Sunday, October 29, 2006

Halloween Horror: House of Mystery #201

The month of October would not be complete without at least one post somewhere about the classic DC horror story The Demon Within.

Originally featured in House of Mystery #201 (April 1972) it is a tale that shows up every now and then on lists of best comic book horror stories and it is included on my short-list. The Mike Kaulta cover is eye-catching and does not disconnect much from the story, although Kaluta rendered the cover with a definite Gothic theme and the story takes place in a suburbanite setting. In the 1970's, it was often that the covers by Kaluta, Wrightson and Adams were the best feature of a comic book and wildly diverged from the sometimes disappointing story it represented. The Jim Aparo art is his usual competent style, though some of the panels appear to be crowded and rushed. Joe Orlando (plot) and Joe Albano (script) wrote the story. The only part of the script I did not care for when I first read it in 1972 was the totally unnecessary addition of a science fiction element at the end* that caused a bump in the pacing.

The Demon Within is an effectively creepy story, about a little boy named Gary who can will himself to transform into a monster through magic (today, he would be a sales-boosting mutant, but don't get me started on that). Like any bored youngster he uses his gift to terrorize his little sister, frighten strangers and cause mischievous pranks.
Gary isn't yet dangerous, just annoying.

So where is the horror? The answer to that lies in defining just what the "demon" really is and who is "possessed" by it. Like any DC morality tale there are a few plot twists. Mom and Dad are mortified that their son can change into a demonic form and are worried that the neighbors will think less of them because of it. The horror aspects of the tale come not from Gary and his ability to change shape, but in the reactions of his family. Gary is ultimately rejected by his mother and father, a truly frightening thing for any child to endure. That some of the scariest scenes occur off-panel is even more chilling.
The theme that selfish parents were more concerned about appearances than the health and well-being of their children showed up quite often in the "relevant era" of comics. It was a product of the times the creators lived in. Much like the stories of the 1980's often had greedy corporations crushing the lone employee, the comics of the 1970's explored the upset of the former staus quo. Being a short story, The Demon Within did not have the space to lay the blame for Gary's abilities on the parents, unlike when it was revealed Speedy's heroin addiction was the fault of a wealth-obsessed legal guardian and the expectations of society at large.

For fans relatively new to comics it is unfortunate that the realities of the current market do not allow for the the high number of anthology comics today that it did in the past. While the books were primarily full of filler and throw-away stories you could find the occasional classic gem.

For those of you who want to know how the story of Gary ends, here is a spoiler-link to his fate.


* Why use a laser when a knife will do? Seemed superfluous.

1 comment:

  1. Criminey! I was prepared for "he wasn't a little boy who transforms into a demon, he was a DEMON who transforms into a little BOY"...which I suppose it what most savvy readers were braced for. So that ending was a real stunner, even though it's actually more plausible than the usual twist ending.


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