I ordered Charles Burns’s comic horror trilogy – X’ed Out, The Hive and Sugar Skull – after reading Rachel Cooke’s review of Sugar Skull. The first two books arrived and I read them in just over an hour, in one sitting. They made terrifying reading. When Sugar Skull came in the mail, I put it on my bookshelf, and there it sat for four days. One does not go lightly to Charles Burns. He’s a scary man.
Comics have always been a scary medium, partly because you can actually see the monsters. But it’s also in the tone and shading: think about the penetrating loneliness evoked on every page of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, even Daniel Clowes’s comparatively gentle Ghost World has a powerful, disquieting sense of life slipping away. Charles Burns, however, outshocks even these great artists with his symphony of monstrous delirium.
The story is about Doug, a performance artist in his twenties, who is recovering from a head trauma and relationship breakdown. He stays in his parents’ basement, eating through a rainbow of prescription drugs. At night he drinks, tries to pick up women and tells the story of his relationship with Sarah, a beautiful fellow artist whose talent far outstrips Doug’s own. Only there’s something in the story he’s not telling, even to himself. The gap is filled by horrifying dreams, in which Doug’s alter ego, ‘Nitnit’ is lost in a spooky underworld. Befriended, and exploited, by a loudmouthed warhog-like creature, Nitnit is given a job at ‘the Hive’ where his main duties consist of pushing a wheelbarrow filled with giant eggs along endless dusty corridors, harassed by alien overseers and freaked out by echoing female cries. Burns brings all this to rich and terrible life. You can’t look at a frame without seeing something insane. On the set page, of X-ed Out I think, there’s a single panel showing a man looking into a bedroom, presumably his own, to find his bed occupied by some weird creature with about half a dozen eyes. The creature has a plaster on its head (injury is a big theme in Burns) but it doesn’t seem particularly hurt nor even all that frightening, but, well, what the fuck is it? The horror of something that fundamentally shouldn’t exist but somehow does.
H P Lovecraft dreamed up lots of things like this creature in the room: created ‘horrors unnameable and unaccountable that leer down from the external universes.’ The world of real things, the universe we know, is a paper fiction, says Lovecraft’s mythos, and behind the curtain there’s dark gods trying to break through. From Michel Houellebecq’s essay on Lovecraft:
It is possible, in fact, that beyond the narrow range of our perception, other entities exist. Other creatures, other races, other concepts and other minds. Among these entities some are probably far superior to us in intelligence and in knowledge. But this is not necessarily good news. What makes us think that these creatures, different as they are from us, will exhibit any kind of a spiritual nature? There is nothing to suggest a transgression of the universal laws of egotism and malice.
Scary thought. Stephen King, who owed Lovecraft a massive debt, wrote in Danse Macabre that ‘most horror fiction […] is firmly reactionary.’ The horror is saying to you: conserve the world of real things, the world of jobs and mortgages and children and families, hold that world close, no matter how dull it seems at times, because if that safe world goes, you’ll never stop screaming. The click that sends Louis Creed insane at the end of Pet Sematary is simply ‘the sound of a door opening’. The horror is telling you to keep that door shut hard.
But Lovecraft and King were writing about outer horror. Charles Burns writes about the horror of the inside. The trilogy’s ending is supposed to be some big astonishing twist but in fact it’s visible from the first page. Doug is a coward, he’s grasping, filled with self pity and entitlement, he takes and takes and takes, he lets people down, and in the end, everyone close to him realises it. He’s shunned from the punk art scene forever. And his horror comes not from some dark revelation but just from that average, shitty, humdrum male cowardice and failure, the failure to step up and engage with the world. Cooke writes that ‘only fear and loathing awaits those men who leave their growing up until it is too late’ and, dear God, it shows.