Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Modern Gorey: Ghosts and Ruins

Ben Catmull's presence in the comics world has been infrequent over the past decade, but a new book by him always tends to signal something beautiful, weird and wonderful. His Monster Parade book a while back combined a sense of wonder, a sense of humor and a sense of dread all in one package, and his new book, Ghosts and Ruins does much the same. In terms of sheer drawing ability and the ability to inspire mood, the only horror artists who come close to his chops are Josh Simmons, Renee French and Thomas Ott. Catmull's sensibilities are mirror images of Simmons', only Catmull inserts whimsy where Simmons might use visceral dread. The sheer intensity of Catmull's hatching, cross-hatching and use of shadow effects gives each page a nearly vibratory quality that's a bit short of what Ott does, but is still in the same vein. Catmull's sense of humor is closest to that of French, but Catmull makes a point of imbuing the everyday with a sense of fear and whimsy rather than creating fantastical characters.

The way the book is designed also reminds me a bit of Edward Gorey. Essentially, this book is a tour of haunted places, with text on the left-hand pages and images on the right-hand pages, so that it's less a comic than it is illustrated text. The narrator is knowledgeable but not omniscient. For example, there's the chilling "The Secluded House." The illustration is of a small, unassuming house in the middle of a vast field. The viewer's perspective is from a picket fence maybe fifty yards from the house. With a cloudy sky and densely-hatched and blackened grass, the drawing is somewhat ominous, but what really inspires dread is the description: "All that is known is that any person who ventures closer than this does not come back." After giving the reader intimate details of the history and effects of other haunted houses, that simple sentence is chilling. The narrator has no power to inform or save the reader, if they ventured any closer.

Other descriptions, like "Drowned Shelley", mix the morbid and the whimsical. This house is haunted by a girl drowned in a bathtub by her stepfather. The narrator rattles off various ways one can make the ghost of Shelley appear, from drowning you in your sleep to leaving hair in your breakfast dishes to kicking you "somewhere delicate" at midnight. Some of the images are just hauntingly beautiful, like a set of lace curtains blowing in the wind of a dark house with The Woman Outside The Window howling inside. Other stories are silly and strange, like the text for "Wandering Smoke" being smoke, as the house itself is beset by the weird vapors. Some of the houses that Catmull describes are just odd and mostly impenetrable, while others feature threats that will kill intruders, like the Crawling House (which moves northeast at the rate of ten feet per year, and reduces anything that stays in it to bones overnight). Every page is a beautiful new discovery, and this book is a must for fans of great horror drawings.

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