Treasured Stories: “Spawns of Satan” (1973)

« Hugs can do great amounts of good, especially for children. » — Diana, Princess of Wales

Today’s entry is a tale of vampirism from the typewriter of Jack Oleck (1914-1981). In the late 1940’s Mr. Oleck’s career in comics began promisingly with his brother-in-law Joe Simon and his partner Jack Kirby‘s Prize (Young Romance, Strange Worlds of Your Dreams, Black Magic and other anthologies), followed by a stint with EC late in the publisher’s classic, pre-Mad Magazine-only run (Crime SuspenStories, Shock SuspenStories, Vault of Horror, Incredible Science-Fiction, et al), along with assignments with Hillman, Atlas, Charlton and Harvey… among others.

Finding the décor of the Code-regimented funnybook industry a bit austere to his taste, he devoted the years of 1957 to 1969 to publishing and editing the magazine Decorator News and authoring the odd novel.

In 1969, he sauntered over to DC, where he cranked out quite a caboodle of scripts over the following decade-or-so, mostly in the horror (as it couldn’t be and shouldn’t be called under The Code) genre (“Mystery”, they called it), but also the occasional bit of romance, science-fiction and adventure. I’d like to say he was great, but frankly, he was pretty much a page-filling hack.

This is probably his finest script from this most prolific period, and it’s still full of plot holes and other inconsistencies. But that’s market reality for you: Oleck was consistently readable, he was fairly competent, he turned in his work on time, and he got along with the editors. Sometimes that’s all you need.

So why am I featuring Spawns of Satan if I seem to think so little of it? Well, obviously, there’s the luxurious grace of Nestor Redondo‘s art, granted here a specially generous setting to display its virtues. The middle act of the story is virtually mute, and all the more effective for it.

Read it first, then I’ll tell you more.

RedondoSpawns01A
Okay, if the town’s taken care of them, how come no-one’s found it unusual that the kids aren’t around during the daytime? Doesn’t anyone go to school?
RedondoSpawns02A
It certainly tips the scale in the miscreants’ favour that the sheriff just shrugs and admits he hasn’t a clue. I guess it just wasn’t an election year.
RedondoSpawns03A
Wait… kids (with one or two tackling most of the grunt work) burying five coffins on grassy ground, and “not a sign that the ground’s been disturbed“? Mighty vampire powers, I say! And can you imagine the torment and frustration of the little ones, knowing they’ll never grow up, never get to take charge or be taken seriously? This story is just honeycombed with potential avenues of exploration.
RedondoSpawns04A
One slight problem: hypothermia should not affect undead creatures without a beating heart nor, necessarily, blood circulation. A little too convenient, Mr. Oleck. But fine, you’ve got them to the bottom of the lake.

RedondoSpawns05ARedondoSpawns06ARedondoSpawns07ARedondoSpawns08A

RedondoSpawns09A
For me, one of the tale’s chief assets had been Aaron’s characterization. Now how is it that suddenly, this cool-headed and calculating leader just loses his shit and gives up*? As depicted earlier, Aaron would have ordered a retreat to the lake and formulated another plan. But no, there had to be a ‘sting in the tail’. Also, if the town knew full well they were dealing with vampires, why do bodies turned to dust suddenly seem “impossible”? Finally, did you get the impression that the Baker kids killed out of hate (well, except for Holly; that girl had a bad attitude), as stated in the final panel? I think not: the clan was portrayed as a predator pack, who merely killed to survive, no sentiment allowed.

SOS is otherwise mainly notable in its introduction of themes and ideas that would be brought to full miasmic flowering by (of course) Alan Moore in issues 38 and 39 of Swamp Thing (July and August, 1985), namely the family unit of underwater vampires. Moore’s set of toothsome nasties was more-or-less introduced, but not fully-fleshed out, by his predecessor, Martin Pasko, in July, 1982’s Saga of the Swamp Thing no. 3‘s A Town Has Turned to BloodMoore’s keen eye caught the spark of potential and set the hills ablaze. However, it seems unlikely that Moore’s research hadn’t trailed back  a few years to the lacustrine lair of the parasitical Baker brood.

While slaughterous children were all the rage from the late 50s (John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, its filmic adaptation Village of the Damned and its sequel, Children of the Damned) and into the 70s, Oleck’s Spawns still preceded Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), The Omen (1976) and the 1976 Spanish shocker ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? / Les révoltés de l’an 2000 (boy, did that one scar me as a kid), and given the comics field’s penchant for cribbing ideas *after* they had run their course, that’s another feather in Oleck’s fedora.

Speaking of editors, I’ve long suspected that this particular issue of House of Secrets was the dumping ground of an aborted experiment by its editor, Joe Orlando. Orlando had clearly been trying to shake things up a bit, running two longer, less compressed stories per issue instead of the usual three… as DC’s available story page count had dropped from 24 to 20 (and would reach a woeful 17 by 1976!); the two-story practice lasted but a few issues. After no. 117, it was jettisoned. It would appear that at least one of House of Secrets 113’s stories had been scheduled and delayed: eight months earlier, Jack Sparling’s grey-tone lovely cover for House of Secrets no. 105 (Feb. 1973) was a perfect illustration for Doug Moench‘s, Mike Sekowsky and Nick Cardy‘s fascinating ‘Not So Loud– I’m Blind’… which finally turned up in this issue as the lead story. Sombre and rambling, Moench’s likely first sale to DC lacks the usual forced twist ending, opting instead to trail off into darkness. In fact, when I first read it, I thought my copy was missing a page.

Moench went off to be arguably (well, he’s my pick) Marvel’s most consistent writer of the 1970s, and only returned to DC in the ensuing decade.

-RG

*short answer: The Comics Code Authority.

4 thoughts on “Treasured Stories: “Spawns of Satan” (1973)

  1. tref February 28, 2020 / 21:57

    I think it’s hilarious that, so far, I have recognised every story you have posted from the 1970s horror (er, mystery secrets) comic books. I never realised how deep I was into those comics until recently. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • gasp65 February 28, 2020 / 22:05

      Either that, or I have a knack for spotlighting the truly memorable ones. Or maybe we are *both* in over our heads in the murky depths of Mystery Lake.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Never seen this one before. It reminded me of a pretty nasty horror movie I saw on cable TV ages ago about a quintet of insane homicidal children stalking a group of adults in an isolated mountain resort. Did a Google search, and eventually discovered it was called Devil Times Five. That came out in 1974, so Jack Oleck’s tale preceded it by a year. Seems there were a fair number of “killer children” stories in the 1970s. Must have been something about the zeitgeist, being just a few years after the civil unrest of the late 1960s and the Manson Family murders, and during the time when the (at the time previously unthinkable) corruption of the Nixon administration was coming to light. I’m sure there was a feeling among conservative white middle class America that the fundamentals of traditional society was falling apart. (Unfortunately those fears eventually led to Reagan getting elected, but that’s another horror story entirely.)

    By the way, thank you for the biographical info on Oleck. I’ve seen his name in the credits of several back issues and collected editions, but until now I had no idea about his work & career of his 1970s contributions to DC’s horror, sorry, I mean “mystery” anthologies. Agreed that this story has some fairly dodgy plotting, as well as a town sheriff who absolutely can’t be bothered to do his job (can’t spot any clues, doesn’t get around to doing any investigating, too lazy to dredge the nearby lake to find some dead bodies) but the art by Nestor Redondo and the ironic twist ending definitely make this memorable.

    Like

    • gasp65 March 1, 2020 / 19:00

      “The Devil Times Five leaves nobody… alive!” Early Leif Garrett…

      I fully agree with you about the Zeitgeist… another contributing factor, at least where Europe is concerned, would be the civil unrest of May ’68 in France (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_68), which certainly didn’t help narrow the Generation Gap any.

      As for Oleck’s bio, I first realised he’d been around the block longer than I’d assumed when I came upon some his EC credits. Interesting career path, even if the work generally isn’t.

      Interesting that Redondo didn’t go the obvious route of making the sheriff *look* like an idiot. He seems kind of soulful, actually. Indeed, Redondo’s the star here; such a graceful, assured line…

      Thanks for reading, Ben — and for your thoughtful, enlightened response!

      Liked by 1 person

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