Over the past few years, I have been reading more and more EC Comics’ stories, and each one I read highlights something new that I did not notice before. After reading Qiana Whitted’s EC Comics: Race, Shock & Social Protest, I went in search of a few of the stories that she examines, stories that I have not read before. Today, I want to look at one of those stories, Al Feldstein’s “Reflection of Death” from 1951’s Tales from the Crypt #23. Whitted talks about this story in her introduction, pointing out the ways that the story adheres to EC Comics’ aesthetics and its use of the second-person perspective, something EC Comics’ used in its preachies. The latter is what I want to focus on in this post.
The second-person perspective appears in stories such as “Hate!” where the narration places the reader directly into the position of John Smith, itself a generic every man moniker. This position, as Whitted points out, links stories such as “Hate!” to the sentimental literature of the nineteenth century where authors directly addressed readers, seeking to promote change within their thought.
While countless critics, including Whitted, have pointed out EC Comics use of science fiction to examine racism and oppression (“Judgement Day” being the most obvious), I have not seen any, yet, that look at the horror stories in a similar manner. I did this a few months back when looking the underlying aspects of interracial intimacy in “A Little Stranger,” and I think we need to read “Reflection of Death” in a similar manner, looking at the ways that the story positions the reader as the Other.
In various posts on this blog, I have looked at the fear of racial difference as an undercurrent in Gothic and horror literature. I continually go back to Robert K. Martin’s definition of the Gothic that, at its center, “is most often a politically conservative form that gives expression to the anxieties of a class threatened with violent dissolution.” While the Gothic in authors such as Edgar Allan Poe play into these anxieties, other texts push back. Martin continues by pointing out that the “Gothic can allow for the voice of the culturally repressed and hence act out a resistance to the dominant culture.” I see “Reflection of Death” acting in this manner, pushing back against the “dominant culture.”
“Reflection of Death” is a pretty straight forward horror story. The reader embodies Al, a white man, as he drives home on New Years Day with his friend Carl. (I will use “you” in place of “Al” since the reader is addressed in this manner). You get tired, and Carl begins to drive. Later, you get into a wreck and are thrown from the vehicle. Even though the narrator addresses the reader, to this point in the narrative, you see yourself and Carl in third person perspectives. You know that you are white.
The first time we see the first-person perspective, where you look out of Al’s body, occurs right before the wreck as you stare out of the windshield at the road that “comes out of the darkness at you.” Feldtstein’s next panel shows you and Carl from behind as a pair of headlights veer down upon you. This is followed by a panel of the car crash then a panel of your body lying in utter blackness as it envelops you.
At this point, the perspective shifts and we get a first-person view for the next twenty-four panels. Each panel does not show your face. You only see your legs, your shadow, your hands, or other extremities. During this time, you get up from the ground, encounter a man who drives away scared after you stop you, a “tramp” who does the same thing when you approach him, and a woman who faints upon seeing you. You take the woman’ scar and drive to your home, which has been boarded up, then you head to Carl’s house where you find out he is blind from the accident. You also discover it’s two months after the accident, and he thinks you’re dead.
Following this sequence, you approach a mirror in Carl’s house and see your reflection for the first time. Reflected in the glass, you see yourself, skin falling off, no nose, a corpse of your human form. You are, in fact dead. In the next moment, Carl shakes you awake and you’re back in the car. The wreck repeats itself, and the story ends with the first man approaching you again. This time, we see your eyes as the man screams. The narration reads, “You know what’s about to happen! He sees your face! You steel yourself for is reaction! It comes! A haunting terrified scream! You’re dead! You know it, now! Dead! And this time, it isn’t a dream.”
On the surface, this story seems like a straight forward horror tale, and we can read it that way. However, taken in relation to EC Comics’ preachies and their penchant for placing the reader in the form of one of the characters, we can read the story in relation to race. This reading comes up at a few points in the story.
The first point arises in the opening panel. Here we see a shot of you of Carl from the driver’s side backseat. Carl’s face is turned towards you. We can see, from this panel, that both of you are white, and you are driving at night. The narration reads, “Ahead of you, the white line that divides the road stretches into the darkness beyond your headlight beam!” This narration is straight forward and makes sense for the setting, but the “white line” stretching into the darkness takes on another meaning later in the story.
After the wreck, one panel shows you standing in the road with your shadow in front of you on the asphalt. The white dividing line races down the left side of the panel. The line separates the road in two, and your darkened shadow sits firmly on one side of the division. The narration reads that you don’t see any signs of the crash, all you see is “a road . . . clean . . . white . . . reaching into the night.” The description of the the road as “clean” and “white” stretching off into the darkness plays into the ways that the line, seemingly running into eternity, divide the road.
Next, the man approaches you , see you, and screams off down the road. The following panel shows you looking offing down the road where you see the city’s skyline illuminated in lights. You do not see your shadow. Instead, all you see is the road curving to the right with the white line racing down the middle. You have not crossed the line. You remain, as in the previous panel, on the right hand side of the road.
You hope to figure out the mystery of the accident, and everyone you encounter runs away, horrified by your appearance. You have become an image they fear, an image they do not want to interact with on any level. Carl doesn’t act scared. He just acts bewildered because he thinks you’re dead. His blindness negates your appearance, causing him to connect with you as his one-time friend.
When you see your reflection, you realize why people have run away. You realize that they fear your decomposing flesh. This recognition reminds me of W.E.B. Du Bois and others who write about being children and learning that others viewed them as inferior because of the color of their skin. Du Bois talks about realizing his “blackness” when a white girl refused to give him a Valentine’s card in school when he was about six. Until then, he did not have a concept that white others viewed him in opposition to themselves.
I am still thinking through this, especially after finishing Whitted’s book and reading her discussion of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in relation to Feldstein and Joe Orlando’s “Judgement Day.” I need to think about those connections some more, but I see them, especially in the opening section of Ellison’s novel.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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