Friday, January 23, 2009

Review: "House of Mystery: Room & Boredom"

I've mentioned before that I seem to be closing in on my final days as purchaser of monthly comics. Two more issues of "100 Bullets," and I'm done, I think.

For a long while, I stuck with Bill Willingham's "Fables," but even its clever take on folklore and fairy tales couldn't keep me reading past Issue 75. Now Willingham and Matthew Sturges are collaborating on a monthly series, "House of Mystery," with art by Luca Rossi and various guest contributors, and the first five issues have been collected in a new trade.

One of DC's longest-running series, the original "The House of Mystery," an anthology of short horror stories hosted by homicidal "caretaker" Cain, was open for business from 1951 through 1983, most notably under the editorships of Joe Orlando and Karen Berger. (Its counterpart, the House of Secrets, was home to Cain's hapless brother/victim Abel.) Alan Moore put a new spin on the concept in his "Swamp Thing" saga, and Neil Gaiman gave Cain and Abel the spotlight in a few episodes of "Sandman."

Sturges and Willingham's incarnation of the House of Mystery abruptly evicts Cain for reasons unknown. The focus of the main narrative is now a young woman named Fig Keeler, who finds herself within the house and unable to leave. She's one of five permanent residents who attend to the needs of various visitors who stop in its bar, where the cost of a drink is a good story. The others seem mostly resigned to their fates, but Fig is determined to escape.

Sturges and Willingham employ a light touch with this material, introducing some genuinely creepy elements without getting all dour and angst-y (as happened with the "House of Secrets" reboot of the late 1990s). But somehow the biggest questions about where the main narrative is heading are not terribly compelling yet. The five- to six-page bar tales offer little bursts of humor or terror and hint at future connections, but they don't offer the one-two-punch ironies that characterize the best of, say, the old EC horror comics.

"House of Mystery" has potential, but it doesn't yet succeed as a serial or an anthology -- or as a unique hybrid of the two. I won't start buying the series monthly, but I'll welcome the next trade collection.

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