Every October I like to write about something spooky. I’ve written about Frankenstein and Dracula, dead girls and dread, mummies and mutant sea creatures. This year, I thought I’d write about werewolves, but it didn’t work out. I considered Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko’s Torso, but Eliot Ness pursuing a Cleveland serial killer in the 1930s doesn’t really seem the right kind of scary. I diverted myself into Showcase Presents Sinister House of Secrets, vol. 1, a DC horror anthology that started out as spooky gothic romance, but I wouldn’t have finished the collection in time. And to be honest, I was just avoiding the truth. The truth is the scariest thing I’ve read this year is a story called, “Lip Service,” collected in Weird Love #7 (Yoe Books, 2015). And so, this month I look at an object of pure terror–a ventriloquist dummy in a romance comic.
I’ve always had trouble with ventriloquist dummies, despite enjoying puppets in general. I’m fond of the Muppets and an admirer of Jim Henson and Frank Oz. I like the creepy shorts of Kihachiro Kawamoto, Jiří Trnka, Jiří Barta, Jan Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay. But even dancing meat (whose love is ultimately betrayed) and a demonic mother trying to kill her children is not as disturbing to me as the trailer for Magic (1979) (You go watch it, I’ll be here reading Kindertrauma pieces about the trailer and muttering, “I’m not alone… I’m not alone…”). It’s not so much the uncanny valley for me, as something about the almost maniacally happy childhood things of the 1950s and 1960s. Clowns and “The Laffin’ Spittin’ Man” from Daniel Clowes’ Eightball #1 (Fantagraphics, 1989/ The Complete Eightball, 2014) are just as disturbing.
I generally avoided Batman comics featuring the Ventriloquist, Arnold Whesker, and his puppet Scarface, in part because, you know, not my thing. But in Batman: The Animated Series, Scarface was never as horrifying as the real life ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s Mortimer Snerd, because Scarface, thankfully, is never happy and not a fundamental mockery of everything decent and good. I even like the new Ventriloquist, Shauna Belzer and her dummy, Ferdie in Gail Simone’s new run on Secret Six. They are enjoyably perverse (and perverted). Scary dummies are just less disturbing to me than the sincere ones, because it turns out there is something more existentially horrifying than becoming some devil doll’s meat puppet. Or, even, as in Secret Six or Dr. Who’s yellow perilous episode, “The Talons of Weng Chiang,” when the puppet turns out to be entirely separate, completely mobile and utterly vicious. The horror in “Lip Service” is a more intimate one and it involves more than the ventriloquist and their dummy (or the dummy and their ventriloquist).
IDW Publishing’s Yoe Books imprint has been reprinting comics from the 1950s and 1960s, including Weird Love, though most of the comics I’ve seen on the shelves have been its horror books. Haunted Horror and even The Worst of Eerie Publications offer straight up horror in Yoe’s “Chilling Archives of Horror Comics.” But there’s just something right out of The Twilight Zone or Night Gallery about Weird Love with its tales of women who go too far, not just in the pursuit of love, but in pursuit of their careers. One woman sets up her sister, a lion tamer, to be mauled by a hungry tiger in order to move in on her sister’s man. Another exploits her boss’ suicidal depression to conceal her own financial malfeasance. A third alienates the affections of her fiancé when she turns their medical supply into a black market operation while he’s away fighting in the Korean War. In “Female of the Species” (Weird Love #9) another lion tamer socks a bear to save her boyfriend, who was raised by an intensely misogynist grandfather. (Who knew lion tamer was a popular choice among career women in the 1950s? Why isn’t there a prestige cable show about them?) That’s not getting into the teenage girls who join hippie cults or swingers clubs. It makes sense that the two Western genres most grounded in evoking particular, very specific emotions, romance and horror, have some shared boundaries.
Weird Love #7 reprints “Lip Service” from Romance Stories of True Love #52 (Harvey, 1958). The artist as Doug Wildey, but they don’t know or they fear the truth about the writer. After all, both romance comics and horror comics are often written as autobiographical testimonials. Linda is in love with a Harry, shy man who can’t bring himself to tell her that he loves her. It’s a common enough problem, but in Linda’s case, it is horrifying in the extreme. You see, Harry is a ventriloquist. And, as Linda tells us, “I heard his words of love only through a dummy. I yearned for the day he could speak for himself rather than use the dummy’s…. Lip Service.”
Linda, Harry and Charlie meet cute at one of Harry and Charlie’s performances on a river boat. Charlie singles out Linda and comments on her dress, “a polka-dot job,” from the stage. Harry quickly muffles him. Afterwards, as the boat docks, Harry apologizes for Charlie’s behavior. Not realizing what she’s letting herself in for, Linda tells Harry it’s fine and suggests that maybe Charlie says things for him that he can’t bring himself to. “Your job must be interesting, Mr. Devon! Just look at all the things you can say…and blame them on a dummy!”
Then Linda makes the mistake of expressing interest in knowing “what makes Charlie tick.”What makes Charlie tick” is saying things like, “You’re all I ever wanted” to Linda. Which he does, and Linda suddenly understands the horror she’s in for. Yes, Harry uses a ventriloquist dummy to express his love and desire. It’s more disturbing than if Charlie jealously told Harry to kill anyone who came between them. Telling ventriloquists to kill and possessing their erstwhile masters is something I expect from ventriloquist dummies. It’s their thing, along with bad puns, prop humor and corny jokes. Like Ferdie tells the Riddler, while trying to kill him, “You and me, we’re vaudevillians. We understand each other.”
But having having a ventriloquist dummy say to you, “I’d like to kiss you…” Well, those are the heebie-jeebies that never stop heebie-ing or jeebie-ing. Creeped out by Charlie’s inappropriate come on, Linda bolts. But when Harry calls her the next day and invites her on a date at the Aquacade before his performance that night. Linda accepts–because who wouldn’t want to go to a place called, “The Aquacade?” Also, it’s public and there is no visible sign of Charlie. In fact, everything’s going swimmingly* until, she hears a voice cry from Harry’s suitcase, “I love you! Honestly, darling… I mean every word..”
And again, Linda leaves. Unfortunately, however, she doesn’t go home. She goes to that night’s performance and watches Harry go down in flames. His lips are visibly moving. His timing is off. He can’t make Charlie speak anymore. Between sets, Harry tells Linda that he’s learned to speak for himself and that he loves her. Linda relents. Then the comic ends with a three panel series of Charlie in a top hat telling Linda he loves her as Linda “proudly” watches his performance. And Charlie speaks to her again of his love.
Oh, Linda, you almost escaped. You were almost the final girl. But now you face a life of sweet nothings forever hyucked at you from the gaping, wooden maw of horror.
*I blame Charlie for this pun.
Normally, Carol Borden would quote something from the comic she wrote about here. But she can’t. She just can’t.
This post was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on Oct. 8, 2015.