Illustrated by Scott Hampton
With stories by Scott Hampton, E.F. Benson, W.W. Jacobs,
M.R. James, and Lisellote Erlanger
IDW Publishing, 2004
ISBN: 1-932382-15-1 (paperback)

Illustrated by Scott Hampton
With stories by Robert E. Howard, Oliver Onions, Algernon Blackwood, and Clive Barker
IDW Publishing, 2004
ISBN: 1-932382-41-0 (paperback)

This review was first published in All Hallows #39, June 2005
© Brian J. Showers 2006

It's not every day that one can go into the local comic book shop and find an honest to God horror comic that relies on atmospheric chills rather than zombie/vampire, hack'em, slash'em action. I love a good Tales From the Crypt as much as the next guy, but the market is so inundated with idiotic "horror" that one wonders if the form would be altogether ill suited for something as subtle as a ghost story.

Unlike other mediums, horror in comics is especially difficult to achieve. In prose fiction, unseen horrors are tailor-made to the specifications of each reader's imagination. What horror cinema lacks in reader interaction, it makes up for in the editing room. The best horror films show us only what we need to see, and we're never allowed to linger. Not so with comics. Here the reader controls the pace of the story. Each panel can be studied at leisure; the monster is exposed in all its cartoon glory. There is little room for atmosphere to hide.

All right, so we've established that I'm something of a pessimist when it comes to horror comics. That's why I didn't have high hopes when I picked up Scott Hampton's Spookhouse: Book Two at the shop last week. Imagine my surprise, after I put the book down, when I found myself double-checking the locks, peeking underneath the bed, and securing the closet door. I was so delighted with fear that I bought Spookhouse: Book One as soon as I had finished Book Two!

At first glance, the contents read like the standard ghost story anthology. All the usual suspects are present: Howard's 'The Pigeons From Hell', Jacobs's 'The Monkey's Paw', and James's 'The Mezzotint'. But although most ghost story aficionados will be familiar with the stories in Spookhouse, the illustrations render the tales entirely fresh.

Scott Hampton's (The Life Eaters, The Books of Magic) comic adaptations of classic and modern ghost stories are nothing short of masterful. Hampton is no mere funny book doodler, but a full on painter with over twenty years experience in the comic book industry. Each page of Spookhouse is a canvas of singular storytelling ability. His style is that of hyper-real memory, indistinct in vision, crystal clear in meaning; a style most suited to the genre. Hampton's simple yet effective compositions never seek attention, but always bow to the story and atmosphere. If you're like me, as you read the stories, you will start to see eerie minutiae in Hampton's paintings, just out the corner of your eye.

Spookhouse is larger format than the standard American comic book, approximately the size of an over-sized magazine, giving Hampton a wider berth with which to scare us. Hampton doesn't limit himself to graphic narratives. Each volume of Spookhouse includes a prose story or two for good measure, each accompanied by a spot illustration that could have come directly from a nineteenth century fiction magazine.

And there's not a bum story in the bunch. If pressed to declare a favourite, I would have to pick 'The Haunted Island', in which Hampton faithfully depicts Blackwood's Canadian wilderness in all its terrifying solitude. Or maybe I would pick the illustrator's own Eisner-nominated 'The Upturned Stone', in which four boys suffer peculiar dreams after eating a pumpkin that grew on the grave of a murdered boy. Of course that would mean neglecting Clive Barker's 'The Tontine'. That one scared the bejesus out of me too! You get the idea.

Spookhouse is the sort of book that no nightstand should be without. It is the true comic book equivalent of the classic ghost story, and Scott Hampton is the M.R. James of the form.

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