John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: House of Secrets
Storytelling Engines: House of Secrets
(or “Imperfect Pitch”)
When I wrote about ‘House of Mystery’ for this column, back in April of last year, I wasn’t quite sure if I was doing the right thing. After all, ‘House of Mystery’ is an anthology series, right? Sure, it has a framing sequence with recurring characters, but the actual tales within each issue are pretty much interchangeable with those of any other horror comic, right? How much difference does Cain’s existence as a narrator actually make to the enjoyment of the stories within? How much were those framing sequences helping the writers come up with story ideas?
And lucky me, I actually get to find out. Because DC has finally gotten around to putting ‘House of Secrets’ out in Showcase Presents format, so I have 500 pages of material with which to compare Cain to Abel. (This, of course, was back before first Alan Moore and then Neil Gaiman turned them into avant-garde cultural icons.)
The truth of the matter is, it’s surprising just how much the framing sequences alter the tone of the stories within. Horror comics had to walk a pretty tricky tightrope in the 1970s, the period these volumes reprint; even though a lot of the anti-comics paranoia of the 1950s had lessened, and the Comics Code revised to allow moderate horror stories, it was still hard to pack the same punch that ‘Tales From the Crypt’ and the other EC classics had. The horror stories in ‘House of Mystery’ and ‘House of Secrets’ had to rely as much on implication and insinuation as they did on big shock moments, in fact moreso.
And while ‘House of Mystery’ host Cain was a sinister, cynical, arch student of human nature who could be relied on to twist the knife at the end of every story, Abel, his ‘House of Secrets’ counterpart, is a timid, nervous character who seems intent on trying to reassure us that things weren’t as bad as they seemed at the end of the story, or at the very least to apologize for telling us about something so gruesome. Instead of amplifying the effect of the scares, Abel’s framing sequences actually neuter them. Even the other DC horror hosts seem to agree; Cain mocks Abel’s storytelling abilities, while the witches from ‘The Witching Hour’ pop up on a few occasions to deride Abel as being unfit for his duties. Heck, look at Abel’s companion as opposed to Cain’s–Cain gets a giant, cute/terrifying gargoyle, while Abel’s stuck with an imaginary friend.
Eventually, as the first volume goes on, Abel’s presence becomes less and less noticeable with each issue. It’s as though editor Joe Orlando is aware that Abel is pulling against the tone of the stories, and is trying to make sure he doesn’t get in the way of some good scares. At that point, of course, you’re not really dealing with a storytelling engine at all, because there’s nothing to help the writer to generate stories beyond his/her imagination. And it seems that Cain gave writers a bit more help in that regard than Abel–which is probably one reason why ‘House of Mystery’ lasted longer than ‘House of Secrets’.
Just think about it–Cain even managed to kill his brother’s series.