alloween 2017 Post-A-Day, Day 29:
John Bolton’s Halls of Horror #1
Flawed but marvelous
Editor and Adaptation – Dez Skinn
Colorists – Tim Smith
I was lucky enough to stumble upon both issues of John Bolton’s Halls of Horror. The first issue, which I’m reviewing below, is pretty amazing. It has one glaring problem, which we will get to in a moment, but it is all Bolton art. That in and of itself is a blessed thing, because Bolton can really draw.
He came across the pond from London, England in the early 80’s and where I remember encountering him was pretty late in his work for Marvel. He had already assited that house in adapting some of the Robert Howard Kull stories and doing work on a historical fantasy character called Marada for Chris Claremont in the mature Marvel mag Epic.
I found him around 1985, when Marvel began reprinting the rebirth of the X-Men saga in a book called Classic X-Men. I was a John Byrne fan and a bit of a completist. I owned X-men 118 and 119, two of my favorite books at the time, and really wanted the whole Byrne run. Sadly, my funds were all going to new books and even then the Byrne-Claremont run was very pricy. I had the Dark Phoenix trade too and wanted to connect the dots.
Classic X-Men did that for me, and at a bargain price.
It did one other thing, too. It introduced me to Bolton’s work through the backup pieces in each issue. Marvel used the added eight pages or so each issue to entice collectors who already owned these issues to rebuy them. The pages were new stories by Claremont that took place in or around the time of each issue. They added little, really, but they made another reason for a completist to want to purchase these and learn “the rest of the story.”
The results of pairing Bolton with Byrne, sometimes sided-by-side was jarring. Byrne is old-school comic book form and he makes art pop off the page in bold action pieces. Bolton is more subdued and very meticulous in his character studies, giving human figures a realistic aspect that bristles with substance and breath. One page would be standard comicbook panels and the next would be drawings that felt tangible. It was noticeably awkward how the tone shifts worked sometime.
But beyond the bouncing manner of the art, I paid attention to what Bolton brought to the table and respected his attention to detail. It wasn’t what I was looking for at the time, my tastes still not fully matured enough to want something more than the flashy art styles at the time, but I did note the name and tip my hat as if to say “incredible work. Not what I’m looking for at the moment, but incredible none the less.”
Bolton went on to do many other work for both Marvel and DC. He drew Vertigo’s The Books of Magic, the Harry Potter-like series developed by Neil Gaiman. The protagonist of that series, Timothy Hunter, is modeled after Bolton’s eldest son. He even did a Man-Bat series,which I’m certain will fill my soul-mate in discount bin diving, Professor Alan of the Quarter Bin Podcast with glee.
Here we have two horror tales with an intriguing wrapper, and I’ve rambled on long enough above so we really should jump in and get started. This entire bit comes from The Monster Club, a direct lift of a 1981 horror anthology movie that has now been retitled so Bolton can throw a few more stories in. Our wrapper tale starts like this…
Noted horror author R.(Ronald) Chetwynd-Hayes finds himself wandering the streets of London when he passes a bookstore advertising his paperbaks. He is drawn to the display as a homeless man struggles to his feet in the alleyway beside him.
As Ronald passes the gentleman, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Vincent Price from the film, he weakly states he hasn’t had a bite in weeks. Ronald, feeling pity for him, offers him money or “anything” else he could do for him. The bum, now revealed as a vampire, takes Ronald at his word and sinks his teeth in him.
When Ronald awakens, the vampire introduces himself as Eramus (which must be an anagram for something, but I’m really crummy at that sort of thing). He states that Ronald is his favorite author and tells him that his drink wasn’t deep enough for Ronald to “turn”. A bargain of sorts is struck. As payment for Ronald’s kindness, Eramus vows to take him to a club where the content is exclusively monsters for Ronald to gather information for his next book.
Ronald agrees, and the pair ends up here. Note that there is some risk to Ronald in a place where only monsters are allowed, so the wrapper itself is something that drew me in deep enough that I was so glad to find issue two of this. Suffice to say that while that book is good, the first story it contains is Bolton fantasy, not Bolton horror and takes away much of the vibe that is present in this offering.
So here is our setup, the two sit at a table and discuss various types of creatures, with Eramus spinning tales which turn into the full blown stories we witness. I love the shit out of this concept and Bolton pulls it off so well.
The only issue here is that these tales are lifted from other publications and it is very clear those publications were never meant to colorized. The addition of pigments to some of these panels is downright distracting, muting the power that Bolton’s pencil and inking provides on crisp white backgrounds. It is a joy to have the stories collected again, just if I were editing this, I would have had the wrapper in color and everything else in the original format. (and you can! Also you can see the movie the first story is based off of HERE! Also you can check out black and white scans to compare at this link!)
We’ve got all that out of the way now, so let’s dive into the first “real” story, a Deserved fate tale of a creature called The Whistler…
Our tale begins with George, a young grifter in an insane asylum, his mind broken and destroyed by the events that have recently unfolded around his latest “get rich” scheme.
Appears he had beautiful accomplice in his crimes and their target was the sole occupant of this place…
The scam this time is to get Raven, the owner of the house, to confide the location of his valuables to Angela and she will steal them. Her cover is that she is there to help catalogue Raven’s property and to win his confidences about any treasures by any means necessary.
The difficult part will be getting around this unusual aspect of Raven that makes him seem ugly and sub-human.
George isn’t sympathetic, especially once he hears about all the “good stuff” Raven has. He sends Angela back.
Raven is confused that she has returned, and you can feel his desire to be accepted, loved even, in these brief panels. Note the placement of the mask in the third panel and the way Angela is framed by the eye hole, an almost symbolic representation of what Raven wants, beauty being within the eye of the beholder.
We also learn that Raven seeks company with the dark birds that alight in his garden. He is shown to have great love of them as his only companions. We also get a visual foreshadowing of dark things to come as the birds are stalked by a neighboring cat.
The conversation serves to further unnerve Angela and she attempts again to persuade George not to ask her to go back. But he cares only about getting something out of the job.
And it is here that terror strikes, for the very next day the cat kills one of Raven’s precious birds. And because Raven is a shadmock, he uses his power by whistling in anger at the predatory feline.
The gruesome result is witnessed by Angela, which only increases her unease. The few items she has pilfered so far do nothing to impress George, who asks her for more expensive items. As well, Angela witnesses one of Raven’s friends who appears just as monstrous as he is.
All of this culminates in Raven showing her items hidden in a safe, items of true value. And because Angela has not fled as the rest of humanity would at this point, Raven proposes to her. He doesn’t realize that Angela is winning his confidences only to break his trust later, nor that her heart belongs to George.
Because of the ring, George wants her to play along until she can get the contents of the safe. And because she loves George, she agrees.
This means carrying on the charade that she cares about Raven, an event that means she will need to meet his similarly grotesque friends. Raven arranges it as a masque ball, so she will be more comfortable.
Angela can take it no more and attempts to steal what she can from the safe and leave. Her absence does not go unnoticed.
And once Raven learns of her true feelings for him, he reacts quite predictably.
What of George? The man Angela loved so? How did he come to be committed as an inmate of an insane asylum? Because Angela made it back to him after Raven’s dread whistle, begging for his love with her final words…
Wow! What a powerful ending. I wonder if the movie version can live up to this, because Bolton does an astonishingly great job on this. The story hits in all the right places and even though we see the payoff a mile away, it still sticks that landing.
What’s next? Why now our narrator tells us a story of a more traditional monster…
Script – Steve Moore
Art – John Bolton
Color – Tim Smith
It is during this story that Tim Smith really falters. You can’t blame him in many ways. This is art that was never meant to have coloring applied to it. I give him props for trying, but really someone should have convinced the powers that be to leave well enough alone.
Writer Steve Moore, on the other hand does a masterful job of weaving a story that is generations in the making and while it lacks a protagonist for the entire first half, it is so engrossing that you don’t really miss him. We begin with a simple beggar selling himself to the king for enough to eat…
An act that will have unintended consequences, as he is imprisoned and forgotten about, the noble who purchased him never calling for him to return. He grows lustful in his cell about the only person he sees, the mute serving girl who brings him food every day.
She has her own share of horror awaiting her, as first the Marques sexually assaults her, and then, when spurned, has her imprisoned as well.
And as it seems the Marques doesn’t have His and Hers jail cells, she is thrown in with the forgotten beggar, who is little more than an animal after fifteen years alone.
After being raped and assaulted for some time, the girl lashes out and decides to give the Marques a poker in return. Right through the heart. Then she runs off, escapes the castle and is found by a local writer.
He treats her kindly for several months until the girl dies in childbirth on Christmas Day, the child being the legacy of the beggar. The fact that the child is born on a holy day to an unmarried woman is seen as an insult and…
Hey, I know you’re saying, “where’s the werewolf in all this” and I’m just getting to that part, so here’s a chewed up corpse of a sheep.
Pepe goes hunting for the wolf, but the beast takes a shot and then runs away.
Which is odd because little Leon has been shot by someone the same night and he’s having odd dreams which…
Yes, yes! We are all on board now. Leon is the werewolf and his foster Father/Uncle is protecting him from himself. Many people might be off this train by now, given it is a long, long ride, but I’m enjoying the heck out of it.
Pepe meanwhile makes a bullet that we know will kill a werewolf and we feel like this will be all over soon…
…but Steven Moore throws us a curve and allows Leon to grow up spending nights of the full moon under lock and key.
He becomes a young man, the love of his parents driving back the curse. He works in a vineyard and falls in love with a beautiful woman. This relationship keeps the curse of his lycanthropy at bay too. Christina loves him back, but it can never be as she is pledged to another…(cue sweeping music from the TCM channel)
Rejected, Leon’s curse returns with a fury unleashing itself first on a tavern wench who seeks out his company and then on his dear friend Jose.
Note that here the panels would have been excellent without a dash of color. That bottom werewolf shot would have come out so well in stark black and white. The colors rob it of all dramatic power, and the blood that should be red is rendered now in black inky stains. Mistake to color these if just for this page alone, if you want my opinion.
Anyway, Leon awakes back at home, having arrived in his wolfen state and curled up in his old room. And while he rejects being chained like an animal he still fears for Christina’s safety.
But he is weak and makes plans to run away with Christina. However, before she can return the police catch him and jail him after finding his clothes near the two victims. And Christina’s father steps in to quell her rebellious daughter.
Leon knows in his heart that he is a murderer and asks his father to sue that he be executed before nightfall. His father intervenes out of love for his son.
The Mayor is just about to grant his wish and then Christina shows up and messes it all up. Night falls, the moon rises, and Leon undergoes a hideous transformation.
Stunning page. Love the creeping into the light effect at the top and the way his shirt rips as he attacks the guard at the bottom.
Now we get full-on villagers with torches and pitchforks and a chase across the rooftops. That scene of Leon on the roof with his hands splayed behind him feels so iconic.
As is the confrontation between father and son on the page facing this one.
And Leon’s story comes to an end without us returning to the wrapper that made all this possible.
What a book, eh?
Bolton’s art is riveting and feels so lifelike in parts. I am really taken with his style, although it much better fits more mature tales such as these, than comic book stories. I’d love to see what he did with Man-Bat and now have it on my internal discount box pull list.
This book isn’t without flaws. The colorist did all he could here, but honestly these pages didn’t need color. This mutes my excitement for the book a bit, but that art is so dynamic that it still manages to captivate. Look for these, is my recommendation. Or any other John Bolton work you come across.
You won’t be disappointed.