Overview: Alright all you little ghosts and goblins out there, it’s time for some seasonally appropriate holiday reading material. DC’s House of Horror one shot brings veteran scribe Keith Giffen together with a host of horror story writers to take readers on a dark tour of the universe with macabre vignettes featuring our favorite characters in not so familiar settings.
Bump in the Night (Writer Edward Lee, Art by Howard Porter)
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): Flipping the story of the arrival of Superman on its ear, we open with a tale showing a very different version of Kal-El arriving in Smallville. In this modern day take, complete with a smart phone toting Martha Kent, a monstrously violent Kryptonian arrives in the ship instead of a docile infant, and he immediately takes to laying waste to his surroundings, including the Kents. After killing Jonathan, who went to investigate the noise caused by the ship’s arrival, he heads to the farm house and begins a cat-and-mouse game with Martha Kent, eventually killing her as well before heading off to, assumedly, carry on his violent takeover.
Analysis: Show, don’t tell. This story seriously suffers from over narration. Dense thought boxes trail Martha Kent through her evening wondering after her husband and once the Kryptonian arrives, the thought boxes inexplicably change to completely unnecessary dialogue balloons. The narration is distracting at best and killed any tension the story might have been building. The strange decision to make the setting a present day Smallville is also confusing, as there was an opportunity for a great “War of the Worlds”-esque period piece here with a more subdued narration and a less colorful art palette. I loved the idea of using the mysterious Kryptonian language throughout the panels almost like a mood-setting whisper, it’s a shame that couldn’t have been more of a centerpiece to the tension building. The action itself was passable and the threat was realistic in terms to Superman’s power base, but overall the lack of tension and confusing setup make this one miss the mark.
Man’s World (Writer Mary SanGiovanni, Art by Bilquis Evely)
Synopsis (Spoilers Ahead): Set in what appears to be Earth-Prime (our universe, for the Mutliverse-challenged), this story follows the outcome of a Ouija Board experiment gone horribly wrong. A group of young women use the board in an attempt to contact an Amazonian spirit but get far more than they bargained for when a spirit inhabits the body of one of their own and goes on a vicious killing spree. After slaughtering the rest of the girls in the group, the possessed girl makes her way through the town, killing a police officer and a drunk man before heading back to her home and ending the life of her abusive father. At the close, she says in Greek, what amounts to “The human world is hell. This war will be glorious.”
Analysis: The creators really are committed to giving us dark versions of the characters we know and love. This is a grim take on Wonder Woman, presenting her as a bloodthirsty Amazon spirit looking to wage war on humanity. That’s pretty dark. The possessed girl kills indiscriminately, which I am torn between interpreting as bad writing and the bloodthirsty nature of this version of the Amazons. I’m really not sure what to think as the story ends before we get any real answers as to what is going on. It seems the Amazon spirit retained some memories of the girl’s past as she went to her home. Are they sharing the body somehow? This is one of the more interesting setups in the book, so I’m disappointed it didn’t get more room to breathe. The art was passable, if a little stiff, but the color tones were on point for setting the mood. While “Bump in the Night” was obviously a Superman story, there is really nothing nothing in these panels that connect the Amazonian spirit to Diana, which is confusing as it is clearly labeled a Wonder Woman story in the book’s index. As a horror story, this is passable, but as a Wonder Woman story, not so much.
Crazy for You (Writers Bryan Smith & Brian Keene, Art by Kyle Baker)
Synopsis (Spoilers Ahead): This story wastes no time in getting down to it. Everyday working man Chuck wakes up standing above the murdered body of his wife, holding the knife that killed her. His confusion is compounded even more by the presence of the ghost of fan favorite character Harley Quinn. We flash back to earlier that evening when Chuck first encountered Harley’s spirit, as he was part of a demolition crew prepping Arkham Asylum for tear-down. During checks of the facility he discovered her in the shower and she was delighted that he could see her. She wastes no time in claiming him as her own, going so far as to show her control over him by influencing him to murder his coworkers. He naturally fights against her control, but this is a Harley back in full villain mode, so it does not go well and Chuck’s wife is quickly added to the body count. Chuck continues to fight against Harley and she continues to enjoy the “game” as calls it.
Analysis: Mood setting art and an interesting hook make this story one of the more successful in the anthology, despite some entirely unnecessary sexual overtones. This is the only story I’d like to have seen more of, but I’m afraid that might have ruined the slice of the story we did receive so I’m glad things were kept tight. The contained glimpse into this world we get straddles the line between comedic and tragic, heavily leaning towards the latter. Seeing Harley break Chuck down was enjoyable in a sick, horror film way. This take on Harley completely ignores her recent turn as a quasi-hero, instead harking back to her original days, complete with jester-style outfit which was a welcome change. I wasn’t a fan of the disjointed narrative, however. My first read-through I missed a few of the transitions, so I found myself turned around on occasion. The end result is a decent effort, but I think it would have been more effective with a streamlined narrative or some visual cues referencing the jumps in time.
Last Laugh (Writer Nick Cutter, Art by Rags Morales)
Synopsis (Spoilers Ahead): In the requisite Batman story, we see an emotionally spiraling Bruce Wayne recapping his career and his interactions with the Joker as the villain seemingly closes in on him. Batman’s narration of his adventures is in line with the traditional take on the character. Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered. He trained for years and eventually become the Batman. He waged his war on crime to save Gotham. The unseen Joker, however, presents an alternate take on the reality of the situation. He implies a deranged Bruce Wayne, broken after years of abuse, murdered his own parents. Having been tried as a juvenile, he was remanded to psychological care and eventually released. He returned to a broken down Wayne Manor and further devolved, putting on a haphazard costume and prowling the streets fighting invisible villains while causing the chaos himself. It is eventually revealed that Bruce is talking to himself and a locker in the cave contains the Joker’s suit and wig as well as make-up. They are one and the same person. The story ends with Bruce realizing this and committing suicide.
Analysis: This could have been a fun story if it had gone somewhere we hadn’t seen before. The Batman is crazy take has been done before and by more experienced writers. This whole chapter came across as played out, but it was at least presented well. Rags Morales is a great artist and I love his takes on the characters, especially the classic Joker. The story wasn’t bad, just mediocre. The bones of something more interesting were there, but I feel they tried to fit too much story into the few pages they were given. If they could tighten things up a little and maybe amp up the paranoia on Bruce Wayne’s part there could have been a gripping story here.
Blackest Day (Writer Brian Keene, Art by Scott Collins)
Synopsis (Spoilers Ahead): No horror anthology is complete without a take on the classic zombie story. Here the undead are laying claim to the Justice League’s moon base as Earth falls as well. Green Lantern is the last remaining League member after the virus has devastated the League’s ranks, with the exception of Superman, who is conveniently away on vacation. The outbreak reached the base when an infected Flash teleported back. He quickly succumbed to his injuries and spread the infection. After evading the still-powered Flash and Batman’s corpses Jordan eventually gets a hold of Flash and digs his power ring out from inside his friend. Knowing time is running out he detonates the base. Superman later returns to find the planet dead.
Analysis: I love zombie stories, but they are played out and fresh takes on the subgenre are few and far between. This comes off as a pale remake of Marvel Zombies with less action. Writing Superman off by saying he is on vacation and showing up after the action comes across as pure laziness. No tension builds in this story despite the set-up, again thanks to another disjointed narrative with flashbacks. A powerless Hal Jordan trapped in the League’s base while reanimated versions of his friends are stalking him? This could have been the best story in this book, but ultimately fell flat. There was no connection between the reader and the hero and the stakes in the story are generic. I really never felt the desire to see Hal to succeed as I was just going through the motions of reading the chapter.
Stray Arrow (Writer Ronald Malfi, Art by Dale Eaglesham)
Synopsis (Spoilers Ahead): Oliver Queen is a broken man. He has taken his life as a vigilante to a murderous degree and has been dubbed as the “Arrow Killer.” Still saving people from crime, Green Arrow has begun killing the criminals. After saving a woman named Dinah from an assault by killing her attacker, he brought her back to his lair instead of sending her on her way. Dinah assumes this is because she thanked him for saving him, despite knowing that the media has dubbed him a killer. After three days imprisoned in his lair she makes a plea to be released. Her captor refuses and she unleashes a sonic scream that brings him closer to her cage in attempt to calm her. She takes advantage of his proximity and dispatches him easily as he is unaware and emotionally rattled. After escaping she pulls a gun from her belongings and kills him before setting fire to the building. Later it is revealed that Dinah herself is another murdering vigilante and the Arrow Killer was another mark, who she determined wasn’t on the same level as herself.
Analysis: This is another bright chapter in this book. I really enjoyed the fresh take on the characters of Green Arrow and Black Canary. The deranged and broken Oliver Queen is a frightening mess to behold. The vindictive and cunning Dinah Lance is equally so. The reveal plays out well and I was captivated throughout the story. The art was on point throughout, and the storytelling was on par with what I expected out of this book. This is a great example of taking what could easily be a full-length issue and paring the story down to the gritty essentials.
Unmasked (Writer Wrath James Wright, Art by Tom Raney)
Synopsis (Spoilers Ahead): Amidst the chaos of a kaiju invasion of Gotham, an unnamed District Attorney is investigating a series of murders where the victim’s faces and hands have the skin removed. After one such body is found the DA is caught in the wake of destruction by the aforementioned monster. He heads to Gotham Stadium which can supposedly protect the citizens. Inside the stadium the DA sees the horrors taking place and reflects that they’re just as bad off inside with the dregs of humanity as they are outside with the creature. After the power is lost and comes back on, it is revealed that the killer is inside the stadium and has struck again. A boy near the DA asks about the blood on his hands and the DA slowly comes to realize that his both a hero and villain, before killing the boy and his mother. He heads out an exit only to be burned by the fire from the monster outside, brutally scarring on side of his face.
Analysis: This story is all over the map. Themes of identity, humanity, and a thinly veiled commentary on the behavior of people during Hurricane Katrina merge in this mess of a story with a solid message at its heart. I really enjoyed the author’s take on Harvey Dent. The man wants to do good, but the darkness inside him actively works against that. Some editing would probably have been handy as things jump rather quickly between scenes and there is little sense of flow. Things go from normal to a kaiju attack within seconds and the overall setup makes little sense. That doesn’t stop the writer form making several valid points about humanity. This story is another example of mediocre visual storytelling having an overly negative effect on the chapter as a whole. The art wasn’t the greatest and didn’t do much to set up anything in the story.
The Possession of Billy Batson (Writer Weston Ohcse, Art by Howard V. Chaykin)
Synopsis (Spoilers Ahead): Billy Batson is hearing voices. He feels himself slipping towards the edge. He sees the word Shazam everywhere, but he won’t say it. He is scared of what will happen when he eventually loses control. He leaves his girlfriend as he begins spiraling. The voices begin threatening him and his loved ones if he does not give in and say the word. He is a portrait of a man losing control of himself.
Analysis: This is a weird chapter with an even stranger ending note. I’m not sure why the editorial staff chose this to close out the anthology. The normal questions of mental stability are at play here that we’ve seen throughout the other chapters in this book, but as the story builds up we get no release. It’s not clear at the end of the story if he says the word and undertakes the change. It’s not even remotely clear what the change is in this version of the story. Of all the chapters, this one hurts the most as it has the most promise to tell an interesting, frightening story. The unknown just isn’t frightening enough. I need something more to be committed.
Final Thoughts: These aren’t stories that add anything to the overall narrative of the DC Universe, so the creators really embrace the fact that nothing is holding them back. For the most part they try to do this, but unfortunately they fail more often that succeed. There are a trove of stories that could be told tying into existing continuity, but the allure of the “Elsewords”-style approach is the freedom that comes along with removing ties to existing continuity. I feel like the changes made here are dark and edgy just to be dark and edgy. There’s no heart and what we’re left with is a mediocre collection of tales that have interesting pitches, but ultimately fizzle out rather than provide the promised frights. DC has a cavalcade of horror characters in their stable, so it’s disheartening that they chose to run with an anthology of their marquee characters, with only a brief appearance by John Constantine.
With a bloated $9.99 price point, I can’t find myself recommending this for anyone other than the hardcore completest. This is especially true considering the quality of the work DC is putting out in the pages of Dark Knights: Metal. Those are horrifically dark stories that are far more effective. I hope enough people enjoyed this to warrant another crack next year, as I feel the concept of this book is an absolutely great idea, it just had a very flawed execution. The horror fan in me was disappointed, but that won’t stop me from picking up another release next year.