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Book Reviews

The Cage

by Martin Vaughn-James

The Spectral Engine

by Ray Fawkes

Two of the most respected houses in Canadian publishing have graphic novels out this season, and the titles share aspects in common. Each has strong elements of horror, and experiments in form and design.

The Cage was first published by Coach House Press (as the publisher was then called) in 1975; the cartoonist Seth, who provides an introduction to this re-release, quite rightly deems the book “a masterpiece.” And yet Martin Vaughn-James’s vision is so singular that it is entirely possible to ask, “A masterpiece of what?” With origins in the underground comix tradition, yet unique in approach and style, The Cage represents precisely the type of experimental work that Stan Bevington and his colleagues at Coach House continue to take chances on.

Recalling the impossible landscapes of M.C. Escher, Vaughn-James’s surreal visuals encourage readers to lose themselves. Each page frames a room, landscape, or building that fills the reader’s field of view. With every turn of the page, the eye elides the images, creating a kind of floating, amorphous perspective for this abandoned, erratic, irrational world. What is remarkable is that the author-artist is capable of sustaining the sensation of a fragmentary reality over the course of an entire book.

The accompanying text reads like film narration, a voice in the reader’s head to guide the viewer’s journey through the psychologically incisive visuals. The words don’t always correspond to the images: some passages are calculated to build tension, creating a kind of mental disconnect – “a frozen geometry of mutilated props a silent drama a wingless crippled and carnivorous repertoire of shrieks” – that makes the experience that much more discomfiting.

Perhaps the closest literary equivalent is T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, a similarly fragmentary, oblique, poetic work suffused with dread about the modern condition. Yet where Eliot’s masterwork is populated by the doomed crowds flowing over London Bridge, The Cage leaves its readers utterly alone. The only human presence is the viewer: the entire visual field is occupied by uninhabited detritus assembled in strange, tortured poses. It is as if the denizens of this eerie world had suddenly disappeared just moments before the book was opened.

Constricted and claustrophobic, The Cage dramatizes an ordered yet conflicted mind. Hallways rendered with perfect perspective collide with gushes of blood-like ink, clothes and bedsheets twist in knots, and recording apparatuses float in midair. The impression the book leaves is uncanny, reminiscent of crime-scene photos, a sick tableau stranger, and more frightening, than any ghost story.

Speaking of ghosts, McClelland & Stewart’s new graphic-novel offering is a brave revision of traditional campfire yarns. The Spectral Engine provides a counterpoint to the romantic notion of “Canada by Rail,” employing as a framing device a cross-country locomotive that picks up doomed souls. Fawkes’s engine traverses history, stopping at the sites of famous hauntings, then relating the brief life stories of each spectre. Despite the murder, suicide, and horrific misadventure that occur in these stories, the ghouls are not the clichéd apparitions of a “haunted walk” tour, but full-blooded humans, who have suffered, faltered, and died.

Fawkes is skilled enough to understand the poetic leaps the mind can make via imagery, and the book’s layouts splash out over the pages, blurring landscapes, railroads, and bloodstains in the snow. In this instance, however, the fluidity is both a strength and weakness. The technique is well matched to tales in which boundaries – of space and time, life and death – are continually crossed; however, the execution does not lay sufficient tracks for the reader to follow, resulting in stutters of implication instead of a seamless reading experience. Characters’ faces are not always rendered distinctly, making their narratives at times difficult to follow and fully invest in.

Nonetheless, these stories are largely successful. Among the most affecting is an almost wordless portrait entitled “The Woman in Red,” about an office assistant who casts herself onto the tracks of Toronto’s ghostly Lower Bay subway station in the early 1960s. It’s a convincing, disquieting portrayal of urban loneliness: “She was shy and young and alone. She wanted to belong. Barely anyone knew her when she was alive or missed her when she’s gone.”  Elsewhere, we get the story of a nun who drowned beneath the ice of a lake in northern Alberta and reappears in the present to passing canoeists, and of a Chinese worker, left jobless after the completion of the railway, who meets with a demise that can only be considered ironic.

Make no mistake, The Spectral Engine is made up of horror stories: the macabre and grim are only ever a page away. Still, at his best, Fawkes, like all masters of horror, uses the darkness to accentuate the light.