Review: House of Secrets: Foundation trade paperback (Vertigo/DC Comics)

[This review comes from Collected Editions blog contributor Derek Roper]

I’ll admit, I’m not a Vertigo fan, which is strange because I like all the twisted humor and sick on-goings of Secret Six. But, I’m a fan of the House of Secrets. Ever since my introduction to it in Villains United, I wanted to find out more about the House. I bought the Showcase Presents volumes and loved most of the stories in them (except for the second volume). Later, I found that there was an updated, 1997 version which took place during the days of grunge: House of Secrets: Foundation. The recipe was there: the House, an intriguing era of time, and the promise of good story (according to reviews).

The House, once inhabited by Abel (the narrator of the 1960s-70s anthology), is now a vacant, quintessential haunted house. It's sad to see the spooky casa transformed from a rich mansion with paintings and other valuables to an empty crack-house flop pad.

Eventually runaways Traci and Rain Harper take shelter in the House. Rain is the protagonist of the series and uses who she can to get what she wants. The first issue has her hitchhiking across country and using a man for transportation and food, then blithely gets rid of the him. Her personality is polarizing; I didn't like Rain at first, but writer Steven T. Seagle successfully makes her sympathetic when he reveals the molestation and rape she suffered from her father.

Seagle's dialogue and timing are great; rather than being scared when Rain is approached by the Juris, the band of ghosts she must help judge humanity, Rain instead lets off a string of expletives (plenty in this book). Rain’s dialogue is snappy and plays well off of the other characters who well-represent the grunge period, like the angst-ridden Erik. The names of the songs the band Nightmare of Reason sings here are fitting for the time period -- the snippets of lyrics are always depressing and filled with cuts and scars which make them that much more believable.

I found the Juris just as scary as the tales the House is known for. They are a court of five apparitions that appear when someone is being judged for their secrets. Most of the time the Juris find the defendant guilty and banish them to the basement for damnation. Seagle gives each of the Juris a distinct voice, and the cases that they judge combine well for a powerful ending.

Traci is an intriguing character as well; although ditzy and very needy, her sometimes bubbly persona is a fa├žade to some dark secrets. She is seen talking to an unseen character, much like Abel’s imaginary friend Goldie. Could Goldie be back? Or is this something more sinister?

Teddy Kristiansen is the artist on the book and creates some gruesome scenes (I enjoyed this team on the graphic novel It's a Bird, too -- ed.). His depiction of the Juris are brilliant, each attribute telliing of the time period they’re from. It made me shiver when I turned to page 20 and saw the old woman that was being put on trial, reminiscent of the painting The Scream by Edvard Munch. The backdrop for the story is perfect -- Seattle weather and lots of pale people, with the only shade they get is when they are in the clubs performing. Kristiansen uses different art forms to match each character, as when the Juris have a small girl on trial for one of her secrets and her secret is reviewed through child-like drawings. It is very emotional and bleak at the same time.

The questions that remain for the next volume are what happened to Abel? And why is the house in Seattle now and not in Kentucky? There is a vagrant that is seen around the premises of the House a couple of times and he is short, timid, and sports a beard -- hmm . . .

The ending is surprising, tied up neatly, and solidifies there are so many fans of Rain on the Vertigo and other message boards. For once, she starts to feel again and gets a second chance at a family. Seagle leaves plenty of threads for other storylines, but here's the problem: this volume came out in 1997 and only collects #1-5. As far as I know, there are no plans to release the rest of the series.

The art and the story in House of Secrets are both brilliant and very modern. Even though the grunge era is gone (for a lot of us) the story is solid and this thriller will haunt the mind and make one question the merit of one’s own secrets. Like Dean Motter says in his forward, “Though such a heritage is impressive, make no mistake. This is a very different House. It takes so much more to frighten us these days.”


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