The Cards! The Madness! The Legend!

Appropriately enough the origins of these decks are shrouded in mystery, and despite the best efforts of Top Trumps historians and the propensity of the internet to turn up even the most obscure nuggets of trivia, no one knows who devised these sets or who did the notorious artwork. And possibly that might be for very good reasons, for these two packs, known as Devil Priest and Dracula to trumpologists, are dubious in the extreme, not so much designed but more flung together by some gibbering madman. Now all Top Trumps cards had statistics on them which you matched against each other in play to win cards. And usually these were derived from solid factual things about the subject of the cards such as height, weight, top speed, age etc. (although in fairness I did think that many vehicular decks needed more abstract categories such as Unobtainabilty and Boredom Factor).

Now obviously for the Horror decks, providing the usual factual/educational basis was a real challenge for the designers. Apparently so much so that they ditched the entire concept and just made up their own nebulous categories. Hence each card gave its featured horror the following stats - Physical Strength, Fear Factor, Killing Power, and Horror Rating. Not a bad basis for some horror trumps you might think, and indeed many would agree. However unfortunately the nameless designers decided to just bung in any old numbers in these categories, seemingly without rhyme or reason, leading to infamous playground enigmas such as why did Death only have a Killing Power of 95?

However the discrepancies in the stats paled into insignificance compared to the actual pictures on the cards. Now in fairness we do have reasonably faithful portraits for some of the big names in the horror world, with the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Wolf Man getting semi-decent portraits, albeit ones that appeared to be done in frenzied felt tip. But why is Godzilla wearing a tuxedo? Why is the abominable Dr Phibes purporting to be the Phantom of the Opera? Any why is the famous Lon Chaney Snr. incarnation of the Phantom moonlighting as 'the Hangman'?

One might charitably assume that at some late stage it was realised that several horror icons and their images were under copyright and hence some desperate name changing was done. But then again, just who in the name of Hades are some of these characters? Where or what the hell is Zetan, and why does it have a Warlord and a Priest? And what is the Norse god Thor doing in here, and more to the point, why does he have four eyes? Just how hallucinogenic were magic marker fumes back in the '70s?

Even monster-obsessed and Top Trumps addicted kids at the time knew that these were a shoddy piece of work, but despite their numerous, infamous failings, we loved these decks. Yes, the art looked like something that had been rushed out by a lunatic ten year old hopped up on sherbet dips and Alan Frank's Horror Movies in a single rainy break-time. And yes, it's true that many of us could honestly claim to know better artists in our own classes at school. But despite the screaming crudity of the sets, these cards still cast a deep spell on the minds of a generation. For while the artistic execution may have left much to be desired, the imagery had a manic energy; boldly mixing solid blacks with lurid colours, and attempting to be as horrible as possible with a gusto that bordered on unusually demented.

And indeed horrible they were! In fact, I'm quite surprised that there wasn't a huge fuss and moral panic over these two decks. That might sound a bit far fetched, but consider this - I am very sure that you could not get away with selling a pack of cards called 'Devil Priest' to kids these days. And you certainly couldn't put a children's card game in the toyshops now that featured so many tortures, slayings and maimings, complete with severed limbs, spurting blood, and in one memorable case, shattered vetebratae. So then quite how there was never a huge outcry from self-appointed moral guardians back in the even more strait-laced '70s I'll never know.

But certainly I think it's fair to say that Horror Top Trumps were much akin to the EC comics of the 50s or the video nasties of the '80s. They were the subject of playground rumour and it was a badge of honour to own a set. Horror Top trumps weren't so much played, but passed around like contraband - could you bear to gaze upon the bloody beheading in The Fiend? Brave the gruesome horrors of the Venusian Death Cell? Dare to ask again why is Godzilla wearing a fricking tuxedo?

With their gleeful crudity and unashamed gore, the visions on these cards made deep impression on all who saw them, haunting the imagination of an entire generation. And if you want proof of how fondly remembered these sets are, just have a look at the prices of complete sets up for sale - at the time of writing, decks are regularly going for £50, a hundred times their original price. Yes, such is the power of these Horror Top trumps that people who should know better are prepared to pay large sums to relive their delights once more. Or possibly just to see if they are a as demented as they remember...

However despite the opiated nostalgic delights these decks bring us, they surprisingly still offer us a great game today... But I don't mean a round of Horror Top Trumps! Going to back the question of why some cards clearly have the wrong names, when you look through both decks now, it's very obvious that a large proportion of the art was heavily based on stills cribbed from assorted movies, hence Chaney's Phantom is seen operating a gallows. But how many cards were sourced in this way? Where did our mysterious artist steal from? And was there actually a precedent for demented visions such as the Zetan Priest?

As we delve, card by demented card, in the murky depths of the Tomb of the Trumps, we shall attempt to find answers to all these perpexing questions!

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