Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Storytelling Engines: Secrets of Sinister House

(or "Original Title: Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire")

The storytelling engine of the original "Sinister House of Secret Love" (later re-titled "Secrets of Sinister House") isn't as crazy as it first appears. Like any anthology title, the key to SHoSL is in striking a tone that will inspire numerous stories from a variety of different writers in a hurry, and the original concept for SHoSL certainly was a memorable one--mixing the romance comic with the horror comic is striking, you have to admit.

Of course, it sounds like a fairly unlikely marriage at first (unlikely marriages actually figuring into each of the first five issues.) When one thinks of the classic "romance comic", one thinks of dreamy-eyed young girls meeting Mister Right (after five or so pages of complications) and when one thinks of the classic "horror comic"...well, 'Tales From the Crypt' is probably the archetypal horror comic, and you generally don't think of romance much there. Cheating spouses, dismemberment, murderous axe-wielding zombies, body parts strewn about like confetti, yes. Romance? Not so much.

But if you go back a little ways to the roots of the two genres (and SHoSL did exactly that) you find that they used to be very close. The gothic novel, which eventually grew into the modern horror genre (yes, I know, that's something of an exaggeration, but it's close enough for our purposes) was filled with beautiful young women for whom the horrific fate wasn't necessarily death, but a lifetime of marriage to a beastly brute of a man. The hero's job, as often as not, was to thwart the bad wedding and ensure that the girl wound up with the right man (usually the hero.) Alternately, female protagonists would have to find some way of banishing the curse that made their man so beastly, and allow the noble and courtly lover within to show his face.

Cutting away the bleeding walls, pacts with Satan, and general gloomy atmosphere, that's pretty much the modern romance story in a nutshell. Star-crossed lovers meet, there are lots of complications, and then everything is resolved in a way that lets true love bloom forth. SHoSL just takes the concept back to its tangled roots to create a new horror/romance anthology that could, or should, appeal to both boys and girls.

So what went wrong? Why did "Secret House of Sinister Love" get retooled into "Secrets of Sinister House" after only five issues, dropping the romance theme and introducing a new horror host, Eve, in a desperate attempt to cash in on the popularity of "House of Mystery" and "House of Secrets"? (An attempt that failed, by the way--the title folded after fourteen more issues.)

Simply put, it was a case of bad timing. The romance genre was already on its last legs by 1971, the year that SHoSL first came out. The Comics Code forced romance comics to tame themselves the same way horror comics had, and the Sexual Revolution made tame romances seem downright dull. Horror comics managed to eke out an existence until the Code changed, but the Comics Code wasn't about to adapt to the Pill, swingers, and Penthouse Magazine. The romance comic faded and died, and by 1971, launching a new comic with "LOVE" in the title was like putting a big notice on the cover, "Hey, young boys that are our new core audience! There's icky mushy stuff in here!"

As a result, despite a clever core concept and a good storytelling engine, SHoSL died a quick and painless death. Even so, it's fondly remembered by horror aficionados...and with good reason. The timing might have been bad, but the concept was great.


E. Wilson said...

I wish vampire and werewolf sub-genres would stop hogging the romantic elements in horror media. A well-done romantic sub-plot adds layers to a story, and a lot of horror needs as many layers as it can get.

And I know I've heard the alternate title before somewhere. Where is it from? It's gonna drive me nuts...

John Seavey said...

It's the title of a Neil Gaiman short story, collected in 'Fragile Things'. One of the times I was trying to remember the old title of SoSH ("It's the Sinister Secret House of Secret Sinister Love") my brain made the connection, and I couldn't resist the joke. :)

E. Wilson said...

Thaaaaat's it! Much obliged. Gaiman could write some good romantic horror stories.

Johnny Blaze said...

How does the concept of "story telling engine" differ from the idea of a trope as "a common pattern, theme, or motif in literature". For instance, the "Misunderstood Monster" is a trope; Frankenstein is the seminal story utilizing this trope, which has subsequently formed the basis for numerous other literary and cinematographic works.
Just curious. Thanks

John Seavey said...

A "storytelling engine" is the collection of concepts (cast, setting, motivations, antagonists, et cetera) that don't act as a story separately or even in concert, but that help writers to generate story ideas.

So for example, the "Misunderstood Monster" trope isn't a storytelling engine by itself, but it might serve as part of one (as in the "Frankenstein's Monster" comic of the 1970s.) Not every trope generates ideas--some, like a heroic death, can close them off.

viagra online said...

Tales From the Crypt' is probably the archetypal horror comic, and you generally don't think of romance much there. Cheating spouses, dismemberment, murderous axe-wielding zombies, body parts strewn about like confetti, yes. Romance? Not so much.