Martin Barker - A Haunt Of Fears: The Strange History Of The British Horror Comics Campaign (Pluto, 1984)
Officially, The Comics Campaign The True Story The Campaign Narrows Enter the Professionals, Staged Right Frederic Wertham's Nightmare The Rest of the Critics What's in a Comic? Lucy's Tale The Genre of Horror Criminal Varieties The Psychoanalysis of Lucy The Contradictions of the Comics Campaign Appendix: The Forgotten Cause for Concern Notes Bibliography Index
Blurb: Before video nasties there were horror comics with titles such as Tales From The Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear.
They were accused of corrupting children, disturbing their imagination, fomenting cruelty. But then, so the story goes, ordinary decent people — teachers, writers and others all over Britain — rallied in opposition until the government was forced to ban them.
A Haunt of Fears is the first serious study of the horror comics campaign. In it, Martin Barker tells a different story. The campaign itself was a well-orchestrated exercise in pressure politics, energized and run in large part by members of the Communist Party (a fact well concealed at the time). Its assumptions as to how horror comics worked in corrupting the young were crude in the extreme. Ironically, those which attracted the greatest criticism — such as The Orphan — were significant documents of radical social criticism.
In A Haunt of Fears, Martin Barker returns to the comics themselves, looking in detail at what they did and how they could be read. Some of the more controversial strips are reproduced for readers to judge for themselves.
"One of the questions that puzzles me is whether it was maintained by a Conservative government wanting a clean up campaign, getting the Director of Public Prosecutions to orchestrate police raids, or whether it was a reaction to feelings in seaside resorts that these cards had gone too far. Maybe these cards were scaring off the family trade that they wanted?" - Dr. Nick Hiley, as quoted in Saucy Postcards: The Bamforth Collection, Constable, 2013
Martin Barker has no such doubt as to who instigated the moral crusade against the horror comics, and he's unearthed much evidence to back up his argument that, far more than the lone religious voices and odd concerned parent, it was the British Communist Party, keen to rid these isles of American influence, who lead the campaign, only to be shunted off stage when more powerful political opponents on the right sensed a potential vote winner.
A Haunt Of Fears was doubly attractive to this reader because, when I landed a copy in the mid-nineties, my thing was for "researching" ghost hunts, "v**pire" hoaxes, and generally cases of mass hysteria with a "supernatural" taint, so the fleeting mention of The Gorbals Vampire was of especial interest.
"After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns." - Daniel 7.7
In September 1954, a rumour spread amongst the pupils of St. Bonaventure School that a vampire with metal teeth haunted the local cemetery. Most commentators agree that the youngsters duly armed themselves with makeshift weapons and converged on the graveyard to confront the monster. Eyewitness Norman Ross recalls:
"... back in the early fifties when I attended Wolseley Street Primary, a rumour spread that there was a Vampire in the Southern Necropolis, the sprawling graveyard in Caledonia Road. Almost the whole school went en masse to see this. As we passed by St Bonaventures school, they had obviously heard the story too, and we all went to see it. By the time we arrived, there was a huge crowd milling around in "Caley Road" as the other schools in the area around Gorbals had heard it as well.
... All I remember is that there was hordes of children in Caledonia Road, but none that I remember with sticks etc, although being big brave 'Glesca boys', no doubt some had them, even if they were provided by the reporters. Nor can I say I remember the metal teeth, but again equally sure that some used this tale, but it was a long time ago. ... my older sister by five years knew nothing of the story, and I was pleased to have it confirmed that it had happened".
Naturally, no vampire was ever discovered, but the vampire-hunt was widely reported and questions were raised in Parliament about American horror comics and their corrupting influence on innocent young minds. Talking to Mr. Barker in 1981, anti-comics campaigner Joe Benjamin confessed;
"We looked - it is almost wicked to say this - with eager anticipation for a story in the press of a child who had done something so that we could point to the [horror] comics. And if one had done something, then this supported our case. And we called this research."
I know next to nothing about the Horror Comics, but it seems that Black Magic #12 (c. 1953/1954) was discussed in Glasgow's Daily Record, 27 September 1954, in relation to the Gorbals Vampire Hunt, with two strips coming in for special attention: "The Monster of Zollmort Castle" and "Song of the Undead". According to Martin Barker, both were reprints from a 1952 issue of Eerie magazine. Writing in the Glasgow Herald, June 23 1989, author Sandy Hobbs argues that it need not even have been the comics to blame as "such monsters are to be found in respectable places such as the Bible (Daniel 7.7) and Alexander Anderson's, Jenny wi' the airn teeth, a poem found in the anthologies for schoolchildren". In fact, the source was indeed a comic. In September 2009, Steve 'Karswell' Banes, posting on his excellent blog, The Horror Of It All established that the elusive strip is The Vampire With Iron Teeth, (Dark Mysteries #15, 1953), drawn by Hy Fleishman, as confirmed by the artist's daughter, Roberta. You can read the strip in its entirety by clicking on the link below.
Thanks to Norman Ross of Our Glasgow Story, Colin Mackie of Southern Necropolis, and M from the late, unlamented plan 9 from h*ghg*t* cemetery forum for their help in researching this non-article. Mr. Mackie, who kindly provided the press clipping, adds: "One recollection that I also have from my own school days at Adelphi Secondary is the rumour of a headstone in the Southern Necropolis bearing the spooky inscription "Alucard"!"
Pencils Harry Lazarus: Inks: Vince Alascia
(NB: this is a much censored, revamped & updated version of a piece that first appeared on aforementioned doomed forum in 2005)
From the first, I set myself against "literature"; the story was the thing, and no amount of style could persuade me to select a story that lacked genuine, unadulterated horror. For those who wanted something high-brow there was plenty.