There was a time when no woman traveled without a diaphanous, preferably white, nightgown and robe in her luggage. In darkling hours, she might rise from her bed entranced to fling open French doors to dangerous passion and doom. She might flee a mansion after discovering her beloved’s terrible secret in a forbidden room. She never knew when she might hear a noise in an ancestral castle and descend the stairs only to discover vampires, ghosts, robed cultists or her love in the arms of another woman who has long been believed dead. A woman whose likeness she had seen in a portrait hung among the ancestral portraits. And she must be dressed correctly and fashionably for each occasion. The image of a woman in her nightgown exploring or fleeing gloomsome homes did not haunt us only in the Victorian Era or in the slinky fashions of the 1930s. No, even in the 1970s women fled and were entranced in film, on Gothic romance book covers and in comics in white gowns, nightgowns and robes, though often a contemporary take on Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century fashions.* Secrets of Sinister House remembers that time.
Running from 1971 to 1974, Secrets of Sinister House is unusual among 1970s horror anthologies in its inclusion of Gothic romance, a genre as focused on the supernatural and the horrific as it is in love, doomed or otherwise.** The anthology was entited The Sinister House of Secret Love in the first four issues. It was renamed Secrets of Sinister House in the fifth. And in the sixth issue, Secrets of Sinister House dropped the Gothic romance, gained a horror host and ran for 13 more issues in 2 years. The later issues feature many twists associated with horror comics, but the first five issues feature so many women journeying to ancestral castles to meet mysterious men and fleeing what they find there. A few are set in earlier times, but most feature 1970s American women, women wearing groovy fashions and big sunglasses determined to know the truth.
In five issues, seven stories and about 200 pages, these women encountered: very bad marriages; Scottishness; twins and sinister siblings; moors; wolf-like dogs on the moors; ancestral castles; portraits; secret passages; ghosts; women in white; Satanic rites; entire forbidden floors with mysterious locked rooms; and deaths in the cellar.
We see our first bad relationship—and our first woman fleeing a spooky castle—in issue #1 with, “The Curse of the MacIntyres,” drawn by Dan Heck. On his death bed, a Nineteenth Century mad scientist gives his daughter Rachel a journal with a scientific formula he created written in it. He also arranges for Rachel to go to Castle MacIntyre to live with her cousin Blair. Blair seems very involved with his elaborate saturnine facial hair. And he also seems to have some Mr. Jekyll going on, but Rachel goes with him nonetheless. Blair offers Rachel a job as a tutor to his son Jamie. And, shades of Jane Eyre, we are go for governess in a gloomy ancestral home with a mysterious, widowed boss and forbidden rooms. And then, á la Dracula, we get a collection of train conductors and coach drivers who make remarks about how terrible Castle MacIntyre is and try to persuade Rachel not to go. Rachel still goes, even paying double fair for a coach ride. Meeting his governess for the first time, Jamie asks, “Do you know anything about mutations, Rachel?” Which is fine. Perfectly fine. There are also be-nightgowned wanderings, strange dreams, hypnotism and the “malfunctions of certain glands.” But you know, love conquers all.
“A Night to Remember—A Day to Forget!” starts with hippie love on a bicycling trip to Provincetown, Rhode Island. Louise and Tony a stop at an old house, the Captain Anders house, for the night. It turns out Louise is the descendant of Anders’ beloved from 200 years ago and Captain Anders has never stopped loving her. There’s a mysterious storm, a portrait that looks exactly like Louise, a ballgown that fits her perfectly, and Captain Neil Anders himself. It’s all very far out.
Issue two features one story, “To Wed the Devil.” It’s “a graphic novel of Gothic terror!” with art by Tony DeZuñiga and a story by Joe Orlando and Len Wein. Our protagonist, Sarah discovers a family servant, Agatha, standing in the middle of a pentagram in the manor’s basement. Agatha says she’s trying to ensure Sarah finds her one true love and she doesn’t think it is Justine Moore, the man Sarah wants to marry. In fact, Agatha seems to be team Baron Luthor DuMont, a man who glowers and strides everywhere while wearing a cape. The Baron is in love with Sarah and will save her father from financial ruin if she marries him. Guilted by her father and possibly intrigued by fashionable capes, Sarah accepts and travels to Bohemia by carriage. Beset by highwaymen, she is rescued by the grim Baron Dumont who strides grimly into the fray in time to shoot the bandits with his matching and grim old timey pistols. Sarah, however, but only realizes who her rescuer is when she discovers him standing in the middle of a pentagram in his house! And he is obviously committed enough to his ancient magickal rites that his pentagram is a permanent feature of the room. Oh no! Sarah is tricked into wearing a black bridal gown and attending a Satanic marriage to the Baron. But Justin, along with religious family friends Father John and Uncle Samuel, intervene. John and Samuel hold a cross and a Star of David respectively to drive off the cult, but they don’t arrive in time to save Sarah’s cate, Tabeta.
Frank Robbins, Alex Toth and Frank Giacoia’s “The Bride of the Falcon” feels like a giallo. While in Italian “giallo” refers to a crime thriller of basically any kind, it’s also become the name of a particular genre of Italian film that was coming into its own at the same time the ladies were investigating secrets in Sinister House of Secret Love. Gialli combines elements of thrillers, mysteries and horror. And gialli are often more concerned with atmosphere, sensibility and set pieces than realism. Big city magazine proofreader Kathy travels to the Castel di Falco on Isola Tranquillo near Venice to meet a pen pal, Count Lorenzo di Falco. It’s a contemporary comic and Kathy is thoroughly groovy, as groovy as Alex Toth can pencil and Grank Giacoia can ink. Kathy has been unable to hear since the death of her fiancé Jonny. But she finds love again through her correspondence with Lorenzo. Once again, no one wants to take her to Isola Tranquillo, but this time it is gondoliers how offer grim warnings about Isola Trinquillo, Castel di Falco and the count. Why does it feel like a giallo? Because there is terrible facial scarring, falcon attacks, groovy 1970s lingerie, Kathy’s hearing returns and police intervention. The secret revealed about Lorenzo’s partially paralyzed mother is extremely giallo. I shall reveal it now, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know: She is not his mother; she was his first wife the whole time!
“Will I Ever See You Again?” is an unattributed story with illustration by Tony DeZuñiga. Let’s just say, anyone approaches you on a train platform to ask you if you believe in werewolves, best pay attention. But, you know, it might still work out in that ancestral castle in Ayreshire, Scotland…
Mary DeZuñiga, Mike Fleisher and Tony DeZuñiga’s “Kiss of the Serpent” concerns another woman who decides to travel after the death of her father. Michelle Harlinson, modern 1970s working woman, goes to Bombay with her uncle after the death of her father. When the firm she is working for goes under, Michelle takes a job tutoring the children of Mr. Singh, an Orientalist fantasy of a man, who moves with “animal-like grace.” Like Blair McIntyre before him, he is alternately tender and a jackhole. Is it his temperament or does Mr. Singh have a resentful twin brother he did not bother to tell Michelle about? That’s right, he has a twin brother! It is an extremely Orientalist story, but Tony DeZuñiga had a nice time drawing reference art. It reminds me of Mike Mignola’s use of photorealistic renderings of statues and architecture in his own work for Hellboy.
In “Death at Castle Dunbar,” Mike Hollis investigates the apparent drowning death of her sister Valerie in a haunted cove near gloomsome Castle Dunbar. Her sister had married Sir Alec Dunbar, Laird of Castle Dunbar, but shortly thereafter had died. Mike disguises herself as a writer researching the military history of Clan Dunbar, but in reality, at night, she is researching the death of her sister. Often she does this work while wearing a translucent negligeé, but she also does important work while wearing her robe. There is a scowling Scot named Dougal who takes long strides and has a wolfish dog always at his side. And, of course, Mike falls for him, despite her fear that perhaps Dougal murdered his sister so that he could gain control of the Dunbar estate. Mike is also attracted to the laird, despite his hot temper and the fact that he’s pursuing her so soon after the death of her sister. Late at night, Michelle sees what appears to be her sister’s ghost in a wedding gown. Michelle finally discovers the truth when she follows the apparition through secret passages in the castle. This story was penciled by Mike Sekowsky, inked by Dick Giordano, scripted by Michael Fleisher and plotted by Lynn Marron who has gone on to write a lot of things.
With issue 6, Secrets of Sinister House became a more typical horror anthology. In the first story of that issue, The House of Mystery horror hosts Cain and Abel await with trepidation the arrival of the new horror anthology’s host, Eve. Yes, that Eve.** They finally decide she’s too scary and boot it back into the House of Mystery before they encounter her. In the world of DC horror, Eve is a crone and generic Halloween witch ready to cackle with delight at the terrifying visions she presents in a solid horror comics anthology. I assume she is using the knowledge she obtained from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. While the last 13 issues are more evenly accomplished, those first five are something else.
As well as its early embrace of Gothic romance, Secrets of Sinister House features some of the earliest American work of Filipino artists responsible for so much of the look and feel of American horror, romance, fantasy, military and Western comics of the 1970s. The Filipino comics scene was a happening one and Sinister House of Secret Love and Secrets of Sinister House were part of the Filipino Wave in American comics. The first issue of Sinister House of Secret Love was published in 1971, the same year Tony DeZuñiga convinced Sinister House of Secret Love editor Joe Orlando and Carmen Infantino to travel to the Philippines to meet with his fellow creators who might be interested in working for US comics companies. DeZuñiga was heavily involved in the art and covers for the first five issues of the anthology. Mary DeZuñiga is often cited as a co-founder of Action Art Studios, a studio dedicated to promoting the work of Filipino creators in the US. Tony DeZuñiga was less involved in later issues, but the Filipino Wave continued to be well-represented in Secrets of Sinister House with art by Nestor Redondo, Alfredo Alcala, Alex Niño, Mar Amongo, Jun Lofamia, Ruben Yandoc, Abe Ocampo, Gerry Talaoc, Rico Rival, and Ed Ramos.
Secrets of Sinister House‘s run ended with issue 18 in 1974, but it’s still around. You can read the original comics in a black and white collection, Showcase presents Secrets of Sinister House (DC, 2010). And DC released a new Secrets of Sinister House comic for Halloween, 2019, featuring stories with Harley Quinn, Zatanna, John Constantine and Detective Chip. I’m not sure how I’d feel if Secrets of Sinister House took a turn towards Gothic romance after that. I am partial to Detective Chimp, but I think I’d enjoy it more if it didn’t feature superheroes and supervillains–just modern human women in their leggings, chunky glasses and contemporary nightgowns determined to solve the mysteries that confront them in an ancestral manse.
*It’s worth doing an image search of “Women running from houses” if you want to see even more excellent book covers.
**There was also another DC Gothic romance series, The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love, that has yet to be collected. Women are also fleeing those mansions.
***Just gonna say, I get why they didn’t go with Lilith, but Medusa is a much better option for a horror host than Eve.
Carol Borden never travels without an ensemble suitable for exploring Gothic mysteries or running out onto the moors.
This essay was originally published by the Cultural Gutter on Feb. 20, 2020.