House of Mystery 175
Story: Joe Orlando
Art: George Roussos, Sergio Aragones
Cover: Neal Adams
The House of Mystery series has a lot of significance to me. So much in fact that I decided to rebrand the entire site from Strange Spirits to House of Spirits. I felt that it captured more of what I’m interested in as far as the wider history of comics and this specific era which is the late 1960s and 1970s. I didn’t actually know about House of Mystery until I started reading a comic called I… Vampire in the DC New 52 launch of the early 2010s. After reading up on the character, I discovered he was originally created for this series and the adventures of Andrew Benette were told as one of multiple stories in each issue. House of Mystery got its start in the 1950s as an anthology horror book in the same vein as Tales of the Crypt and other EC Comics from the that era.
I’m a huge fan of the horror anthology format. It allows several stories to be told in each book. This requires efficient storytelling and at the same time the characters have higher stakes since they do not have to continue month to month. I think it’s awesome the comic format can so easily accommodate both ends of this spectrum. Unfortunately due to the strict comics code of the time, horror stories became almost impossible to print. The series pivoted into Science Fiction and super hero stories until the late 1960s.
In 1968, EC Comics veteran Joe Orlando was brought in as editor for the book. With the comics code finally being contested, he decided to bring the book back to its horror roots. This switch occurred in issue 174 which was actually several reprints of stories from the 1950s. Issue 175, the one I’m taking a closer look at, was the first issue with new horror stories.
So Joe Orlando would pen all the stories for this issue while partnering with a few artists. Notably for the cover, he made sure to bring in the extremely talented Neal Adams. In an interview with Joe in 1998, he said the following about Neal.
“Yes, I sought Neal. Bill Gaines 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.”
The covers in House of Mystery and it’s brother series, House of Secrets, are some of the most imaginative and awe-inspiring covers I have ever seen. They would pool an amazing crew of artists over the years. Horror really took off in the 1970s and countless other anthology books would be created from both DC and Marvel. All of this is the long way of saying that I’m excited to finally dive into these horror series from the bronze age and experience some chilling tales!
This issue immediately introduces us to a character named Cain. He is the “able care taker” of the House of Mystery who acts as host for the stories in each book – much like the Crypt Keeper (more biblical in origin). He would stay with the series until it finishes and ends up being used by Neil Gaiman in his iconic series Sandman much later. Each issue consists of two longer 8 page stories, and a variety of extra content like short written stories or fun interactive one pages. The first of the two bigger stories titled “The Gift of Doom” is about a young man who is gifted a cursed diamond. A stranger comes knocking on his door in the midnight hour offering the gem to him for free. He gladly accepts it without question and leads the stranger back to the street where he is about to get run over by a truck. The young man saves him and the stranger questions his kindness, revealing the diamond is cursed. If he doesn’t pass it along to someone else he will die. It’s very amusing that he believes the stranger at face value and proceeds to try and get rid of the diamond even though there are no immediate ill effects from it.
The rest of the story involves escalating attempts to destroy the diamond while making sure it doesn’t fall into the hands of another person and potentially put them in danger. It sort of plays out like a Looney Tunes short. Attempt number one is to blast it off in a rocket, but the rocket explodes just after launch and the diamond drifts back. Next up he takes a plane over the Atlantic and drops it off in the middle of the ocean.
Thinking he got rid of it successfully, he celebrates that night at a fancy restaurant only to find the diamond inside of the fish he ordered. Cursed or not, at this point he is freaking out and is trying to figure out what to do next when he is mugged in an alley. The robber takes the diamond from him, ignoring his ridiculous warnings of it being cursed. The robber flees out of sight and a mysterious noise is heard. The cops and the young man catch up to the robber to find him dead and the diamond missing. The police inform the man that the robber was a criminal who had escaped prison and was scheduled to be executed at this exact time… what a coincidence.
The second story is titled “The House of Gargoyles” and I think it’s the more interesting one. It starts with a French man moving into a small American town and getting a room at the local inn. Overnight, two large ominous gargoyles appear on the roof of the building and the French man refuses to leave his room. The townspeople are appalled at the eyesore of the two statues but a young boy named Jimmy is fascinated by them.
He has a hunch that they are waiting for something but he doesn’t know what. So he goes to the inn and is led up to the room with the French man inside. Knocking on his door, the man inside refuses to answer. From the hallway Jimmy shouts asking about the gargoyles that showed up which sends the French man into a serious PTSD flashback. It is revealed to the reader that he used to be a struggling sculptor whose lover left him for a much more talented competitor. In a jealous rage, he broke into the other man’s studio to steal his super awesome gargoyle blueprints (is that something you have plans for?). The man was there though, and so in his rage decides to murder him in cold blood. With his dying breath the other sculptor threatens that the gargoyles will kill him if he ever creates them.
Believing his threats to be the ramblings of a dying man, he doesn’t waste a second and sculpts the gargoyles. Immediately they come to life and he flees to America in fear of their wrath. Cut to Jimmy trying to convince his two young friends that the gargoyles are actually alive. To prove it, the group sneaks out at night and go on the roof of the inn. The statues aren’t budging so Billy decides to be a little shit and tell the French man that they left which triggers him to open his window in relief. You can guess what happens next. He sort of deserved that fate but those kids are going to need years of therapy after witnessing that.
One last thing I wanted to bring up about the issue is one of the mini game pages. It’s a very 60s hokey type of humor where you are supposed to drop a pencil and see where it lands to meet your fate. Mose of the outcomes are dumb and harmless except that one on the far lefty – “You Are Drafted”. That’s probably the scariest thing in the whole book. It’s a chilling reminder that not too long ago being drafted into a war was on the same level as flunking a test.