Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Graveyard Rats: Kuttner Komiks [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

"The Graveyard Rats" (Weird Tales, March 1936) by Henry Kuttner was a spectacular debut for a writer of horror. Though in later years Kuttner seemed embarrassed by the tale, it remains one of the creepiest stories to come out of the pulps. (One blogster claims it has been reprinted thirty-five times. I don't doubt it.) The plot follows Masson, a corrupt undertaker, who wars with the rats in the graveyard where he robs the dead of their plunder. When a particularly rich corpse is taken, Masson follows the culprits into their twisting tunnels. The battle is on. Masson, using his revolver, fights off the cat-sized rodents. The only problem is the rats are not alone, but under the control of ghoulish inhabitants. Masson flees back to the coffin from which he entered, only to find he got lost in the dark, and has gone to a different coffin! The rats close in and finish him off. The ending, claustrophobic and unrelenting as the rest of the story, seems to be the part readers remember best. Joe R Lansdale called it "a classic little booger tale" and certainly it was the inspiration for Stephen King's "Graveyard Shift" (along with Bram Stoker and HG Wells).

Now you'd expect such a pulp classic to have been adapted many times in the horror comics and you'd not be disappointed. The comics have given us four variations on Kuttner, sadly none giving the author credit.

"Rats Have Sharp Teeth" in The Vault of Horror #14 (EC Comics, August-September 1950), featuring art by Graham Ingels, has a made a number of changes. Masson is now Abner Tucker, an historian turned gravekeeper. Instead of digging from above, Tucker takes over the mansion next to the cemetery and uses tunnels to dig from below. The ghoulish ratmaster has been dropped and the ending made less gruesome, with the rats chewing away support beams and burying Tucker alive. This lack of grue is surprising for a pre-Comics Code EC Comic.

Adventures in Terror #9 (Marvel, April 1952) saw Dick Ayers draw "Ghouls Rush In." Masson has become body snatcher John Magnus. He proceeds to follow the rats who are stealing a rich corpse, but gets captured by the evil rodents. Instead of eating him, they make him one of them, and a rat-like Magnus continues his profession of robbing graves as a monster. The writer has blended his rats and ghouls into one creature.

Horrific #10 (Comic Media, March 1954) featured "Beneath the Grave," drawn by Rudy Palais. This time Masson is named Lars Swenson (Scandinavian again!) and he follows the tunnels and finds a large underground chamber where the bloated, bipedal rats are performing an evil rite around the body of a recently deceased woman. The rats see Swenson and their leader tells them to capture him. (The rats talk in this version.) The rest is pretty much as Kuttner wrote it except the ending. As Swenson finds himself trapped in the grave, the rats do not eat him. He cries, "Satan has come to collect my soul!" The master rat answers: "No? Just who do you think I am, Lars Swenson?"

"Rats" in Death Rattle v1 #3 (Kitchen Sink, 1975) was adapted and drawn by Mike Roberts in black and white. Again no credit is given to Kuttner but the adaptation is very faithful. The only change is from Masson to Mason. Roberts tells the story in rigid squares that perfectly mimic the tight feel of Kuttner's story. It was great to see the undead ghoul for a change. Death Rattle was an underground comic and there is a little gratuitous nudity, but in other regards the story is restrained and subtle, rather than in-your-face brash as many alternative press comics are.

Henry Kuttner lived until 1958. That means he could have seen three of these four comic adaptations. Whether he saw them or not, we don't know. Kuttner himself had written Green Lantern comics between 1944-1946. Despite this he never showed much interest in the comics format. It would be fascinating to know what he thought of these strange variations of his work.

Two other adaptations that I should mention are the TV movie Trilogy of Terror II (1996) by William F Nolan and Dan Curtis that twists the tale into a saga of a ruthless gold-digger (the only female version of Masson); and a very faithful radio version from the 2012 Suspense revival for Siriius XM Radio. Both of these are embedded below.


Blimprider said...

Well, this is quite a tale about quite a tale. You'd never guess a simple comic could have such a colorful backstory, or be so influential. I watched the video version. I don't think it won any Emmys, but despite the fact that the article sort of spoils it, it is well constructed and acted (aside from a bit of hammyness, thought that can be intentionally used to convey a point in a half-hour production), and 28 minutes well spent for any horror fan. I have to say, I like this site a lot, and plan to make it a regular stop; excellent work!

[I found you yesterday and commented as "Jack" on the 007 women post. The blog and stuff associated with that are dead, but I can't seem to get it to change my profile, so this. I'm going to link this site on my homepage shortly. Hopefully, it will bring you some more traffic; you certainly deserve it!]

Rick said...

There is also a version by Jack Cole, creator of Plasticman. It is called called Custodian of the Dead in his comic Web of Evil. He was very adept at the horror genre.


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