Into July this year, horror comics continue to crowd out the standard narrative fair, something that is likely to continue as major horror books hit Local Comic Shops over the next few months. We are also noting that authors who had previously been relegated to genre publishers and numerous anthologies are seeing their books become major releases, including horror staples like Ellen Datlow. All of this lends me some hope that we will see genre publishing expand without simply reducing itself to the repetition that has become so tired in mainstream horror shelves. In the same way that Speculative Fiction has been able to keep the elements so often thought to be too academic or radical to carry a title to popularity, horror’s role as personal and social commentary seems to be central to its spiking interest. Just as has been discussed with the “elevated horror” subgenre in film, people expect more from horror titles and that has allowed many authors who had been popular only for the most hardcore horror community to break out more thoroughly.
The Pallbearer’s Club is the latest from Paul Tremblay, a high school science teacher who also writes some of the more acclaimed horror novels of the past decade. The fact that he is grouped in with the rest of the horror canon is sort of a commentary on the way that horror is viewed in literary circles: you only have to briefly creep into horror themes to be stamped as a horror author. Tremblay’s new novel follows this edge-of-horror sensibility beautifully as the text is presented as a memoir written by our main character and commented on, in the form of red-colored notes in the margins, by that character’s best friend and most pressing antagonist. The story follows a teenage outcast facing a persistent physical disability who, in his effort to pack his college applications, creates a club where volunteers attend the funerals of people with few family members to remember them. He meets a friend whom he quickly suspects is carrying a supernatural curse, one that is accelerating his illness and turning him into a carnivorous monster. We end up with a novel whose status as a work of horror is part of the question that takes us literally to the final pages. This is part of the wonderful mystery that pervades Tremblay’s work, and instead of just devolving into jump scares the book is a beautifully melancholic look at the difficulties we have in building true and lasting friendships and the differences between our dreams and the way our lives actually turn out.
We are entering a sort of comic book horror renaissance, where authors and artists are rethinking what the narrative options are for telling a horror story panel to panel. Because it is such a literal and visual medium, some of the surprises and rhetorical subtext are easily diminished when you add pictures and framed dialogue to the mix, so what we are seeing from many author is a new approach to visual storytelling, one which makes style, inference, and optical mystery part of the experience. In that world, The Department of Truth may be the most perfectly horrifying of the bunch. Like many genre works, the exact details should remain unspoken otherwise you will miss the punch delivered in the early issues of the series, but the most recently published third volume only radically escalates the ferociousness of what the series’ underlying concept implies. All worlds of occultic conspiracy theories begin to collide, taking the real miasma that most of us live in after the Trump presidency and suggesting the worst is possible: that it is all true. For those reckoning with the way that media narratives reshape reality, The Department of Truth is the perfect realization of the terrifying idea that not only do we shape the world, so does everyone else.
Screams from the Dark is a classic entry in the Ellen Datlow library of horror anthologies, this time focusing on monster stories from some of the biggest names in literary horror. The book ends up as the perfect (and predictable) kind of anthology you would get from Datlow and featuring people like John Langan, Stephen Graham Jones, Gemma Files, Caitlin Kiernan, and the rest of the notables. The recognizability of a book like this is part of its charm: you know you will end up with quality, you will enjoy it even if you don’t know what you’ll get. The stories featured are better than they aren’t, with a particularly stunning entry from Brian Hodge and additionally great pieces by Richard Kadrey, Stephen Graham Jones, A.C. Wise and Ian Rogers (as well as an incoherent one from Glen Hirschberg). Datlow keeps the monster tale alive as a trope in what is often erroneously called “elevated horror,” reminding us that there are few monsters that can’t be used as a distorted mirror to reflect our own insecurities.
Coming off of their incredible success with Image’s horror title Gideon Falls, writer Jeff Lemire and artist Andrea Sorrentino are jumping into a full fledged horror mythos called Bone Orchard, which will release several miniseries and graphic novels that are thematically and narratively interconnected. The Passageway is the first of these, nestling a few lost characters on a remote lighthouse island where they stare into a hole in the ground that appeared suddenly and without obvious cause. While the title is an exciting and tantalizing introduction to the series, my inability to tell you really anything about it without revealing key plot points is its own problem: it only takes about thirty minutes to read. At $18.99 and only in a hardback edition, The Passageway is a good example of the financial racket that comics can often take on, becoming collectible objects immediately instead of primarily a vessel for storytelling. That said, the title is one of the best first entries into a horror comic of the past few years, with Sorrentino’s haunting colors acting as one of the few examples of imagery that is both clear and horrifying. The mystery of horror literature can be difficult in the visual medium, and Sorrentino’s approach to Lemire’s sparse prose is an example of how images can linger and why shock and surprise is only one element of what makes horror work. What’s even more terrifying is when an image slowly builds and stays with you long after you put the book down.