Sunday, November 22, 2009

Groovy Ghoulies

All this thinking about Ghoulardi and the Ghoul and Hoolihan and Big Chuck has regressed me damn near to infancy. It was a disconcertingly short trip. Kicking around on the 1974 block of Memory Lane, I looked up a couple of my other childhood obsessions. Friday night was Hoolihan and Big Chuck Night, of course, but during the fall of '74 the horrors started a bit earlier, in prime time, with "Kolchak: The Night Stalker." The show featured the adventures of reporter Carl Kolchak, played by Darren McGavin. Kolchak was unable to do something as simple as going to the bathroom without inadvertently stumbling over some gruesome supernatural horror. Over the years, I have remained almost as devoted to that show as I am to the Cramps. Another favorite thing of mine during that year was the Spectre series in Adventure Comics. The Spectre was sort of a superhero. He was actually a ghost, and a pretty vengeful one at that. In the '74 series, written by Michael Fleischer and drawn by Jim Aparo, the Ghostly Guardian had evidently tired of scaring criminals silly and turning them over to the police, and started executing them on the spot, in wildly imaginative and inventive ways. On one occasion he turned a thug into a block of wood and sawed him up into thin slices. Another time he turned a malefactor to glass and tipped him over to shatter on the floor. I always thought it would be a wonderful thing if Carl Kolchak and the Spectre crossed paths. It never happened, of course, so I decided a few years ago to make it happen. The result is this:

By Chuck Miller

(Based upon characters and situations created by Jeff Rice, Jerry Seigel and Bernard Bailey and Michael Fleischer and Jim Aparo. )

Normally I am a big fan of irony, and the situation I found myself in during the autumn of 1975 was nothing if not ironic. I wasn't in a mood to appreciate it, though, since I was on the wrong end. What was happening was me sympathizing, albeit momentarily, with a man named Tony Vincenzo. And that one raises the bar for irony in general.

My name's Carl Kolchak. I'm a reporter. And I've lost count of the times I've stood across a cluttered desk from Vincenzo, my editor, and argued 'til I was blue in the face in favor of a story that even I in my calmer moments would have to admit was ... let's just say a little far-fetched. Far-fetched but true. And Vincenzo railed against every one of them. I suppose most people would, considering the subject matter.

Now, courtesy of an old friend named Earl Crawford, I was at last on the other side of the desk, so to speak.

It was the autumn of 1975. Ninteen-seventy-four had been a pretty hectic year for me. So much so that I wound up using my medical insurance for the first time -- to take what used to be quaintly referred to as a "rest cure."

In short, I cracked up.

To this day I do not recall my admission to Vestavia Hills Sanitarium in Cicero, Illinois, but from what I've heard, I made quite an impression on the staff.

I'd been awake for something like a week. I'd been drinking -- a LOT. I had given up the sauce after Seattle, but started back shortly after a little encounter I'd had deep in the ground beneath the Merrymout Archives building in Chicago. An encounter with a thing that had looked like a man in a cheap Halloween costume, but had been very, very real. I knew it. The authorities knew it. And we were the only ones who ever would. They killed my story and would have liked to have done the same to its author. I came within an inch of being either arrested or committed. Of course, the latter would soon happen, but not courtesy of the Chicago PD.

Vincenzo, had driven me to Vestavia Hills himself on the memorable (to all but me) morning I showed up in the offices of the Independent News Service, VERY intoxicated, my white seersucker more stained and rumpled than ever before, raving about man-sized lizards, killer robots, headless motorcycle riders ... and a waitress named Gail Foster.
There were a lot of things I'd never gotten over.

I remained in Vestavia Hills for almost a month. Upon my release, the INS assigned me to one of their small bureaus in upstate New York. I was a copy editor and I was making almost twice as much as I had when I was a reporter. I detected the fine hand of Vincenzo in my new assignment. Truth to tell, I had expected to be jobless once I returned to the world of the clinically sane. I've said some -- well, rather unkind things about Vincenzo over the years, but he proved to me then that he really cared.

He may have been the best friend I ever had.

But he was still an unimaginative man, even for an editor, and his solution to the Kolchak Problem was to tuck me safely away in a place where I wouldn't -- couldn't -- cause trouble.
And at the time, that suited me just fine.

I was broken. I admit it. Riding a desk and collecting a nice fat paycheck was all I wanted. Taking copy from young, inexperienced reporters and reworking it into good and holy AP style was good enough for me. In spite of the medication I was on, I still had bad dreams and woke up with night sweats.

And I had lost my hat.

The old "bird feeder," as Vincenzo once called it, had been a casualty of my Lost Week. It was the last thing my father gave me before he died, and I'd planned on wearing it to my grave, no matter what anyone else thought of it.

Its loss was symbolic for me. I was finished. As a reporter, as a voice crying out unheeded in the wilderness, I was finished. Stick a fork in Kolchak, he's done. I'd lost every battle I'd ever fought. Time to stop the war.

And that, dear reader, was my frame of mind when Earl Crawford came busting into my little office that crisp October afternoon.

I'd known Earl for more than 20 years, since before I'd been run out of New York City on a rail (as a result of a story I may tell some day, but not today). He'd always been level headed, at least compared to me, and the progress of his career reflected that. While I had bounced around like a Super Ball, he had enjoyed a steady rise. He had left the newspaper game of his own accord, and was now a very successful freelance magazine writer. And the story he had to tell me was the last thing I wanted to hear.

"WHAT did you say?" I asked incredulously, unaware of the echo of Vincenzo in my voice. "A GHOST turned a man into a block of wood, then sawed him to pieces? I heard that correctly?"

"I know how it sounds," he replied, "but I SAW it, Carl, with my own EYES." At the time, I also failed to take note of the distinct Kolchak flavor of his answer.

"Okay," I said. "But why me? What can I do to help you?"

"Carl, none of the magazines I write for will touch this! When I found out that you were up here, in the same area I was tracing Barber, it was like ... fate, I guess, because --"

"Because I'm a crackpot? Because 'Spooky' Kolchak will believe anything? I'm a nut?"

Crawford shook his head. "No, no. Carl, if you're a nut, so am I. I'll admit, I didn't believe you in New York, and I'm sorry. The things I've seen since then ... This ghost ... he calls himself The Spectre ... he's ... I don't know, some kind of vengeful spirit. He's been racking up a body count for a year now. Murderers. He goes after murders and ... DOES things to them." He sighed, leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes.

Then he switched gears on me, so abruptly I was disoriented for a second.

"Have you heard of Joe Lee Barber?" he asked.

I thought. Didn't have to think long, as the name had been on my mind for days. "Yeah," I said.

"THAT, I know about. Serial killer. Escaped from Sing Sing earlier this week. Killed two guards and a delivery man, bringing his grand total to either 48 or 54, depending on which version of his story you believe. What about him?"

"I've been trying to find him," Crawford said matter-of-factly.

I laughed. "You and every other reporter and law-enforcement agent on the East Coast." I shook my head. "Earl, what has this got to do with what you were telling me to begin with? First you're chasing a vengeful ghost, now it's Joe Lee Barber? Are you starting to have trouble focusing?"

"No, Carl. There's a connection. I believe The Spectre is going to go after Barber. I want to find him before the ghost does. I've been talking to some of Barber's old associates and family members. It still amazes me how some people will open up to a reporter when they won't tell a cop anything. I have some good, solid leads on his whereabouts."

"Then you need to let the police have them, Earl. You know that." My God, was that really Carl Kolchak talking? I was becoming Tony Vincenzo! I rubbed a hand over my stomach, which had expanded noticeably in the weeks I'd been behind the desk.

Crawford was shaking his head. "No. Absolutely not. I have to get to him first. The police can't protect him from The Spectre."

"And you can?"

Crawford sighed heavily. "I don't know. But I've talked with the ghost. I think there's something human in him, something that can be reached. And I think I have a better chance of doing that than the cops. If Barber is taken into custody, he's as good as dead."

I started to remark that, based on what I knew about Barber's life and crimes, that might not be such a bad thing. But I was interrupted by the unshaven man with wild eyes and a dirty, torn prison jumpsuit who kicked in my office door and brandished a .38 revolver at my visitor and myself.

"Ain't nothing," the newcomer said in a nasal Arkansas twang, "as good as dead. I tell you, boys, killing is better than screwing!"

Crawford was stunned into silence. I was feeling pretty calm. Could have been the Valium, could have been the fact that this man, gun and all, was a lot less scary than some of the things I'd seen in the past year -- supernatural menaces, apoplectic editors and recalcitrant police officers. I was careful not to move, but I spoke to him, very gently.

"I'll have to take your word on that, sir. Mister Barber? I'm Carl Kolchak. Would you like to sit down?"

"No thank you, sir," he replied. Oddly, I sensed that his politeness was genuine. "I come here to see your friend." He pointed at Crawford with the muzzle of the gun. "I heard he's been looking for me. I don't like people looking for me, I don't even know 'em. I want to find out what his trouble is."

Crawford stammered for a moment. Understandable, considering that Barber had the gun pointed right at the bridge of his nose. He got himself under control pretty quickly, though, and said, "Mister Barber. My name's Earl Crawford. I have to warn you. You are in terrible danger."

Barber laughed. Such teeth as he had left were a nasty shade of brown.

"Is that right, Sherlock? Every cop in America looking for me with orders to shoot to kill, and you think I'm in terrible danger? That's a good one, man."

With his free hand he grabbed a wooden chair from against the wall, twirled it around so the back was facing us, and straddled it, his pistol never wavering from Earl's face. "Now, you want to tell me what you really want, man." It wasn't a question. "I got enough trouble without some magazine reporter trying to poke into my bidness. You think them people you talked to would give you any information I didn't want you to have? They know what I do to people. What do you do to people? Write up little stories on 'em. You ain't scary, and I am. That's how I come to turn the tables on you, see. They got word to me 'fore you was even out the door good. I knowed where you was the whole time, and I followed you."

And that's when the going got weird. A greenish vapor seeped into my office from under the door, whirled up into a small funnel the size of a man and solidified.

It was Crawford's ghost.

The ghost was tall, maybe six-and-a-half feet, maybe fifteen or a hundred feet. It was hard to judge accurately since his feet weren't touching the ground. But he had presence. His skin was white as chalk and he wore a green hood, cloak, boots, gloves and trunks. The temperature in the room dropped at least 15 degrees.

Then the ghost spoke. I've made my living with words since I was a teenager, but I draw a blank whenever I try to describe that voice. Let's just say it was scary.

"Joe Lee Barber," he said. "Your time has come. You have escaped man's justice. You will not escape mine."

Crawford was staring slack-jawed at the apparition, and I probably was, too. Barber, however, seemed to be unimpressed.

There are some advantages to being criminally insane, I suppose.

"Hoo-boy!" he whooped, grinning broadly. "What are YOU? Casper the ghost? You that ghost this fellow here said was coming for me, Casper?"

"I have come for you," The Spectre said flatly. I prayed to God that he would never say those words to me.

Barber stood up. "Well, you got me! Here I am, Casper." Abruptly, he jerked around and grabbed the speechless Crawford by the collar, dragged him up from his seat, pressed the muzzle of the gun to his temple. "You can kill me, I don't too much care about that, but I'm gonna do one more 'fore I go, if that's okay with you."

"It is not," the Spectre said. His sense of humor was as sharp as Vincenzo's. "You have killed without conscience or remorse. Now you will pay for that. Do you remember Annie Lang?"
Barber thought for a moment, then shook his head no.

"Number four. You chopped off her hands."

"Oh yeah!" Barber said, his face brightening. "That was a good one. And that wasn't all. I also -- EEEEEEAAAA!!!" The scream took me by surprise until I realized what had happened. The Spectre had gestured with a forefinger and Barber's hands had come off. The hands, including the one still gripping the .38, fell to the floor. Blood spouted from the stumps. Crawford slumped. I moved around the desk, helped him up and led him into a corner of the room.

"Amy Brill," the Spectre said. His voice seemed quiet, but it drowned out Barber's screams. "You cut her throat." Another small movement of the finger, a red line drew itself across Barber's neck. Blood poured from the new wound. Barber fell to his knees.

"Marsha Jean Whiddon and her two children. You disemboweled them." I had a feeling I didn't want to see what was going to happen next, so I closed my eyes. The noise was enough, though, to give me new nightmares for some time to come.

I had my arm around Crawford's shoulder. We were both trembling. I felt Earl go limp. A finger on his neck assured me that his heart was still beating.

The poor bastard had fainted!

"Leander Cross," the voice of doom continued. "You doused him with gasoline and set him alight." I heard a whooshing sound, felt heat against my cheeks. Barber screamed for a while, then stopped.

When I finally opened my eyes, there was no sign of Barber, no blood, no smoke, nothing.

Nothing but the Spectre.

"Karel Ivan Kolchak," he said. That knocked me for a loop, even more so than what had happened to Barber. No one had called me by that name since my grandfather died. "I know of you."

I stammered a bit and finally managed to say, "I hope you're not, uh, angry at me ... about anything."

"No. You have been a great force for good in this world. But your spirit is broken. Not, I think, beyond repair."

"Listen ... Spectre, is it?" He nodded. "I'm getting old. I did what I could do and I lost out every time. I'm tired of it. I give up, see? You can only beat your head against the wall for so long."

He shook his head. "No. Karel, you see only your failures. The stories that never got published. What of the evil that you have dispatched from your world? That does not matter to you?"

I thought for a moment. "I don't know," I said, truthfully. "I don't know. I'm.. I WAS a reporter. I wanted to tell people the truth. And I failed to do that. Dispatching evil, as you call it -- that was just the right thing to do under the circumstances. I'd have done that anyhow. But my primary responsibility was to report the news. I didn't."

The Spectre was silent for a moment. I think he might have been smiling, very slightly. Maybe not. Emboldened by something I could not name, then or now, I asked him, "Are you... some kind of an, uh, angel or something. Or..." I swallowed hard. "Or someone from... you know, the other team?"

At that, he did smile, unequivocally. It was such a non-threatening, comforting gesture that it was almost scary. Given the circumstances, I mean.

He spoke. "I have been called God's Judgment by some. I am afraid that, for now, my nature must remain an open question. However, I will tell you a small secret, if you'd care to hear it."

I just nodded, aware that my mouth was hanging open but unable to do anything about it. Well, what would you have done?

His voice was as strangely comforting as his smile as he leaned forward a fraction of an inch and said, "It is not God's Judgment that sends one to heaven or to hell. The only judgment that may do that to a person is his own. "

The Spectre looked at me and into me and through me and I wasn't afraid and I knew he spoke the truth.

"Joe Lee Barber was the sole author of his own life and of his own death. As are you.

"I have something for you," he said, reaching into the folds of his swirling green cape. He brought forth an object. It took me a moment to realize what it was. When I did, I came closer to fainting than I had all day.

"My --" I had to clear my throat. "My hat!"

The Spectre nodded, handed me the old "bird feeder." I turned it around in my hands, marveling at it. Such a simple thing. Ugly thing, really, but .... "I -- don't know what to say."

"Say nothing," replied my ghostly friend. "Do. Do what you know in your heart is the right thing. Do it always." And then he was gone. I mean just gone. No theatrics, no pyrotechnics. Just empty air and a memory that was already fading. I might have believed iut had been a dream or a delusion if not for the thing I held in my hand.

I put my hat on. It felt good. It felt like home.

Earl was snoring. I decided to let him be for the moment. He needed the rest. As for me, I had business. I picked up my phone and dialed a number I knew by heart.

Three rings and then a voice that was, for once, music to my ears. "Tony? This is Carl. Listen, I'm getting a little tired of languishing out here in the sticks. And have I got a story for you! Tell me, have you ever heard of The Spectre?"



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