WHO THE F*** ARE THE HORROR MOOD TEAM? Part 2

In my last blog I looked at the birth of the black and white horror comic boom that began in the mid 60s and flourished until the early 80s. How it was started by Warren Comics, but spawned more than a few imitators, all of whom avoided the draconian Comics Code Authority because they were deemed to be magazines. Chief among the imitators were three magazines put out by a small publishing company called Skywald, Nightmare, Psycho and Scream. As I stated before, Skywald’s imitation of Warren stopped when a young writer, by the name of Al Hewetson, accepted the editorial reigns and instigated a horror comic revolution he dubbed the ‘Horror-Mood’.

Issue 8 of Psycho contained the first mention of the Horror-Mood. It was also the first Skywald mag to be edited entirely by Hewetson. On the freshly re-designed contents page Hewetson announces, in his new editorial tone of voice, a tone that is part hyperbole, part Lovecraftian excess and part obscure in joke:

“This proud macabre gathering of gargoyles, crypts, black raindrops, thousand of faces and filthy little houses; destined we hope - to rock your primal spinal, eagerly awaits you to turn the page to where the freaky fun of this issue really begins ... TO SHRIEK ... AT YOUR HORROR-MOOD ..."

The phrase ‘primal spinal’, also making its first appearance, was one of a series of buzz-words Hewetson would use in his many editorial writings. Like ‘Horror Mood’ they were phrases that couldn’t be defined as such, but which you came to understand, almost intuitively, the more you read the Horror Mood magazines.

Hewetson did try to define what the primal spinal was, in what may be his last piece of professional writing, in Headpress’s 2004 The Complete Illustrated History of the Skywald Horror-Mood. He writes:

“It is horror. In the extreme. The moment of personal, emotional collapse, when most individuals lose their psychological balance and their desire to remain sane.

"It’s the epitome of a successful horror story - if the story is well written, and if you can get under the skin of the character, and empathise with the character when they are experiencing their greatest moment of personal terror, you can share in their primal spinal.”

One story from Psycho Issue 8 that exemplifies this is The Filthy Little House of Voodoo, which may have one of the best titles in the history of comics. Written by Hewetson and drawn exquisitely, in a black wash, by Ramon Torrents, it features two young, hippy chicks in search of themselves in the deserts of the Australian Badlands. They come upon a town that isn’t on any maps and decide to explore. The town’s residents are all elderly, vacant eyed imbeciles who hardly notice them and spend all their time playing with dolls. The two women leave the town and decide to spend the night in a deserted house on the outskirts, that’s as creepy as the Bates Motel. Hanging on one of the walls of the house is a living painting that awakens the girls, later that night, by calling the townsfolk to the basement in an entranced procession. And that’s when things move from weird to downright unnerving.

Like the films of Argento and Fulci The Filthy Little House of Voodoo works on a bizarre dream logic (as do many of Horror-Mood stories), but it also has a solid story structure. It has recognisable story beats and a narrative arc, it sets up mysteries and intrigue, poses many questions and then answers them, tying up all the loose plot ends. It’s just that it does this in the most batshit crazy way, and has to be read to be believed. It really shouldn’t work, but it does and that makes reading it an exhilarating experience.

Issue 8 of Psycho also contains the first ten page instalment of the Horror-Mood’s most popular on-going series: The Human Gargoyles. This is the story of two German stone gargoyles, Edward and Mina Sartyros, who come to life and travel to America, with their newly born child, to try and make a new life for themselves. Along the way they face prejudice, persecution and the wrath of the Dark Lord of Hell. Although it contains many demons and other monstrosities, the strip is actually a pointed commentary on the state of American society in the latter part of the 20th century and an exploration of the essential nature of humanity.

This first instalment of The Human Gargoyles was illustrated by Dela Rosa, but it would soon move to a regular spot in sister magazine Nightmare where the exquisitely talented Maelo Cintron would take over as artist and lift the story to new heights. Although it was the most popular Horror-Mood series, The Human Gargoyles was not the first. The previous editor, Sol Brodsky, had resurrected Hillman Periodicals’ Golden Age muck monster The Heap at the suggestion of Marvel editor Roy Thomas. In spite of being hated by the whole Horror-Mood team, The Heap remained popular with the readers.

Other series soon followed. As well as having an on-going series about a swamp monster, before either DC’s Swamp Thing or Marvel’s Man Thing, Skywald also ran series featuring both a resurrected Dracula and Frankenstein before Marvel brought either of them back to life. Other popular series included writer Augustine Funnell’s Monster, Monster, which ran in Psycho, and Hewetson and Jesus Suso’s The Saga of the Victims from Scream, a particularly hard hitting story that bordered on multi-racial torture porn.

Early on in their publishing history, Warren had accused Skywald (not unfairly) of copying their formats and ideas. To the best of my knowledge though, the Horror-Mood magazines were the first B&W horrors that had on-going series. One of many innovations that Warren themselves were to appropriate from Skywald.

One thing that Warren never copied from Skywald was the amount of gore and the levels of violence in the Horror-Mood mags. With one or two notable exceptions, the Warren stories were, by and large, fairly bloodless affairs. They’re similar in many ways to the Amicus anthology films of the time, like Tales from the Crypt and Asylum, in that they imply most of the violence and bloodshed without ever showing it. The Horror-Mood team, on the other hand, revelled in it.

Two wonderful examples of the excesses to which they would go are Limb from Limb from Death (by Hewetson and Pablo Marcos), which appeared in the 1972 Nightmare Annual, and The 13 Dead Things (by Hewetson and Jesus Duran) which appeared in Psycho 15. Limb from Limb from Death tells the story of three men, Edward, Max and Stewart, who are marooned in the Sahara desert without any food. Stewart is a Doctor and he suggests that, in order to survive, Edward and Max should each let him amputate one of their arms to provide them all with meat. As Stewart needs to keep both his arms, in order to perform the amputations, he promises that, if they are rescued, he will have one of his own arms amputated when they return home, to make it fair. Edward and Max both surrender their arms to be eaten, in a depiction so graphic I defy you not to wince, and the three of them are subsequently rescued by a passing plane. Once they are home, Edward and Max demand that Stewart make good on his promise, when Stewart tries to double cross them he is undone in the most gruesome way possible.

The 13 Dead Things tells the story of the Count of Monte Godo, who languishes in a rat filled prison cell plotting his escape and fantasising about the vicious and bloody deaths he will inflict upon the treacherous family and retinue who consigned him to the cell. As the story develops the escape plans become more unhinged and the deaths become more macabre until the story reaches its frenzied final twist, one that is (excuse the pun) more twisted than anything you might expect.

The response to the Horror-Mood, and Skywald’s new direction, was immensely positive and letters of praise poured into Skywald’s cramped Manhattan offices. Their distribution improved too, with world wide sales peaking at a million copies a month. The Horror-Mood publications built a solid and loyal fan base, almost entirely outside of comic fandom. The Horror-Mood fans were horror fans first and foremost, not comic fans.

Sadly however, the glorious hey day of the Horror-Mood was only to last for another two and a half years. The magazines were not killed off by waning interest, nor were they done in by an army of outraged parents and prudish censors. It was simple economic conditions that signed Skywald’s death warrant. In the steep recession of the mid 70s, distribution and printing costs soared. Skywald could have weathered these costs had Marvel Comics not flooded the market with black and white comic magazines in an attempt to drive their competitors off the newsstands. This didn’t work with Warren, who hung on in there and eventually won back their share of the market, but it was successful in driving Skywald out of business.

One of the saddest things about the demise of Skywald is that so few of the Horror-Mood team went on to work elsewhere in comics. Of the artists, the prolific Paranoiac Pablo Marcos had the best career in US comics, while a few others continued to work in European and Latin American comics. Of the writers, Awkward Augustine Funnell published two pulp sci-fi novels then retired to run a bookshop, which is now thriving on line, and Emotionally Disturbed Ed Feory wrote a couple of comics for the short lived Atlas Comics imprint and then became a contributing editor of Western and Eastern Treasures magazine. Archaic Al Hewetson wrote a handful of screenplays for Canadian Quadrant Films, then founded a magazine publishing company specializing in ‘city magazines’ for cities in Canada and North America. Hewetson did have plans to return to comics in the early 00s, but his premature death by heart attack sadly put paid to them.

While the Horror Mood team may have left horror in the mid 70s, their legacy was taken up by just about every writer to enter horror in the 80s and 90s. The Horror-Mood’s heavy emphasis on atmosphere and character, coupled with a healthy regard for the literary heritage of horror, can be seen in Quiet Horror writers from Charles L. Grant and Peter Straub to Caitlin R. Kiernan and Thomas Ligotti. While the aforementioned excesses of Skywald, and the use of horror as social commentary, laid the ground work for the Splatterpunks like John Skipp, Craig Spector, Clive Barker, Jack Ketchum and David J. Schow. Their formal experimentation, and the endless need to push the envelope of what was possible in horror, was a definite forerunner to the writers championed by Dell’s legendary 90s imprint - Abyss, such as Kathe Koja, Melanie Tem and Poppy Z. Brite.

If you think this is a rather grandiose claim, then consider the following entry from Al Hewetson’s diary dated November 30th 1973:

“... a would-be horror writer did a piece in Writer’s Digest about the horror market. He was very kind to Skywald... What an astute guy! I should drop him a line and offer him work as a scriptwriter. He’s probably a starving young writer if he’s trying to break into the horror market!”

Hewetson quoted this would-be writer’s piece on the back cover of Psycho 17:

“... the most vital - constantly moving ahead breaking new ground, using consistently innovative stories...”

Who was this struggling young writer that Hewetson mused about giving work to? A young man who would publish his first novel the very next year. The novel was Carrie and the writer was none other than Stephen King.

Not only was King quite obviously an admirer of the Horror-Mood magazines, there are striking parallels with some of his stories and the stories that Skywald published. The aforementioned Limb from Limb from Death contains a scenario that has remarkable similarities to King’s story Survivor Type. In Psycho 9 there is a story called Suffer the Little Children which again has thematic and plot similarities to King’s own story of the same name. What’s more in Psycho 10 Hewetson published a text story about an ancient abomination that lived in a sewer. The name of this story? Why it was IT!

Now I’m not suggesting for a moment that King borrowed any of these ideas, nor do I want to diminish the work of a master story teller. I just want to point out that if the Horror-Mood mags can be shown to have influenced arguably the most important living writer of horror, then it’s not too grandiose to point out their influence on so many others.

Sadly, more or less all of the Horror-Mood material is currently out of print. However, one tireless crusader, Mr George E Warner, is bringing back the Horror-Mood to a new generation of readers, beginning with Awkward Augustine Funnell’s Monster, Monster series. This graphic novel collection will include the two concluding installments which have never been printed in English before. Every self respecting horror fan owes it to themselves to grab a copy.

Trust your Uncle Jasp on this, you know it makes sense.


WHO THE F*** ARE THE HORROR MOOD TEAM? Part 1

It’s been a while since I did a ‘Who the F*** Is...? feature on this blog, focussing on writers and comic artists who aren’t anywhere near as celebrated as they should be. This time around I want to focus, not just on an artist, but a whole line of black and white horror comics from the 1970s, known to the horror comic cognoscenti as the Skywald Horror Mood.

To begin, I’d like to set the background with a little bit of horror comic history, forgive me if you know most of this already.

From the mid fifties, to the mid sixties horror comics were deader than a horny teen in Camp Crystal Lake. They’d been outlawed by the British government, and driven out of business in the US by the Comics Code authority. Then, in 1965, Hugh Heffner wannabe - Jim Warren pulled the stake out of their undead hearts and horror comics rose from the grave once again.

Warren’s stroke of genius was repackaging horror comics as black and white magazines, in much the same way that Bill Gaines had done with Mad Magazine back in the late 50s, thereby ensuring the survival of EC Comics. Warren had tested the waters by running comic strips in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, the now legendary magazine that Forrest J Ackerman edited for him. The response to the comics was phenomenal.

Warren was encouraged to release a 68 page bi-monthly comic entitled Creepy, drawn by many of the original artists from EC comics. When Warren subsequently hired Archie Goodwin to edit the magazine, several issues later, Creepy really hit its stride. Goodwin was, without any doubt, one of the greatest comic writers and editors of his generation. Creepy was soon followed by sister magazine Eerie and eventually Vampirella. Jim Warren single handedly created an entirely new market, one that could circumvent the Comics Code authority and attract a more mature audience, because his publications were magazines, not comic books.

Every successful market breeds competitors and Warren was no exception. As soon as Warren’s success became known to the publishing industry, several of the less reputable outfits, like Stanley Publications and Myron Fass’s Eerie Publications, rushed out cheap imitations. These companies simply reprinted pre-code horror comics from the 1950s as black and white comics. Although Eerie Publications added extra blood to the tales, and later had the same stories redrawn and updated by cheaper Latin American artists.

Fass allegedly named his company Eerie, after he lost the right to use the name for a magazine. Both he and Warren were planning on releasing a black and white comic magazine called Eerie and the distributor would only allow one of them to use it. Because Fass was only running reprint material, he expected to reach the newsstands first. So Warren had a dummy version of his Eerie rushed out, using mainly reprints from Creepy He then bribed the newsstands near his office to display the magazine when the distributor came for a meeting. Convinced that Warren had beaten Fass to print, the distributor awarded the title to Warren. In retaliation, Fass dubbed his whole operation Eerie Publications.

Warren was generally very scathing about the quality of his competitors, and with very good reason. The quality of their product, while not without its own, trashy merits, was in nowhere near the same league as Warren’s magazines, which had the cream of comics’ talent at its disposal. It wasn’t until the appearance of Skywald Publications, at the very end of 1970 just when the black and white horror market was experiencing an upturn, that Warren had any real competition. Not surprisingly, Warren came to hate Skywald Publications the most of all his competitors.

Skywald got its name from the surnames of the two partners who founded it - Sol BrodSKY and Israel WALDman. Brodsky had been Marvel’s production manager and Waldman made his money repackaging out-of-print comics to sell in supermarket and chain store bargain bins. Skywald was a change in direction for them both and also an attempt to build a publishing empire that Waldman could hand on to his son Herschel.

When they first appeared, there was little to distinguish Skywald’s first two publications -_Nightmare_ and Psycho - from Warren’s Eerie or Creepy. They used many of the same artists and writers as Warren in their early issues, although quite a few of the artists worked under pseudonyms, because Warren had made it clear that anyone working for the competition would not work for him, and he still paid the best rates.

Things started to change when Sol Brodsky left the company and returned to Marvel to take up his old job. A young editorial assistant, by the name of Al Hewetson, took over the editorial reigns of Nightmare and Psycho and a third magazine was soon launched called Scream. Hewetson had begun his working life as a news photographer in Canada, but after he interviewed Stan Lee for a fanzine, Lee offered him a job at Marvel Comics as his assistant. Hewetson left a promising career in Canada and moved to New York. Although Hewetson confided in Lee that he had writing ambitions, Lee didn’t think his work was up to scratch at the time, and Hewetson wrote very little for Marvel in the end.

His first professional work was for Warren comics and Mad Magazine’s biggest competitor Cracked. Hewetson’s early stories aren’t great, but they aren’t awful either, they show a young writer learning his craft and searching for a voice. Brodsky remembered Hewetson from his time at Marvel and offered him work at Skywald, first as a freelance writer then as an assistant editor. Hewetson had actually been fantasizing about the new direction he would take the Skywald magazines, if he were editing them, the night before he strode into the Skywald offices to be told Brodsky was leaving and he was being promoted.

Hewetson was just coming into his full powers as a writer when he assumed editorial control of the Skywald magazines. His early stories for Skywald show a growing maturity, along with a marked ingenuity when it came to plots and concepts. plus a willingness to push the boundaries of good taste and formal experimentation. It was with the same spirit that he took on the role of editor and announced the arrival of the ‘Horror Mood’.

Defining what the ‘Horror Mood’ actually is, is not an easy thing to do. Like certain types of music, it’s one of these things you either get or you don’t. Originally, Hewetson wanted to rename the the whole imprint and call it ‘Horror Mood’ rather than Skywald. Waldman was in favour of this, until their accountant told them it would cost them too much money and lose them vital space on the newsstands. Instead they went with the compromise of calling them: ‘Skywald Horror Mood Publications’.

The ‘Horror Mood’ is far more than just a clever brand though, in essence it’s a philosophy for creating horror fiction and a fresh way of perceiving and presenting horror as a medium. At the heart of this new approach lie three things. A desire to innovate, to tell new stories in new and interesting ways. A fearlessness when it comes to extending the parameters of good taste, to take on taboo subjects and depict violent and gory scenarios in order to genuinely terrify, repulse and scare the reader. As well as a willingness to use horror to address weighty social and philosophical themes, coupled with a recognition of the long literary heritage that horror enjoys, most especially from the works of Poe and Lovecraft, who were very influential on the stories Hewetson began to run.

There was one other change that had a huge effect on the direction of the Skywald Horror Mood, that was the exclusive deal that Herschel Waldman cut with a Spanish agency - Selecionnes Illustradas, to provide artists for all the magazines, just before Hewetson was made editor. These artists, from Europe and Latin America, brought a new sensibility to their work that was different from anything their American contemporaries were doing. The way they approached light and shadow, form and substance and the page layouts they adopted, gave the Horror Mood magazines a new look that set them apart from anything else on the newsstand at the time.

In time Hewetson would put together a virtual bullpen of new writers and artists, from three continents, that he dubbed the ‘Horror Mood Team’. Hewetson was keen to encourage reader identification with these creators and he gave them nicknames such as Dreadful DeLaRosa, Lunatic Cesar Lopez, Emotionally Disturbed Ed Fedory and Awkward Augustine Funnell. They even began to appear in the comic strips as themselves, either introducing the story, like the old EC horror hosts, or as characters directly involved in the action. Hewetson himself appeared in many stories in his guise as Archaic Al Hewetson.

Over the next three years the Horror Mood publications not only thrived, and built a huge international audience of over a million readers, they also broke a lot of new ground in horror fiction. Almost all of the later development in horror, especially throughout the heyday of the 80s, can be traced back to Hewetson and the Horror Mood, who proved to be way ahead of their time in many ways. The Horror Mood titles blazed a trail that any horror fan in the know soon caught on to, this even included a struggling, young writer by the name of Stephen King.

I will go into more detail about the direction of the ‘Horror Mood’, the stories they ran and the legacy they left behind in my next blog, be sure to come back and read it next week.

If I’ve whetted your appetite for some ‘Horror Mood’ action, and you’d like to read one of the most popular series that ever ran in Nightmare and Psycho, then I strongly advise you pick up Monster Monster, the graphic novel that George is putting out later this year, which collects together the whole of the series and includes two new installments that have never been published before, finally bringing this epic saga to a conclusion that many horror fans have waited over four decades to read. You can’t really go wrong with that now can you?

Trust your Uncle Jasp on this, you know it makes sense.