Wednesday, June 26, 2013


When I need something to read before bed I go through R. Sikoryak's bookshelves and usually pull out an EC comic. They are my comfort reading. (Neal Stephenson is too, but that's different!)

Vault of Horror #27 Strictly From Hunger, 1952 has a great cancer-themed Tale Of Terror! When I say "great" I mean it in a number of different ways - what a "great" and entertaining example of social attitudes towards cancer, medicine, non-institutional healing practices, women, and vigilantes! Granted, it uses hyperbolic logic to generate a story, but I think that if this story had been written today, the hyperbole would have gone in a radically different direction.

Pete goes to the doctor about a growth on his arm. The initial diagnosis and discussion is a little cloudy. Doc is a little confused. Benign tumors don't spread in the body as malignant tumors do, BUT even in the 50's if you remove a malignant (cancerous) tumor before it spreads, you effectively cure the patient. However given the size of the lump on Pete's arm, if it is cancer (spoiler - it IS!) it has probably metastasized to other areas of his body through the lymphatic system.

"T'ain't NO USE REMOVIN' IT!" says Doc. Cancer killed many more people in the 1950s than it does today... Doc is a practical man. His frankness with his patient negates the behaviors of other doctors of the time who would withhold bad news from the patient in order to spare them the stress of the diagnosis.

Pete doesn't want to die and goes to an "Old Hag" who he begs to put a "Hex" on him, to keep him from dying. So she squeezes an indeterminate species of animal over his arm and voila! Four months later...

Doc is appalled. Although he shows compassion by regularly trying to visit Pete in his cabin, he is repelled by the cancer. It's good and drippy in the illustration, a nice touch. The patient is losing his humanity (in Doc's and our eyes) as he is overwhelmed by his disease. Pete is hungry all the time. Cancer cells compete with healthy cells for the body's resources. This is one of the ways cancer makes you sick.  

Over the next couple of months Pete becomes his cancer...
 Once again, Doc gets it half right. Cancer is "... a bunch of cells gone crazy!" Their DNA has mutated to the point where they generate without self-regulation. But they don't "... feed on healthy cells..." to grow. They use the body's blood supply just like normal cells for nutrition, wasted and oxygen exchange, etc. However, some cancers metaphorically "eat" through healthy tissue by eroding and infiltrating them. So Doc is a poet.

No, "... Pete COULDN'T DIE!" The Doc goes on to tell us, "NO! The growth FINISHED OFF all HIS healthy cells! So it STARTED AFTER 'EM... OTHER PEOPLE'S! That thing in there is a LIVING TUMOR... A MASS OF CANCER CELLS GONE WILD..." 

Pete turns into a cancer monster, consuming other people (and dogs) to feed his cancer-self. I have never had cancer, but I know many people who do. I imagine that for some of them they struggle to retain identity as a person (with cancer) as opposed to being viewed as a "cancer patient." People tell me that sometimes the identification as patient can start to feel synonymous with being the disease itself. Imagine what it must have been like to have cancer with much grimmer survival rates and treatment options than we have today.*

In the 50's why should cancer not be expressed in storytelling as spreading through consumption? We are talking about a period of time when cancer was a mystery to most people. Many people thought is was communicable, some doctors would tell the family of the diagnosis but not the patient, and there was a lot of stigma associated with cancer. Cancer was a monstrous disease, still is. Here Pete has literally become the monster.

Pete is chased into a cave.

It turns out that not even bullets can kill cancer! The vigilante posse is out for revenge on murders committed by Pete-the-cancer-monster. They drive Pete back into the cave with (what else?) torches and dynamite the cave entrance, trapping Pete inside for all time. But according to the Vault Keeper, Pete is just waiting for some hapless prospector to dig up his cave... Pete is hungry! Cancer will return to strike the hapless! Cancer is a tale of TERROR!

My sucky scans don't do George Evans' art justice. R. believes Al Feldstein wrote it, but we can't be sure.

*I was recently at a seminar where an oncologist mentioned that cancer has a 60% cure rate. Those are sobering odds to be sure, but much better than they were sixty-odd years ago. I'm not going to get into cancer's transformation into a chronic disease for many patients, but that option wasn't on the board in the 50's either.

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