Review: 'T'ain't the Meat...It's the Humanity!' and Other Stories
Greetings, ‘boils and ghouls.’
It seems curious that the resurrection of this blog should fall at the hands of material that, at first blush, seems entirely beyond its scope. I say ‘at first blush,’ because one peek into the linchpin of E.C. Comics’ horror-stable, Tales From the Crypt, reveals the Gothic imagination laid bare of most of its affectations and placed, after a twenty-year stint in cinema, back on the printed page. And yet, the images made archetype in films like The Wolf-Man, Doctor X, or The Mummy have come along with it, in a fusion that (at the time) was entirely original. Alas, it was not to last for long—but the story of the horror-comics’ demise at the hands of the censors has been told many times by writers far better acquainted with the details than I, and I will leave further observations to them.
Tales From the Crypt is what happens when the most basic conventions of the Gothic—terror, horror, and revulsion; self-parody; and irony—converge with settings, situations, and characters that are often entirely modern (though there is more than a fair helping of Transylvanian castles, withered old crones, and dark-and-stormy-nights to be found within these pages). Alongside The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear, Tales From the Crypt established a special kind of twist-ending yarn and introduced the notion of the pun-loving, quippy horror host that was to become so pervasive in television and film (HBO’s Tales From the Crypt, of course, chief among these derivations). Fantagraphics Books has revisited these ‘putrid pages of pallid purulence’ by presenting ‘T’ain’t the Meat…It’s the Humanity!’ and Other Stories, a single-artist retrospective highlighting the remarkable artwork of Jack Davis, a legendary figure in the history of comic art. As this review is more concerned with the literary aspects of this work, I will limit my comments on Davis’ art to this: it is both subtle and coarse, campy and unrelentingly gruesome—meaning, then, that it is as much the father of the Tales From the Crypt brand as the stories themselves (whose authorship, it should be mentioned, is never entirely clear; it seems that most credit is to be split between publisher William Gaines and editor Al Feldstein, who provide concept and script, respectively).
The Picture of Dorian Gray (Gaines was a fan of using classic literature as ‘springboards’ for his own scenarios), but is a great deal more grotesque—and, arguably, uses the device of the ‘picture’ to a fuller effect. ‘Well-Cooked Hams’ is an old-fashioned Grand Guignol tale that takes as its subject (of all things) the Grand Guignol; it is charmingly lurid. ‘Forever Ambergris’ showcases Tales From the Crypt’s unique ability to take its most basic formula (Man A murders Man B; Man A gets comeuppance through otherworldly involvement of Man B) and reinterpret it through remarkably diverse mechanics: here involving everything from bubonic plague to whale vomit. ‘Telescope’ and ‘Tight Grip’ are both grisly shockers that rely on one final, startlingly original image to make their impact. ‘Dead Right’ takes irony to a new level in a tale so bizarre that to summarize it would rob it. ‘Concerto for Violin and Werewolf’ revisits classic Gothic motifs and settings, with a downbeat ending unusual for a title that, while always delightfully macabre, generally presents what can easily be deemed morality tales. Other standouts include the ingenious and surreal ‘Four-Way Split,’ the deliciously grim ‘Grounds…for Horror,’ and a classic gross-out appropriately titled ‘Gas-tly Prospects.’
Dracula, Poe, and Bierce. The immediate influence of Tales From the Crypt can be seen in the fiction of such modern giants as Clive Barker and the unavoidable Stephen King, the films of George Romero and Tobe Hooper (amongst many, many others), and the popular television series that shares its name. Impossible to reduce to the confines of genre-literature or pulp trash, Tales From the Crypt remains one of the most striking and accessible of all the works that bridge the gap between Gothic literature and actual Horror fiction. A fascinating and thoroughly effervescent meeting of the highbrow and the lowbrow, the intellectual and the repulsive, the humorous and the haunting, Tales From the Crypt (and the publisher that gave birth to it) is as relevant a title today as it was sixty ‘fears’ ago.
'T’ain’t the Meat…It’s the Humanity!' and Other Stories comes very highly recommended.