Halloween looms, my dreadful darlings, have you considered your seasonal reading? Perhaps in your secret heart, not the one in your chest, but the one you have sealed in a cast glass jar and hidden high on a shelf in a cobwebbed attic or buried beneath the gelid roots of an ancient tree in an eldritch and godforsaken wood, you long to read horrific, tragic or supernatural illustrated tales.
Allow me to be your gruesome guide and provide you with suggestions from my own library replete with stories of the macabre, the supernatural and the spooktacular. Of course, to face the totality of the Borden Collection of Cursed, Harrowing and Chthonic Books would be to go mad—unless one were an ancient entity protected by necromantic magicks or already thoroughly mad. Or perhaps plain lucky, which I assure you I am. Trust in me as I suggest sinister selections from the collection to savor on a rainy and moonless night. I have searched my library carefully and these stories will likely not result in your transformation into a creature more beast than human or summon a harrowing apparition of pure horror from your own morbidly overexcited imagination.
Read on, darklings, if you dare.
Let us begin with the more traditional seasonal stories, but with some twists: Dracula (Harper Design, 2012) with illustrations by Becky Cloonan and Frankenstein (Dark Horse, 2011), illustrated by Bernie Wrightson. These are not adaptations of the classic novels, but rather illustrated editions. In his illustrations, Wrightson uses the terrifying visage of death in Shelley’s time—the desiccated mummy. His work is monochromatic and reminiscent of etchings. Meanwhile, Cloonan’s minimalist palette is gorgeous and uses the whiteness of the pages themselves so well. I especially admire her spread of wolves among the terrified horses pulling the carriage taking Jonathan Harker ever closer to Castle Dracula.
In reading the novel versions, you are sure to learn important facts you can share with people at parties, bars, restaurants, on public transit and even in waiting rooms. Did you know that female vampires outnumber male vampires 4.5 to 1.5 in Dracula? (Or 4 to 1 for the less precise who prefer to ignore Renfield and the straight up vampirism that was taking hold of Mina). Did you know that Victor Frankenstein dropped out of college because those fools tried to teach him modern natural science rather than the Renaissance alchemical science he specifically went to school to learn? How would he be able to use natural science to create his son, Victor Frankenstein, Jr.?
But I digress.
Cloonan’s Dracula is extremely readable for an illustrated hardcover edition of a classic novel. No book stand required is required and your hands will not get tired as you read it cowering beneath the covers in bed—with the French doors locked and curtains drawn. Or better yet, replaced if film and television have taught me anything about the ability of vampires to pass through French doors. Cloonan’s Dracula is far less awkward to hold than Bernie Wrightson’s illustrated Frankenstein. His Frankenstein is a hefty, even “Frankensteinian” book. It should also come with its own lectern illustrated with the many instances of Victor Frankenstein’s bad parenting.
But perhaps you like less orthodox presentations of familiar monsters. Perhaps you like your genres twistier. Please enjoy these twistier suggestions.
In Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert’s The Professor’s Daughter (First Second, 2007) the mummy Imhotep awakens in Victorian London in the home of Egyptology Professor Boswell. Once a pharoah he is now an antiquity and no longer legally considered a person. This doesn’t prevent Imhotep from taking constitutionals, drinking tea at a cafe and attending a concert in the park with the professor’s daughter, Lillian. It doesn’t stop Imhotep from falling in love with Lillian either. But instead of trying to infuse Lillian’s body with the soul of his beloved wife lost millennia ago, Imhotep accepts that he is in a new world now and dons a Victorian gentleman’s suit and top hat to court her. Of course, mummies are the most traditionally romantic of the classic monsters and so are bound to get in trouble in the most traditional of ways—interfering parents and the British Museum’s lawyers.
Sfar and Guibert have collaborated on other comics, particularly, Dungeon, a fantasy all-ages comic about, well, a dungeon and dungeon-related shenanigans and also vampires and Sardine in Outer Space. Most of the time, Sfar writes and Guibert draws. With The Professor’s Daughter they reverse roles. Sfar draws and his style is stunning and dreamily sepia-toned. It’s my favorite book of theirs.
If you like more aquatic horror, Jonathan Case’s Dear Creature (Dark Horse, 2011 / 2016) and Lilli Carré’s The Lagoon (Fantagraphics, 2008) each consider a sea monster. Carré’s monster takes after The Creature from the Black Lagoon, only now the gill-man lives in the wetlands near a suburban subdivision. Late at night, he sings and lures residents to their doom. It’s hard to say whether he intends their doom, or if it is a tragic confluence of worlds as in The Creature from the Black Lagoon films.
Case’s Grue is a sea mutant with a symbiotic chorus of crabs and penchant for human flesh. He lives in a world straight from a 1960s beach-based monster movie, but speaks in iambic pentameter and loves Shakespeare. It’s possible that he even learned to speak English from reading Shakespeare. One day he finds a message in a bottle and is determined to find and even rescue the sender, his “dear organism,” Giuletta, an agoraphobic woman. Will Grue overcome his appetite for tender, tasty human beings? Can a monster change and find true love? Is this a comedy or a tragedy?
And now, tender, tasty darlings, I must caution you with my final suggestion that offers a twist on a classic monster. It is possible that even the premise of the next book could wound the mind and cause instant inescapable madness. In Punisher: FrankenCastle (Marvel, 2010)*, the monsters of the subterranean city Monster Metropolis transform a wounded and dying Frank Castle, aka, The Punisher, into a frankenstein to help them defend Monster Metropolis from monster-hunting samurai and a vicious steampunk corpse.
I assume they also did this to make Punisher stories more appealing to me by having him team up with Morbius, the Living Vampire, Maniphibian and Jack Russell the werewolf by night. Does this mixing of fun monster hijinx and extremely serious vengeful man seem wrong to you? Perhaps. But does it seem so wrong that it’s right? Because it is. It is very, very right.
FrankenCastle is not only my favorite Punisher story, which, you know, is not really my thing anyway**. FrankenCastle is also my favorite Legion of Monsters story. FrankCastle is a tribute to the genius of comics. It expands the horizon of tiny, limited minds to begin to comprehend not only what is possible, but what should be, the mixing of Punisher with much more fun worlds. Read it! Read it with the delirious joy it deserves!
I could understand if you wanted to take a walk in the woods after FrankenCastle to clear your head. But you should be careful. Emily Carroll warns us all in Through the Woods that beasts reveal themselves in the woods.
Through the Woods (Faber & Faber, 2014) is a collection of five classically chilling short stories. They are reminiscent of Angela Carter as well as traditional ghost and horror stories. They even remind me a bit of the horror stories of Old Time Radio of the 1930s and 1940s. Girls are overcome with a strange lethargy. The restless dead task women in the Eighteenth, Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. A father sends his daughter to marry a stranger in a far away mansion. There is an alarming journal recording hideous nightmares. And there are also sinister in-laws; spiritualism; a man whose smile is too wide; eerie songs heard only at night; possession; houses full of secrets and death; and a tree with “leaves that looked like a lady’s hand.” There is even a story that scares a monster. The art is deceptively simple, completely elegant and smoothly flowing. The pacing of the story is is lovely and slow. The revelations are truly creepy and never rushed.
Evan Dorkin & Jill Thompson’s Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites (Dark Horse, 2010) also often concerns terrors in the woods. Animal Rites could be mistaken for a children’s book, but it is not. Five dogs—and a cat, sometimes two—have teamed up to solve paranormal mysteries and protect Burden Hill from malevolent occult forces. It’s kind of like if Nancy Drew were a dog investigating mysteries with other dogs, but the mysteries are paranormal and often viscerally gross or disturbing. Or maybe Beasts of Burden is better described as like if the rabbits of Watership Down were suburban dogs who are paranormal investigators***. There are other Beasts of Burden collections—What The Cat Dragged In and the more recent Wise Dogs and Eldritch Men, for instance—but Animal Rites is my favorite. Jill Thompson’s art is wondrous as she and Dorkin tell stories of a vomitous rain of frogs, a ghost dog, a witch cat, an ancient cult, necromancy, a serial killer and spooky rats. There is also an excellent raccoon who “will take your face off” if you don’t step off now.
Perhaps you prefer horror manga. There are so many fine horror manga out there. Junji Ito alone could alarm and disturb you for the whole Halloween season. But I am sharing selections from the Borden Collection and as curator I have set a policy where I take my Junji Ito out of the library and put it back there when I’m done for reasons of safety and sanity. Instead let me suggest a book by Kazuo Umezu, the “father of horror manga.” I am passing fond of snake ladies, and Umezu provides snake ladies in the three stories from the mid-Sixties collected in Reptilia (IDW Publishing, 2007): “Scared of Mama,” “The Spotted Girl” and “Reptilia.” Girls are in trouble in all three stories as they are stalked by snake women who are intent on terrible things—even trying to transform the girls into snakes too.
And for my final selection, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez’ Locke & Key, vol. 1-6 (Image, 2008-2014). Keyhouse is a house of secrets dating back to the Revolutionary War. There are so many doors and so many keys. With the right key, some of the doors will change you. And some keys will fit locks in your own body. Nina Locke moves her children Tyler, Kinsey and Bode to Keyhouse to recover from the loss of their father / her husband, Rendell. They discover the magical keys and, in a well near the house, Dodge, who knows more than they say. The horror of Locke & Key is often psychological—the horror of taking all of someone away, the horror of losing one’s self. It is grounded in grief, loss and the pain of failure. It is grounded in the fear and pain underlying a terrible person’s awful deeds—how human the monsters are.
And now, I must ask you to leave the reading room. We are expecting guests when the moon is high and must prepare our sigils and protective circles. I am sure you understand. Do stick to the path on your way home.
*writers include: Rick Remender, Marjorie Liu, John Romita, Sr., and Tony Moore ; artists include: Tony Moore, John Romita, Sr., Jefte Boschi, and Dan Brereton.
**I did enjoy runs on the Punisher by Greg Rucka and Becky Cloonan.
***You might say, “Why not use The Plague Dogs as an example instead. It has dogs.” And to that I say, “We never speak of The Plague Dogs.” Not even in the Borden Collection of Cursed, Harrowing and Cthonic Books.
Carol Borden only dabbles in the dark arts. There is nothing to be concerned about, she assures you.