Artist Charles Vess should be well-enough known to older readers around these parts. He wrote and pencilled a well-received back-up story in ASM #277, with Spider-man facing Wendigo in an NYC blizzard. He also did multiple painted covers for the Spidey titles throughout the late 80's, such as Web Vol. 1 #1's striking, iconic cover. Someone at Marvel thought enough of Vess to let him do a fancy-schmancy bookshelf format Marvel hardcover, which according to the jacket copy was "painstakingly painted" by Vess "over the course of two years".
What does Vess have our webhead doing in this edition? What indeed..the setting does away with the traditional cityscapes of NYC for a small town in Scotland. Okay. The jacket copy also asks us "Would you believe he's there on a second honeymoon with his beautiful wife, Mary Jane?". Um, sure. "..and that they discover the castle she's inherited there is haunted?". Nope (apparently Mary Jane has some heretofore-unmentioned Scot relatives that we've never heard of).
Right off the bat, the set up doesn't sound that enticing, but it's different and the art sure is purty, so let's give it a shot shall we?
The nice opening shot features Spidey launching himself off of an NYC building, swinging on a webline. The narrative captions ask us to imagine ourselves "standing atop a sleek glass and metal skyscraper, casually flinging (ourselves) off over a darkened city..only to break (our) fall moments later with a thin, string-like substance of (our) own invention..". It goes on to say that the sense of exhiliaration that brings is exactly what Pete is feeling right now. He thinks to himself "It's magic tonight!", referring to the city and the vibe he's getting.
He follows a purse-snatcher to an alley, where the crook meets up with a friend. Spidey engages them, and ends up webbing them both up, and hanging them from a light post for the police.
Pete then changes into civvies to meet up with Aunt May at a restaurant. May says she hopes he doesn't catch something from being out in the pouring rain just then. Pete says he likes the rain, that it makes the city sparkle just like "those fairy tale castles" in the stories she used to read him as a kid (I suspect this is foreshadowing). They eat, and after their meal, Pete mentions that he and Mary Jane are travelling to Scotland for a second honeymoon of sorts, where some property was left to the couple by one of Mary Jane's relatives who just passed, Mrs. Macleod. Over a montage of Pete and MJ travelling by plane to Scotland, excerpts of the letter are read.
They both get dropped off by cab at some lodgings. They talk to the locals there, who speak very highly of Mary Jane's late aunt. The next day they explore her aunts belongings at her cottage. Pete gets a gloomy look. When MJ asks what's wrong, he admits he misses the rumble of the city under his feet. MJ suggests they go out for some fun and changes into a skimpy outfit.
They go downstairs to a pub, where the sight of MJ makes everyone stop and stare, including a blonde man named Angus, who asks MJ to get in on a game of billiards. She does, while Pete chats up the locals at the bar, who are talking of fairies that made off with Lord Laird's grandsons, (who is also one of the patrons present). They say the hills are haunted and cursed and they're selling their property to developers.
A cloaked old woman comes into the pub, interrupting, and says it wasn't fairies that took "the wee bairn" (baby), and that they shouldn't let their fears run them out off of their family's land. The woman is named Mairi, but the townsfolk call her "Mad Mairi" behind her back.
All the talk of ghosts and fairies makes Pete unable to sleep that night, so of course suits up in the red and blues and goes to investigate Lord Laird's castle. The trip is harder with no buildings to swing from. Upon letting himself into the castle, he sees a painting of the Lord and his young grandson, young Sir Hugh. Pete thinks young Hugh's disappearance is too convenient with the developers showing up simultaneously.
Spidey investigates the rest of the castle and hears a wailing coming from somewhere outside. He pokes his head to find---ghosts! One of them walks on air over to Spidey with a sword, taking a swipe at him. The ghosts increases into giant size, and with a shout, destroys part of the castle Spidey was clinging to, then disappears. Pete, shaken, thinks his bed back at the inn sounds nice and heads home.
Hours later, Mary Jane decides to go fix some tea for her sleeping husband (?) and goes down to the kitchen, where she's accosted by the blonde man from the pub, Angus (also a Laird relative). Lord Hugh comes in and stops Angus. They end up chatting--MJ recounts later to Pete that Sir Hugh asked her to a village meeting where sale of the land will be discussed. They also discussed the old woman, Mairi..or "Dark Mairi of the shore" as Sir Hugh calls her. Pete thinks she seems like the right person to ask about last night's events with the ghosts and seeks her out that day, out at her residence "on an island in the loch."
Mairi appears to Pete, looking like MJ for an instant to Pete's surprise, and saying she knows why he's come. Mairi says the fairies are all long dead, gone before the hills they're standing in were ever born, but that there are still magics buried deep in the Earth. Pete leaves feeling perplexed and out of his element from being out in the country.
Getting back to the village, Pete suits up and sneaks in on the ceiling of the meeting the townspeople are having. Sir Hugh refuses to say anything about the land sale that's happening within the week. Hugh apologizes to MJ later, saying perhaps one day she'll understand. Outside, after the meeting, ghosts on horseback brandishing swords attack the village, panicking the townspeople. Spidey is spotted and is thought to be a demon. He's chased by the villagers, and holed up in a tree when Mairi comes to save him, calming down the villagers and saying she'll put the demons back under the hollow hills where they belong.
She points Spidey to the direction of the Laird castle, where the evil that sleeps underneath is waiting. Spidey goes, leaving MJ outside with Mad Mairi. Mairi says she'll need MJ's youth and energy if she's to help bring back MJ's man safely.
Upon entering the castle, Spidey is rushed by one of the fearsome, sword-wielding ghosts. He stands his ground and the apparition passes right through him, and Spidey concludes they're just holograms. He follows the humming sound of a generator to the dungeons--inside it's vast catacombs is a sprawling underground complex.
Spidey tries to infiltrate, taking out a few armed, costumed guards. He gets closer to the command center, where men in hazmat suits are working. They're saying they'll be fully operational in 24 hours. They want to use the energy of underground crystals to power weapons that will destroy any point on the globe. Spidey's spotted on a viewscreen and agents are sent to deal with him, which he takes out. They use lazer sound magnification on one of the crystals above Spidey, effectively shutting his brain down.
He awakens in a holding cell with the elder Sir Hugh. Hugh goes on about how his family has been enslaved by the fairies and banshees. Angus appears and agrees, saying the Munro clan lost their power due to their own weaknesses, but that he hopes to change all that by throwing in with the Hellfire Club. One of the Munro clan was a founding member of the Club, and disowned. Angus says he intends to embrace that lineage. He found the giant crystals once while spelunking down under the cave--taking some of his samples found there to the Hellfire Club, who then built the complex. Angus says they will rule both man and nature with their newfound power.
Young Sir Hugh is brought from holdings by Angus, so he can witness the execution of his uncle.
Outside, Mairi and MJ are holding hands. Mad Mairi has begun a "keening song" so strong it causes the winds to kick up and the earth around the castle to rumble and shift, knocking out the power to the holding cell where Spidey is. He's able to escape, and thrashes the guards while Angus makes off with Young Hugh. A stray shot is fired by one of the masked guards, which Spidey avoids, but wouldn't you know it, Hugh Sr. catches a chestful of lead and dies. He entreats Spidey with his dying breath to save Young Hugh, the last of their clan, giving Spidey his ring with his family's crest on it.
Spidey fights off more of the guards, as he escapes the underground and chases after Angus and the boy. He comes out to daylight, where he finds Mairi and MJ, and Angus has just passed through, having whacked MJ a good one on her cheek (Pete asks if she's okay but doesn't seem overly upset about it). Angus is holding the kid over a high-up embankment, saying come and get him. Spidey trudges up to him, MJ says his arm looks broken and he looks exhausted, but Mairi tells her there's magic left in Spidey yet. He and Angus fight it out. Angus begs Spidey off, saying that his family's heritage has claimed him as well. He says he must now follow the wail of the banshee and leaps off of the edge of the hillside to his death.
The next day, MJ and Pete are getting ready to head back to New York. MJ offers Young Hugh the use of her cottage until his family's castle is livable again. The Young Lord happily admires the family ring he's wearing on a chain around his neck. Mairi tells Pete and MJ to remember them when they're back among the concrete and steel of their city. Later on in the plane, Pete's thinking he will indeed.
An interesting tale and one that's certainly worthy of Spidey. Taking Parker out of his element, i.e. out of the NY city can usually go either way, but here it works.
There's definitely a fairy-tale quality to the story, and some of the narration is written that way as well. The painted art is gorgeous. It, too, sells the magical mystical quality of the story and really brings the Scottish environment alive. I like how Vess draws Spidey, and I like the sketchy way he draws the web fluid.
Spidey running into the Hellfire Club was a nice twist. No Sebastion Shaw or the White Queen to be found, but Angus Munro makes for an unlikable-enough bad guy (also narrowing the focus of the story). Forcing himself on and punching MJ? Holding his own young nephew hostage? Yeah, Angus really deserves the beat-down he gets from Spidey here.
A couple super-nitpicky things: there's no way Peter could appear in costume and not raise the suspicions of the townspeople as to who's in the costume (especially with the "big city" strangers in town). It's one of the reasons why Spidey doesn't work well outside of the city, at least when Parker is travelling, with the secret identity being such a concern. The cover blurb is a bit misleading also, as it states that Pete and MJ have inherited a castle when in fact it's merely her late aunt's cottage. Other than those small details, this book is rather great.
Definitely an offbeat story for Spidey, but one that works very well all things considered, and despite the slightly contrived set-up (I guess there's really no reason why Mary Jane couldn't have Scottish relatives leaving them property, though it's of course never mentioned again despite this tale seeming to take place in then-current continuity). This is a really good read worth tracking down.
Pete calls this his and MJ's unofficial "second honeymoon". The first took place in PPTSSM Annual #7.
Vess has gone on to do fantasy illustration as well as several issues of DC's Sandman, among other things.