Hallowe’en Countdown IV, Day 13

« Room for one more, honey! »

A Jack Kirby cover scene gets winningly recast for the 70s by Jerry Grandenetti, himself a contributor to the original series. This is This is Black Magic no. 6 (Oct.-Nov. 1974, DC).

When I was a kid (of twelve or so, if memory serves), I found a muddy and mildewed copy of this issue in the woods, which tremendously added to its allure, if not its readability.

And since I’ve mentioned it, here’s the original Kirby cover, regrettably one of the King’s least engaging, if you ask me. This is Black Magic no. 11 (vol. 2 no.5, Apr. 1952, Prize).

Well… little did I know what a protracted history this particular little scenario had. Let’s return to the presumed beginning, or at least the industrial age version.

Around the turn of the last century, the prolific English writer Edward Frederic Benson (1867 – 1940) wrote a story entitled The Bus Conductor [ read it here ] that saw print in Pall Mall Magazine in 1906. It was quite well-received, then began to widely make the rounds… as putative fact.

Things kicked into high gear in the mid-1940s, as the tale was recounted as an oft-heard anecdote in editor Bennett Cerf‘s 1944 short story anthology, Famous Ghost Stories, which contained a Benson contribution… but not The Bus Conductor.

That same year, Cerf shared the anecdote with the legion of readers who picked up his highly-entertaining (and still dirt-cheap and easy to find, over three-quarters of a century later, which gives you a sense of its original success and ubiquity) book of anecdotes, Try and Stop Me. The pertinent chapter was the splendidly-titled The Trail of the Tingling Spine. As examined earlier on this blog, this chapter was used by EC Comics’ Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein as what they termed ‘springboards’ for their earliest stories.

Cerf’s version, from Try and Stop Me:

When an intelligent, comely girl of twenty-odd summers was invited for the first time to the Carolina estate of some distant relatives, their lovely plantation fulfilled her fondest expectations. She was given a room in the west wing, and prepared to retire for the night in a glow of satisfaction. Her room was drenched with the light of a full moon.

Just as she was climbing into her bed, she was startled by the sound of horses’ hooves on the gravel roadway. Curious, she walked to the window and saw, to her astonishment, a magnificent old coach pull up to an abrupt stop directly below her. The coachman jumped from his perch, looked up and pointed a long, bony finger at her. He was hideous. His face was chalk-white. A deep scar ran the length of his left cheek. His nose was beaked. As he pointed to her, he droned in sepulchral tones, “There is room for one more!” Then, as she recoiled in terror, the coach, the horses and the ominous coachman disappeared completely.

The girl slept little, but the next day she was able to convince herself that she merely had a nightmare.

The next night, however, the horrible experience was repeated. The same coach drove up the roadway. The same coachman pointed at her and exclaimed, “There is room for one more!” Then, as before, the entire equipage disappeared.

The girl, now panic-stricken, could scarcely wait for morning. She trumped up some excuse to her hosts and left immediately for home.

Upon arrival, she taxied to her doctor from the station and told him her story in tremulous tones. The doctor persuaded her that she had been the victim of a peculiar hallucination, laughed at her terror, and dismissed her in a state of infinite relief. As she rang for the elevator, its door swung open before her.

The elevator was very crowded, but she was about to squeeze her way inside — when a familiar voice rang in her ear. “There is room for one more!” it called. In terror, she stared at the operator.

Try and Stop Me was lavishly and diversely illustrated by The New Yorker great Carl Rose, which surely must have contributed considerably to its success. I’d say Simon and Grandenetti were quite familiar with this striking image.

He was the coachman who had pointed at her! She saw his chalk–white face, the livid scar, the beaked nose! She drew back and screamed… the elevator door banged shut.

A moment later the building shook with a terrible crash. The elevator that had gone on without her broke loose from its cables and plunged eighteen stories to the ground. Everybody in it, of course, was crushed to a pulp.

Then followed Ealing Studios‘ legendary portmanteau film, Dead of Night, in which Benson received his due credit as the source for its The Hearse Driver segment [ look for the germane bit around the 1:25 mark ].

A moody still from Dead of Night.

Then came Simon and Kirby’s comics take.

On to the Sixties: Rod Serling also drew upon the Cerf anecdote as grist for his The Twilight Zone episode Twenty Two (season 2, episode 17, aired Feb. 10, 1961). Here’s a pivotal scene from it.

Well, that’s certainly easier on the eyes than that gaunt vulture of an elevator operator… but no less menacing. You may recognize Mr. Spock’s future bride, Arlene Martel.

The Twilight Zone’s continuing popularity pretty much killed the scenario’s urban legend potency (Snopes.com checked it out!) In 1999, Urban legend authority Jan Harold Brunvand wrote, in his Too Good to Be True – The Colossal Book of Urban Legends:

According to my readers when I wrote a newspaper column in 1989 about the old ‘Dream Warning’ legends, The Twilight Zone version was the only one most of them knew. After numerous reruns, the TV episode had virtually replaced the folk legend in the popular mind. Every reader who wrote me following my column mentioned this episode, with one exception, and this person mentioned that he saw the plot enacted in a mid-1940s film, called Dead of Night. I’ll bet my legend-hunting license that this film, too, borrowed from the Cerf version.

I wouldn’t make that wager if I were you, Mr. Brunvand… since Dead of Night properly credits Benson.

To give you a sense of how effectively these stories flit and flicker across storytelling modes and media, power pop wizard Scott Miller (1960-2013) opened his band Game Theory‘s 1988 album, Two Steps From the Middle Ages, with a haunting ditty entitled Room for One More, Honey, an acknowledged quotation of the Twilight Zone episode.

-RG

2 thoughts on “Hallowe’en Countdown IV, Day 13

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