Friday, September 21, 2012

Children Are The Future: Only Skin

The subtitle of Sean Ford's debut book (with Secret Acres) is "New Tales of the Slow Apocalypse". What appears to be a slow-moving mystery story does indeed turn into something that approaches the apocalypse, at least what what one would call the apocalypse in its small desert town setting. The key to the book's success is that Ford works big--the book is 8 x 11", which allows Ford the room to show the reader the desolate and beautiful vistas of the desert as well as the majesty and danger of the nearby forest. This also allows him to get expressionistic at times, rendering a fire and burned-out trees in the forest with a sort of charcoal smear. His character work is simple, mostly using small circles, vertical dashes or dots for eyes. The eccentricities in his character design make up for his weaknesses in rendering the human form and having a firm grasp on the ways in which people move in space and relate to each other. This is less pronounced in the action scenes (where forward momentum carries the figures and story forward) than in the book's many quiet moments, though the increasingly bizarre nature of the book as it proceeds mitigates that a bit.

Only Skin is about a young woman and her pre-teen brother who return to this small town in order to search for her missing father, who ran a gas station. The book feels like a cross between a David Lynch film and a Gilbert Hernandez story. Like in the former, there's an interest in small town living, the occasional surreality of daily life, the darkness beneath the surface of reality, the nature of evil and the feeling of being in the hands of forces beyond one's control. Like the latter, there's an interest in human relationships, the ways in which people can hurt each other, betrayals, eccentric character portrayals, wide-open spaces, and the enigmatic and evasive but always looming sense of menace that pervades every page. Ford's aim is to keep the reader off-balance as to what's really going on in this story. Is it a conspiracy story? A horror story, complete with don't-go-in-the-woods tropes? A conventional murder mystery story? A story about disaffected teenagers? Without revealing the specifics of the plot, Only Skin turns out to be a highly conventional story in terms of exactly what happens, when and why, but that conventionality proves to be highly disturbing. More disturbing, I'd say, than if it was a purely supernatural horror story.

Like both Hernadez and Lynch, Ford spends a lot of time developing the book's extensive cast of characters. The plot unfolds through their interactions, rather than the characters existing solely for the sake of the plot. The reader is forced to determine which of these characters will prove to be important (if any of them) and why. Will it be the conspiracy-obsessed bearded man with a blog? Will it be the meek newspaper man who may be doomed to the same medical fate as his father? What role does the young woman who bursts, half-dead, into a diner and then collapse play? Is the weirdo who helped run the gas station who professes to rarely sleep a part of this? What about the jilted ex-wife of the forest developer who disappeared into the forest, or her slightly creepy son? By focusing on their conversations, conflicts and history in progress, Ford continues to keep the reader both off-balanced and intrigued, as those glimpses may or may not contain important information. What they really do is expand the world of the story and flesh out every character in small but significant ways, making the final fates of most every character something that's important.

Though Ford tosses out a lot of red herrings that prove to be narrative dead ends (both for the reader and the characters in the story who are trying to unravel its mysteries), those red herrings wind up having narrative and thematic resonance down the line. Indeed, the most obvious red herring (that the disappearances are part of a police/developer scheme to raze the forest for timber sales) is the sort of hypocrisy that winds up being the flashpoint for the real perpetrators of the disappearances and murders. Ford doesn't go so far as to suggest that the killings are justified, putting the town's resident conspiracy theorist in jeopardy when he starts sympathizing with the killers. Ford also distracts the reader with a giant piece of magical realism: a ghost that looks like a Pac-Man character who lures the younger brother of the protagonist into the forest. That ghost character is equal parts hilarious, ominous and menacing, and its real identity winds up being a key to the resolution of the story.

Speaking of that resolution, while there's an ending to this story, it's not exactly a happy one. Indeed, things feel more like the protagonists are happy to escape with their lives instead of triumphing over evil. Certainly, given the source of the mystery, no one in the story can feel great about the way things play out. Not every character makes it out of the forest, either, and who lives and who doesn't winds up being suspenseful until the bitter end. The final scene, involving the boy and his ghost, is both strangely touching, deeply weird and a bit disturbing. With his debut book, Sean Ford brings a world to life that's both mundane and horrific, crushingly dull and frighteningly beautiful, and full of relationships both broken and healing. His sense of sweep and understanding of how to portray shocking, stunning images carries the book. As he matures as an artist, he'll become more adept at giving his lower-stakes, lower-key character scenes the same kind of impact.

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