In last month’s column 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 stated in last month’s column, 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 empathize 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 installment 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 installment 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, reveled 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 fantasizing 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 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.
Trust your Uncle Jasp on this, you know it makes sense.
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