Review: Black Hole by Charles Burns

I’ve had a nasty cold recently, which has at least allowed me plenty of time in bed with books.  I’d got Black Hole by Charles Burns out the library as it is widely touted as one of THE graphic novels to read.

Black Hole is set in 1970s suburban Seattle. There is a sexually transmitted disease rife among the teenagers of the area. It manifests differently in everyone, but does include skin shedding, tail growing,  lumps, boils and tiny mouths in your neck that speak. In some people it is mild enough for them to be able to “pass” but in others it is written all over their faces, and they find themselves shunned from society, living in the woods and scavenging for food.

Despite being fictional, it reminded me strongly of my favourite non-fiction graphic novel, My Friend Dahlmer by Derf Backderf.  It’s the same era, has the same secrets hidden in woods, adolescents going through or witnessing trauma that they either can’t or won’t express to the adults around them.  Both relied on an extremely bold black and white artwork, which serves to underline the seriousness of the issues they deal with.   They also have a horrific story unfolding slowly in what many would assume is a safe suburban environment.

Black Hole is a portrait of the alienation that many teenagers feel.  Struggling to find their individual selves, while also deeply compelled by the childhood survival mechanism of fitting in.  Almost everyone has to negotiate this dichotomy at some point, and some do it with more success than others.  My expectations of Black Hole is that at some point something would happen, the kids would get the help they needed and the people who had ostracised them would learn a lesson – that’s how it works in my chaotic good aligned moral compass.

This is not what happens.  The children try to negotiate their problems on their own.  Some of them do so badly, some incredibly badly, and others find a modicum of success.  The success that they appear to have is not to do with how badly they are disfigured but how much they let their feelings of alienation dominate their interactions with others and the world.  While it appears that Black Hole is going to be a thinly disguised metaphor for aids, it is in fact a way of giving physical expression to the pitfalls of adolescence.  As many young people’s distress is displayed in their relationships with their bodies – self harm, binging, starving – the metaphor works well.

As a parent what terrified me most was the way none of the children seamed to think there was any adult they could trust and talk to.  It made me wonder if the punitive, authoritarian and inflexible parenting styles of ages gone by meant that barriers are created between children and all the adults around them, not just between the child and the parent.   Given the rising tide of mental health problems among teenagers it is probably more important than ever that we look at and dissect what goes on in the minds of young people.  Black Hole is a thought provoking example of how the arts are in a unique position to do this.  Like all the best art it does not give us any answers, but presents us with a lot of questions and inspires us to think.

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Jago by Kim Newman

I loved An English Ghost Story so much I decided to leap straight away into another book by Newman, Jago.  While Jago deals with some of the same themes it is a very different book altogether.

Jago is set in the fictional Somerset village of Alder.  It is a baking hot summer and the temporary and permanent residents of the village, including a local cult headed by the titular Anthony William Jago, are preparing for an annual large music festival.  Alder contains a mix of characters, some who’s families have been in the area for generations, others are incomers for the season, and several thousand descending for the festival.

Of course, it’s not all going to go smoothly, you find this book in the horror section after all.  I was in no way prepared for quite how badly it would go.  The area around Alder has a history of supernatural manifestation.  There are several locals who could be described as pshycopaths before anything unusual starts to take place.

At the centre of all that happens is Jago.  We meet him for the first time half way through the novel, and he only speaks once.  His silence and inaction while unusual for a central character, perfectly fit Jago.  After all he makes things happens, he doesn’t need to talk to people or make connections, he doesn’t need to explain himself – his greatness should be evident to all.  As with all people who believe themselves great, the only thing that is evident is an imbalanced mind and a possible personality disorder.  However Jago has more abilities than most self-serving narcissistic cult leaders – he literally can make your fantasies come true.  He’ll bring out the worst in you.

This is the major theme  in both Jago and Ghost Story.  The evil, it’s inside you.  There are no monsters, other than the ones we create ourselves.  However while Ghost Story illuminates this point with elegance and restraint, Jago does exactly the opposite.  It’s kind of like Hironimous Bosch on the worst trip possible.  Two thirds through the 678 pager and I felt confused, disorientated, wasn’t sure what was going on, or where to turn to for help – like 98% of the characters.

Really good horror isn’t just about fear.  The genre would be called Fear if it was.  It’s a potent mix of fear AND disbelief.  It’s the disbelief that Newman really mines in Jago.  If he’d told the story of just one of his characters, there would be miasma, but the multiple view points result in miasma and discombobluation.  It’s a binge of disbelief, and like all binging, you’re going to feel icky afterwards.

Ultimately if you want to feel more comfortable with your horror, go for Ghost Story.  If you want to feel impossibly lost in a vision of the world that is relentlessly overwhelming with no chance of stabilisation, Jago is you man.

Review. An English Ghost Story by Kim Newman, or, why horror is important.

 

For the last two years I’ve been getting more into horror – specifically ghost stories.  For a long time I wasn’t able to consume any but I’m devouring them now.   I have a theory to explain my famine and feast of horror, but that is for later in the post.

The latest I’ve consumed in the genre is An English Ghost Story by Kim Newman, published by Titan Books, given to me for Christmas by a good friend.  Newman’s prose is tight, and he truly inhabits the minds of his characters letting the reader delve into their individual neurosis and psychological ticks.  True to the title, there is a lot in the set-up which appears to be part of the classic ghost story, with more than a passing nod to the gothic.

A small family moves into a new home in rural England.  The parents are having trouble in their marriage.  Their teenager daughter is a bubbling cauldron of mental health issues.  The youngest, a boy, in an attempt to avoid the continual tension in his family, has become hyper vigilant which expresses itself in a militrisitc inner world.  At first the move to the isolated house is seen by them all as a chance to heal and move on, until… duh, duh DUH!

So far, so many tropes.  However Newman is an exceptionally skilled writer and he wouldn’t be ticking all the inevitable boxes unless there is a reason…

(DON’T READ THE FOLLOWING IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS)

…And there is. It turns out in the end that although the house is riddled with ghosts it isn’t the ghosts that are haunting the family, it is the family who are haunting the ghosts.  The family is a bundle of exaggerations, inability to cope, diagnosable illness, teetering on the edge of a break down, pain, poor choices, a lack of consideration, humiliation and need for grandeur.  They are brokenly human.  However their many problems, in which they have become entangled like a maze, effect the ghosts and the ghosts can’t help but react to them.

This is what makes this book by Newman great.  He taps into a current vein in popular thinking.  Whether it is the credulity stretching The Secret, or the rather more established teachings of Buddhism, you can’t read anything on personal development, spirituality, relationships or mental health without being told we manifest our own worlds.  What our inner world is, becomes our outer world.

While The Law of Attraction stretches it for me, we’ve all known people so miserable they can’t see happiness in anything, so determined to be angry that even the most neutral thing is a slight that explodes their rage.  It is not for the family to exorcise the ghost in their home.  It is for them to pay attention to their own problems (ghosts), and take responsibility to make them better.

It’s this tapping of the cultural vein that makes English Ghost Story so relevant.  Newman has taken the concept of “manifesting” from this stream of popular culture, applies it to horror and the results create themselves.

As readers we get a refreshing new take on the haunted house. As ever though, with a great bit of writing, this is not the whole story.  We also get a master class in just what makes horror such an important genre.

I was only able to start consuming horror after I’d dealt with and put to rest my own “inner daemons”.  Because the real truth of the world is that there are no monsters on the outside, they reside within us all.  The only way to be whole and healthy is to accept and acknowledge the dark within you, however it got there.  As long as you try to ignore it or push it away it only comes back stronger.

Horror as a genre is uniquely helpful, because it exorcises not just our dark sides, but out fear of it.  Whether it is the vampire/narcissist, the wear-wolf/serial-killer/paedophile, the ghost/passive-aggressive victim  it allows us to deal with them in the same way Halloween allows us to cope with the scariness of the encroaching winter nights.  By brining them into the light, by laughing, by having fun.

Horror, in whatever shade, is a vital part of individuals and cultures coming to terms with themselves.  Newman knows this, and shows it to us so well.