Tuesday, October 30, 2012

October is Spookey Month: Remember when Swamp Thing visited the Winchester Mystery House?

"Bang.  Bang.  Bang."

You don't remember?  How about the time Swamp Thing visited the Cambridge Mystery House, the DC universe version of the same place?  Rings a bell, huh?  Bangs a nail.  Hammers and all that.  The Winchester Mystery House is a fascinating place, the life's work of Sarah Winchester, widow of William Winchester and heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms fortune.  Somehow she took it in her head spirits would kill her if she ever completed the mansion where she lived, so construction went on around the clock for nearly 38 years until Mrs. Winchester's death in 1924.  Mrs. Winchester was a little eccentric (according to the Winchester House's official website, some of her employees actually thought she herself had supernatural powers), obsessed with the number 13, and her house is equally... er... original.  Stairs to nowhere, fake bathrooms, windows on the inside, liberal use of redwood because Mrs. Winchester preferred it-- although it all had to be stained or painted to look like some other kind of wood because she hated its appearance.  Given the house's origins and bizarre interior, it's no wonder the Winchester Mystery House has a reputation as a haunted mansion.

Alan Moore puts the Winchester lore to good use in "Ghost Dance" from Swamp Thing #45 (February 1986) with the help of some evocative art by Stan Woch and Alfredo Alcala.  A group of friends enter the dilapidated Cambridge House for a laugh while the reedy, Howard Sprague-with-red-hair-looking one (he proves to be as cuckolded as Jack Dodson's character in The Getaway, as well) explains the backstory, which Moore takes directly from the Winchester House.  One character even namechecks the real-life inspiration in case you had any doubts, and the NRA bumper sticker displayed on their car provides a visual clue that we're in for a lecture wrapped inside a horror yarn, one with obvious intent and an anti-gun-- or at least, anti-gun violence-- point of view, but a touch more subtle than the "Nuke-Face" environmental tale from Swamp Thing #35 and #36 (April and May 1985) with its pages full of newspaper-based collages.

This was during one of my favorite Swamp Thing story arcs, in which John Constantine, the British mystic based on Sting, takes Swamp Thing around the world to stop a rising tide of supernatural events culminating in... you guessed it... the end of the world.  Moore uses this premise to explore horror mythology, but with his characteristic brilliant improvisations on familiar material.  Swamp Thing fights vampires, but they're underwater.  He tangles with a werewolf, but it's a woman and a commentary on our patriarchal society.  In this issue, Constantine has Swamp Thing facing down the Cambridge ghosts.

And just what are these ghosts?  Apparently, they're everyone in North America who ever died from a bullet fired from a gun or rifle manufactured by Cambridge Arms.  Dead cowboys blast away at each other in the seance room (Mrs. Winchester would approve of its thirteen Victorian fireplaces), bullets whittling them both down to next to nothing while their battle rages all night.  Little girls, murdered on Christmas Day by their father, walk innocently through the spectral carnage, their wounds like red ribbons in their hair.  Buffalo stampede from a free-standing wardrobe, apparently all the way from Gunpowder Narnia.  Cowards linger in the kitchens, shamed, faces hidden in hands, each back stamped with the red badge of fear.  One especially tragic note comes when the narration points out what percentage of the ghosts are Native Americans.

"Ghost Dance" is a melancholy look at our capacity for violence and the tool that truly built our modern American society even more so than the car, the train or the rocket to the moon, as evidenced by Moore's repetition of the phrase, "The sound of hammers must never stop," fraught with double meaning.  Guns, the love of guns and gun violence are so engrained in the American psyche, we can't even have a rational discussion about them no matter how many bodies pile up.  Moore, though this fiction, might argue the victims wind up in a Mystery House of the American soul, a haunted mansion we're all still guiltily building just like Sarah Winchester and her fictional analogue Amy Cambridge, even as the sound of hammers continues to ring from coast to coast.

They have never stopped.

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