s.
******A much later story, appearing in DC Comics Presents #53 (Jan., 1983), probably took this concept of Cain as “good guy” a bit too far, having him not only meet, but even actively aid Superman against the Man of Steel’s magical foe, Mr. Mxyzptlk.
*******The fact that both titles had been cancelled several years prior — House of Secrets in 1978, House of Mystery in 1983 — would have had something to do with that, of course.