The Wrightson stuff

 

© Bernie Wrightson / Christopher Enterprises

 

My last entry on this blog was epically long – well, I was epically pissed off when I wrote it – so I will keep this entry brief.  Last month saw the death of the great American illustrator and comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson.  He grew up during the 1950s and as a kid, inevitably, was exposed to the artwork in the pulpy and notoriously gruesome horror titles published at the time by EC Comics: Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear.  In particular, Wrightson was influenced by the eldritch visuals of legendary EC Comics artist Graham Ingels, who rather than sign his own name on his work preferred to leave the nom de plume ‘Ghastly’.

 

You could see the Ingels / EC Comics influence on Wrightson’s most famous comic-book creation – Swamp Thing, drawn by him, written by Len Wein and unveiled in 1971.  The titular thing was once a scientist working in a laboratory in the middle of a swamp, initially called Alex Olsen although later the character was reworked as Alec Holland.  Thanks to human skulduggery, Olsen / Holland sees his lab destroyed and he gets contaminated with mysterious chemicals that cause him to be fused with the plant-life of the surrounding bayou.  The resulting mutant creature resembles a cross between the Incredible Hulk and a piece of broccoli.  Needless to say, as a weird kid who spent his time in the classroom drawing monsters on the covers of his school jotters – the more shambling, squishy and barnacled the better – rather than listening to the teacher, I thought Swamp Thing was the bees’ knees.

 

© DC Comics

© DC Comics

 

As well as working for DC Comics and Warren Publishing, Wrightson was involved in literary and cinematic projects.  In 1976, for example, he produced the Edgar Allan Poe Portfolio, a series of beautiful prints depicting moments in some of Poe’s most famous stories.  The prints capture the atmosphere of Poe’s work whilst giving the characters a comic-book intensity – if they haven’t already exploded into action, you get the impression that they’re simmering with fear or passion and are about to explode.  Wrightson also collaborated with Stephen King.  In 1983 he drew the comic-book adaptation of the King-scripted, George Romero-directed movie Creepshow, which was very obviously influenced by the old EC Comics too.  And he provided illustrations for King’s books Cycle of the Werewolf (1983), the ‘complete and uncut edition’ of The Stand (1990) and Wolves of the Calla (2003).

 

As the co-creator of Swamp Thing, a story informed by the ‘lonely, misunderstood monster’ theme that makes Mary Shelley’s landmark gothic novel Frankenstein (1818) so powerful, it was fitting that Bernie Wrightson should contribute fifty illustrations to a new edition of Frankenstein published in 1983.  These were clearly a labour of love – Wrightson said later that he’d spent seven years drawing them in his unpaid spare time.  Unsurprising, his work on the 1983 Frankenstein is often cited as his finest hour.  You only have to look at this picture of Frankenstein’s laboratory to see how the level of detail is mind-blowing.

 

© Plume (Penguin Books)

 

Mountfield, music and revenge from beyond the grave

 

From www.wwcomics.com

 

In the early 1950s American kids didn’t know how lucky they were.  Thanks to the publishing company EC Comics, headed by the visionary William Gaines, they had not one, not two, but three splendidly warped and gruesome horror comics to read, to enjoy, to be inspired by, and to be thoroughly corrupted by.  This trio were Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear.

 

Each comic contained stories of the macabre, morbid and horrible and each had its own sepulchral host to introduce the stories – the Crypt Keeper (Tales), the Vault Keeper (Vault) and the Old Witch (Haunt).  After each story had reached its grisly denouement, the host would invariably reappear and go ‘Heh, heh, heh!” and generally not show much sympathy for the story’s protagonist, who’d just been eaten, dismembered, disembowelled, strangled or drained of blood.  Often populating these tales were weird and eldritch monsters and spectacularly-mouldering zombies, which were drawn with lip-smacking, finger-licking relish by great comic-book artists like Jack Davis and Graham Ingels.

 

Unfortunately, Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear were too good to last.  Uptight and up-his-own-arse psychiatrist Dr Fredric Wertham penned two magazine articles in 1948, Horror in the Nursery and The Psychopathology of Comic Books, and then in 1954 a book called Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that America’s unruly comic-book industry was turning the younger generation into a rabble of lawless, bloodthirsty and sexually-depraved delinquents.  Despite Wertham’s loopiness – he had a particular beef with Wonder Woman, whom he believed promoted lesbianism because she was independent and powerful and didn’t need a man to cling to – his allegations struck a chord in the US Congress in those paranoid McCarthy-ite times.  A new regulatory code for comics – i.e. censorship – was introduced and Gaines was forced to close his three infamous titles.  Needless to say, they’ve been massively influential ever since.  The work of everyone from Stephen King to Steven Spielberg has, at one time or other, shown a little of that old, nasty EC magic.  And I’m sure that if I possessed a few mint-condition copies of Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror or Haunt of Fear, I could sell them on eBay and retire tomorrow on the proceeds.

 

A common trope in the Tales / Vault / Haunt stories was that of revenge from beyond the grave.  An evil scumbag murders someone in order to claim an inheritance or settle a score.  Then at a later date, the cadaver of the victim comes back to life, scrabbles its way out of the ground and goes shuffling off to find the perpetrator of the crime and punish him or her, horribly.  By this point the victim looks pretty yucky.  Decompositional fluids are oozing out, pieces of rotting flesh are falling off and eyeballs are dangling down.  So the murderer gets a bit of a surprise when that victim turns up on his or her doorstep.

 

I’ve just had a short story published under the pseudonym of Jim Mountfield, which is the name I put on my stories when they fall into the ‘horror’ category.  This story was partly inspired by the old EC comics and their common theme of revenge from beyond the grave.  One day I asked myself a question: what crime could possibly be so vile that it’d induce me to return from the dead and wreak vengeance on the perpetrator?

 

After thinking about it, I identified one such atrocity.  It involved music.

 

I imagined my funeral service.  I imagined that I’d left strict instructions about the music I wanted played at the close of my funeral service – about my remains being carried away to the sound of some old blues song, for instance, or a John Barry composition, or for the sake of irony, Highway to Hell by AC/DC.  But out of malice, someone ignored my instructions and played some really crap music instead.  Something really naff, and crass, and nauseating.

 

Angels, say, by Robbie Williams.  Actually, I once read somewhere that Williams’ saccharine anthem really is the song that gets played most at funerals in Great Britain.  This fact makes me feel embarrassed to British.

 

What a horrible thought.  Then the mourners would leave the church saying to one another, “Well, fancy that!  I never knew he was a Robbie Williams fan!”  And that’s how I’d be remembered.  As a lover of Robbie f***ing Williams.  Yes, I think that colossal indignity would be enough to bring me back in zombie form, seeking retribution.

 

(c) The Daily Telegraph

 

And so I had an idea for the beginning of a story.  The funeral of a man who’d spent his life being a John Peel-type music obsessive is taking place.  He’d owned a record collection that ran to tens of thousands of albums.  And he’d asked his best friend to play a few of his very-most favourite songs at the ceremony’s end.  But a spiteful relative intervenes and plays the ghastly Angels instead.  And then there are consequences – supernatural consequences, and nasty ones.

 

This tale of revenge from beyond the grave, and good and bad music, is called The Groove; and it has just appeared in the kindle magazine Hellfire Crossroads, issue 5.  It can be downloaded here:

 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/HELLFIRE-CROSSROADS-VOLUME-Horror-Stories-ebook/dp/B013EUMPQE

 

From www.amazon.co.uk