Horror Was My Childhood Doorway to Conscience, Art, and Wonder

When I was a kid, my first real interest in stories was horror, specifically Fortean horror, which (apart from a devotion to the lightweight TV form – represented by the prototypical Chris Carter’s X-Files inspiration “Kolchak, the Night Stalker” (1974-75), I pursued in the main through comic books. I favored the denser, more prose-laden double length “digest” comics – about the size of a Reader’s digest (roughly 8″ tall and 5″ wide) but thicker. They were my favorites, because there was more text and there were more stories, so they lasted longer than the standard variety. which felt more like brochures. DC & Marvel weren’t my thing. I read a lot of Golden Key comics which, like the 1950s era comics put out by EC (Entertainment Comics), had rejected the Comic Code Authority “seal” of content safety for children, without which most retailers wouldn’t stock them. No “decency” for me – I wanted it raw and uncensored.

Horror as Education for the Conscience

comic books
Holding the VERY approved and disappointingly tedious Random House / Scholastic Book Services comic: “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators in The Mystery of Monster Mountain”

In the 1950s, EC had published Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear (and ultimately scored a coup by getting MAD Magazine onto shelves as a magazine instead of a comic, without the ‘code authority’ label). They also started their own approval seal, which always approved their comics. In the 1970s, Gold Key thrilled me by putting out Mystery Comics Digest (1972-75) which reprinted stories from my favorite Gold Key anthologies: Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Twilight Zone, and Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery (Dark Horse has more recently reprinted some of these), which meant I could backtrack to stories I’d missed.

These tales tended to emphasize poetic justice – the Kabbalistically summoned homonculus-golem that comes to life to hunt Nazis by night (Ripley’s #7), the swamp creature created from the hate of racists that consumes them, sheets and all – etc. Maybe these social themes were part of the conservative backlash against horror, but I suspect it was actually outrage at the general authenticity and freedom felt by the writers and publishers in this genre. This is illustrated by the famous contest between EC’s publisher Max Gaines and Judge Charles Murphy, the Comics Code Administrator, who ordered him to alter a story because the main character was a black man.

Specifically, he was an astronaut who recommended denying a planet of robots admission into a galactic federation, because they had divided into otherwise identical blue and orange models, with one colour having fewer rights. Removing his helmet, we see the astronaut is black. “He can’t be black,” the Judge said. ‘But that’s the point of the story,’ Gaines replies. For many of us, horror and sci-fi represented the place where ethics entered the conversation and could be explored. For such explorers, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is indelibly etched on our minds. As Robert Heinlein has said, science fiction is typified by a single assertion – that it is possible for people and the world to change. This assertion is, if you will, the prerequisite to ethics.

Horror as Introduction to Art

You can’t very well tell the horrors of the world, or talk about justice, with your eyes blindfolded, your mind restricted, your mouth gagged, and your hands tied. Horror, for me, was the beginning of an odyssey of freeing the imagination as well as the conscience. It was quintessentially the definition of art in my understanding. Marvel eventually gave this genre a try with 2 powerhouse issues of a prose digest “The Haunt of Horror” in 1973, which included Harlan Ellison, Fritz Leiber, Lin Carter, and Anne McCaffrey, among others. It took a final, fizzling shot with 5 more black and white issues in 1974, and that was the end. I suspect their mainline brew was overall simply too heavily edited – too tame, with Comic Code label intact, to really feel authentic to someone prying into the deeper areas of imagination these stories were meant to tap. Despite the lineup, for some reason it didn’t hit.

The Comic Code Authority effectively killed mainstream comics as art for me – I’ve never found the controller-approved comics anything but tedious and somehow empty, just as I find the independent stuff of today too focused on drawing and concept and unbearably light on prose. Or maybe I just won’t settle for the cigarette when I can have the cigar, by diving into a novel. But I find it most interesting that adherence to the approval stamp was voluntary, just like the motion picture certifications of the blacklist era. It wasn’t a law – it was like a lot of ‘correctness’ codes, whether put out by the environmental lobby, the evangelical lobby, or a race-conscious interest group – they rely on our need for approval and our tendency to designate and suppress ‘opponents’ when we feel right. In fact, their most damaging effect is to transform opinion into a subjective certainty, which is gnosticism of the conscience. This is one reason I resist the attitudes of people who throw stones at Orson Scott Card’s work or castigate Amanda Palmer, each for various thought crimes or ideological offenses; it’s not left vs. right, it’s pressure vs. freedom.

Those who try to squelch art by drumming up enough of a groupthink response, because they don’t like something the artist says, are all on the same side, whether they’re right wing McCarthyites or ironic champions of a narrow “tolerance”. Those who persist in making space for art, precisely because it is the medium for exploration, free from ideological handcuffs, are on the side of art itself. This is what art and science have in common, and what horror and sci-fi seem to share. The horror that resisted the boundaries of approval was my doorway to art as a child. It was the arena of possible truth telling. It gave me access to a kind of freedom for my thoughts that, in the intolerable situation in which I grew up, people tried continually to squelch and eliminate – thankfully with little success. Indeed, my pleasure in these books was often rewarded with their destruction, and replacement with pablum, thus furthering in my mind the distinction between art and approved reading lists. It’s probably one reason I return to horror in adulthood, which affords me room to stretch, grow, and think without constraint.

Horror as Permission for Wonder

Fortean literature inspires one to approach the cosmos an open system; one of possibility rather than merely bounded by monolithic natural laws. It’s not unscientific, but is the essential repository of the scientific attitude of continual exploration of the presumably obvious, pushing of the boundaries of expectation and dictated truth, and testing one’s own assumptions. When I was a child, I would stop on the page, and wonder, only to be discovered ‘lost’ in thought and punished for it. I defended that wonder with small raids and skirmishes and some subterfuge. I learned how to disappear into the empty space in the middle of a library shelf, with books on either side hiding me from the ‘guards’ that insisted I stay out of the more interesting permutations of the Dewey decimal system. The censors were my monsters, not the fiends lurking in the stacks. As an adult, I still prize the ability to wonder, because it is the very quality of thought itself. We tend to recognize, as such, an ‘adult’ body of thought, which is in fact only an approved set of perceptions stripped of too much curiosity and severed from the organs of authenticity that once made us daring. We treat perpetual wonder as an infantile eccentricity – a recidivism toward childhood. This is why, if we insist on retaining our attachment to wonder, requiring us to eschew the approval stamps, our lives can only make sense in the context of art. Only in art are we permitted our full humanity, unrestrained, and released from the tyranny of approval.

For me, I find this the company of dark creatures, and those who shine a light on them. They have something in common – they work out their differences without deference. They answer to no one but the reader.

PS. It wasn’t only horror that I found inspirational. Other books gave richly – like Dear Garbage Truck Man by Gene Zion (about Stan, a man who finds things people need in what other people throw away), Norman the Doorman by Don Freeman (about a mouse who finds a way to achieve his dream), and the SOS Bobomobile by Jan Wahl (in which a boy locates adventure in his back yard), Tom Swift and his Flying Lab (I used to construct my own 3D flying labs out of paper, updated with Star Trek like features). Horror, for me, was simply a freeway onramp – a fat pipe for the the stream of wonder that other literature seemed to hint at.

Here’s an example, with some comments by a person who found this old comic tucked in a book.


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