The Vault of Horror Volume 4 is a fun window into the history of comics and not much else. The stories harp on timeless horror tropes and often end in abrupt twists, but the artwork was ahead of its time in the consistency of its quality. It's hard to understate The Vault of Horror's place in comics history. With its two sister titles--the more well-known Tales from the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear--Vault was part of a triumvirate of EC Comics' carefully crafted line of horror comics. Many if not most of the folks writing and drawing for these comics began producing a little comic book ditty called Mad during this period, which you might have heard of. Further, these stories which were often unafraid of probing the dark depths of the human psyche were being told in the years that led right up to The Seduction of the Innocent, the infamous highbrow bull shit condemnation of comics as a corrupter of the youth, the specter of which still looms in the public opinion of comics as a medium.
Sifting through the pages of volume four whose issues came out in the year before comics had to perform an about-face and become more of a sanitized medium, it's hard to see what the fuss was. Sure, most of these stories lack a proper protagonist and are instead centered around grifters, scumbags, douchenozzles, and all-around shitty individuals; however, it's not as if these stories stand to glorify the med students who play pranks with sawed-off chunks of dead bodies, or the con-man who pretends he is his own twin brother to marry two twin bachelorettes. Once you've read any of these stories, you know the punchline: bad people get their come-uppins in some horrifying, humorous way that's germane to the story being told.
Inside The Vault of Horror, one finds gory fables. Though some of the bloody lessons to be learned aren't exactly lessons that need to be taught--like, "don't cleave your business partner in the head-face with an axe"--the cleverest feature of these tales is that they often serve as a condemnation of depravity, and use depraved people, situations, and images to do so.
Unfortunately, the twists themselves are often lacking. It's hard to evaluate some of these stories independent of the modern perspective, but there's often a good deal of polish missing from the endings. The most satisfying finishes to the stories are the most predictable ones, and the disappointing endings always come on the heels of a fun setup that seemed like it had more potential. None of this is to say that the weaker stories still aren't fun to read, but feeling every other story lose momentum will wear on most readers.
The artwork, unlike the scripting, only suffers because there's not more of it. Every artist on the crew knew how to deploy ink to make a scene seem benign, then to make it take a dark turn, and finally (and often) to show the frantic desperation of which a human is capable. Faces twist just a little bit at the right times and people become monsters.
The quality of the art was unparalleled in a ten cent pulp comic at the time, and it almost makes you angry at the storytelling style. All these horror stories relied heavily on the narration of the Crypt-Keeper, the Vault-Keeper, or the Old Witch, so much so that these comics are often a half-and-half blend of prose and panels. Sometimes the prose echoes the panels in a way that would never fly in modern sequential storytelling, but other times the prose fills in gaps between panels that I would much rather see rendered by one of these artists.
Independent of interests aligning with history or nostalgia, it's hard to justify the price of admission. It's wonderful to see the original letters and ads contained in the pages of these books, especially the full-page spreads dedicated to advertising MAD in its infancy; but this is a collector's item, through-and-through.
Writers: Various Artists: Various Publisher: Dark Horse Comics Price: $49.99 Release Date: 1/28/15 Format: Hardcover; Print/Digital