OTR: The Evil Influence Behind EC
By Kurt Kuersteiner (reprinted from Horror From The Crypt of Fear #9, © Jan 1997)
They say that those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. In the case of Gaines and Feldstein of EC comics fame, however, a unusual bastardization on this theme occurred. They knew history, and yet they still repeated it. But they were hardly doomed by it. If anything, it was one of the ingredients of their success.
In an interview published in Squa Tront #9, Al Feldstein made several interesting admissions. One of them was on page 5:
"Our plots came from a conglomeration of sources- movies we'd seen, books we'd read... we weren't really intending to steal stuff, we were just looking for inspiration to give us ideas to come up with something original..."
Whether intentional or not, EC took quite a few of their plot lines from other sources. One medium in particular had a dramatic role in forming the very format in which EC comics were told. Old Time Radio (OTR). If one were to search for the inspiration of EC's horror hosts, one need not look any further than the OTR shows of Feldstein and Gaines' youth. Again, in Feldstein's words:
"We had come on to this thing of doing horror and scary stuff. Bill and I had remembered The Witch's Tale and Lights Out from radio- this is all old hat, I know- and we tried it out in the comics..."
Indeed they did. The GhouLunatics were direct descendants from the wicked host of The Witch's Tale. Feldstein admitted as much later on in the same article:
"...when I first came up with the Crypt Keeper and the Vault Keeper, who were direct steals from the witch in The Witch's Tale. I don't remember the witch being as facetious, and with the puns, but she cackled..."
True. EC's Old Witch, Crypt Keeper and Vault Keeper didn't inherit their sick sense of humor from The Witch's Tale. Instead, they got that from Raymond, the host of Inner Sanctum Mysteries. Raymond was famous for morbid puns and evil asides at the beginning, middle, and end of every story. It was a gimmick that made Inner Sanctum one of the most popular and longest running radio series of its time. Fortunately for EC, Raymond's trademark wit wasn't actually trademarked or copyrighted. If it were, EC could have been in BIG trouble.
But there were other ideas that EC borrowed despite their copyright, and on occasion, they were caught. The most famous of these instances were the writings of Ray Bradbury. Again, Feldstein's interview:
"...Oh yeah, not only borrowings in terms of plot, but borrowings in terms of writing style. I was very impressed with Ray Bradbury. I read Dark Carnival and The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, and whatever else I could get a hold of Bradbury's at the time. I was very impressed with his writing style and tried to emulate it, in the comic style. We didn't consciously steal from him, you know, but again, we might have been pretty close."
Whether consciously or unconsciously, many of Bradbury's plots showed up with only minor variations in EC comics. These same stories had been dramatized with great success on radio just a few years before they showed up in EC. It is almost inconceivable that Gaines or Feldstein didn't hear some of these stories on the radio at that time. They were classics of the genre. Here are just a few of their uncredited adaptations:
Home To Stay from Weird Fantasy #13 follows the premise of Bradbury's Kaleidoscope, telling the story of an astronaut falling through space toward Earth. As he burns up hitting the atmosphere, a little boy sees the flames and wishes upon a falling star. This story was a big hit on Suspense.
Mad Journey from Weird Fantasy #4 is very similar to Bradbury's The Earthmen, as heard on Escape! (the summer replacement for Suspense). The big build up leads to the same twist ending, where a stranger is lead to alien scientists who will consider his claim that he is an astronaut from Earth. (The "scientists" turn out to be insane asylum doctors, of course.)
There are other examples of borrowed Bradbury ideas, but it's uncertain how many of them were adapted from radio instead of books. The reason the radio aspect is significant is that it allows more believability to the claim that these rip offs were unintentional. It's easier to forget the source of something you heard than it is to forget something you read. That being said, some of Dimension X stories were remarkably recent, and so many plots were unoriginal that the sheer number of borrowed ideas make the claim that it was all unintentional seem a little- shall we say- bogus?
Regardless, the uncredited Bradbury borrowing came to an end when EC got a letter from Bradbury that he was aware his stories were being adapted. Luckily, instead of suing EC, he simply asked for his royalty check. EC not only sent them, they began giving Bradbury banner credit on the covers of their comics whenever they adapted other stories from the author. Stories like The Small Assassin and The October Game (Shock SuspenStories #7 and #9) were just two such examples.
But there were other writers whose successful radio plays wound up on the pages of EC without credit.
Take for example the Horror In The Night story from Vault of Horror #1. The story is of a real estate broker who dreams about a young couple renting a house, an event that results in a double murder. He tells his buddy about it and they laugh it off, but then the same young couple come walking in through the office door. Originally, this story was broadcast on Suspense as House on Cypress Canyon, where it became a classic. It was an identical plot except the agent didn't dream it, he found the story written and hidden in a shoe box at the house where it all occurs. The wife wasn't a vampire either, but she becomes a blood thirsty killer in the radio version nevertheless.
The next story in Vault of Horror #1 was Terror Train. This story is very reminiscent of many Inner Sanctum themes. The lady thinks her husband is trying to kill her, but actually, she is insane and he is trying to stop her. It's all told in the same eerie flashback style that made Inner Sanctum so famous.
Chewed Out is another popular Weird Science story (#12) that was borrowed from radio. In it, an amateur Ham radio operator makes contact with friendly aliens and guides them to a landing on Earth. When they land, their ship is attacked by acid and giant monsters because they are (gasp!) only an inch in size! This plot was originally used on two different series. Once on Suspense as The Invader and once on Dimension X as Pictures Don't Lie. The only variation was that instead of being eaten in a hot dog (as they were in the EC version), they were drowned in the water from a mud puddle.
At this point, I tried an experiment. I didn't want to read all my EC reprints now, because I've been saving some for a rainy day. Instead, I decided I would scan the last panels of my reprints in search of particular radio plots EC would likely steal. I thought of two popular radio plots that would lend themselves well to the EC style (simple plots with great twist endings). I found them both, and quickly too.
The first one was easy. Report From A Dead Planet (from Suspense) would make the perfect EC tale. In it, a crew of astronauts explore a strange, desolate world. They discover this world was destroyed by atomic weapons, and the name of this planet was... was... you guessed it; Earth. This story appeared in the very first volume of Weird Fantasy as Trip into the Unknown.
The second one was a little tougher. Perhaps the War of the Worlds radio play that caused a nation wide panic in 1939? No, that would be too famous (though they did an interesting variation on it entitled Sci-Fi Radio Broadcast Causes Panic in Weird Science #4). I chose instead Dead Earnest from Suspense. This had such a good twist ending, that Alfred Hitchcock reused it in his TV series. In it, a paralyzed man is thought to be dead and almost gets an autopsy, but is saved when he sheds a tear. The EC adaptation (Crime SuspenStories #2) was called The Corpse in the Crematorium. It's basically the same plot, except it's a bead of sweat that reveals the man is alive just before he's shoved into the crematorium.
All right, so the boys from EC swiped many of their best stories from other sources, what does that prove? Nothing, except that they enjoyed old radio horror in a big way. If it wasn't for OTR, the GhouLunatics might never have existed and EC might never have been so popular. It certainly would have been very different.
If you enjoyed the EC adaptations, you would probably get a kick out of hearing the original broadcasts as well. Any of the above radio shows are still available through most OTR dealers. There are many other great horror shows never used by EC that are also available. Interested parties can buy dozens of them stored on a DVD disk (as MP3 audio files) for under $10. Just search the web or eBay for them. If you loved the copy-cat comic books, you'll love the originals even more!
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More examples of EC comic stories "borrowed" from OTR (Revealed in Terror on the Air, Hand, 167):
Lights Out, May 18, 1943, "The Spider": Two men discover and try to capture a giant spider the size of a dog, with grim results. The same plot occurs in "Sucker for a Spider", EC's Tales from the Crypt 29, 1952.
Lights Out, December 1, 1942, "The Story of Mr. Maggs": A haunted chest murders the occupants of a house one at a time. Also "The Visiting Corpse" (from Mysterious Traveler, August 10, 1948): A man kills his wife and hides her dismembered corpse in a trunk before being forced to hid the trunk and getting crushed to death by it when he falls down a flight of stairs dragging it down to the basement. Those two stories are echoed in "Tight Grip", EC's Tales from the Crypt 38, 1953.
The Strange Dr. Weird, December 19, 1944, "White Pearls of Terror": A ruthless criminal takes refuge on a remote island only to realize too late that he has disembarked on a leper colony. The same plot is recycled in "A Rottin' Trick" EC's Tales from the Crypt 29, April 1952.
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