Book One: Death Chases Me
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Image Comics ($14.99)
Book Two: The Devil’s Business
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Image Comics ($14.99)
by Spencer Dew
There’s a line from Lovecraft in the 1926 story “Call of Cthulhu”: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, famous as a team with talent in the noir/crime genre of comics, snake in and out of the Lovecraftian shadows at the edges of that same hardboiled world in their series Fatale. Corrupt cops, clever journalists, eccentric novelists, and mysteriously gorgeous dames meet cultists at crime scenes and cemeteries and Hollywood parties, dimly lit bars and the sewers beneath San Francisco. Cynicism and sex and cigarettes, trench coats and whiskey and the occasional blackjack or sawed-off shotgun: these things get mingled with sigils and tentacles, a fragment of manuscript penned in “an unspoken language written on the skin of some ancient wyrm” and, in a particularly brilliant moment, a summoning spell cast in a heavy glass ashtray at a Chinatown bar—just a stream of blood drawn from the flesh of the palm and a business card left near the mutilated corpse of a human sacrifice.
Lovecraft was a master of turning that notion of “the most merciful thing” on its head, offering just enough tentative suggestions and atmospheric hints and occasional references to sheer, incommunicable horror to give readers the sensation of something cold and wet running down the edge of our tenuous grip on reality. Brubaker and Phillips demonstrate absolute mastery of that dynamic here, from the reaction of one lead character to an asylum whose inmates suddenly burst into laughter—“The kind that makes you want to burst your eardrums. The kind you hear in your nightmares”—to the reaction of another who comes home to find that something indescribably brutal has happened to his wife and to the son inside her womb. The Lovecraftian operates via an especially strange type of jouissance; our ability to cope, usually unquestioned, is suddenly presented as profoundly tentative and, over the course of a few paragraphs—or, here, a few panels—the narrative threatens to tear it wide open, rip it asunder, as various beasties occasionally do to their human flunkies or the civilian who stumbles into the wrong mansion on the wrong night.
But those who have best analyzed Lovecraft’s genius—Michel Houellebecq in his book-length study, Luc Sante in a notable essay, Andrew Leman in his remarkably spot-on silent film adaption of “Call of Cthulhu” from 2005—have emphasized the sexlessness, even the repugnance at the very notion of physicality, central to his work. So one new thing that Fataledoes, deftly, is bring sexuality to the fore, specifically in the form of Josephine, who does not age, and who has profound powers of influence over men, linked in particular to eye contact. We see plenty of gorgeous Josephine, her raven tresses reiterating the voluptuous curves of her body, her coy way of lowering her sunglasses to peek above their rim, sweetly commanding some dumbfounded fellow to do her some favor, surrender his car keys, commit suicide. A bad San Francisco cop, dying of cancer—he routinely coughs blood into a handkerchief—brought her back from a dungeon in Romania during World War II, which we catch only quick glimpses of, in flashback, just enough to let us know that the Nazis had opened a portal to someplace beyond our world. But Fatale unfolds in multiple chronologies. In San Francisco in 1956, Los Angeles in 1978, and across various locales in the present, characters attempt to solve their tiny mysteries—all part of the larger saga of Josephine and the dark forces that continue to hunt her.
Writers on Lovecraft also love to mention is how unfilmable his brand of horror is—this, of course, despite countless generally miserable attempts at adaptations (Leman’s retro-noir masterpiece being the exception that proves the rule). If you see the thing in the darkness, this logic goes, it ceases to terrify in that uniquely Lovecraftian way. One cannot maintain that edge of horror with a clear image; it is implication that gives the Lovecraftian its force. Fatale belies this, too, by keeping its supernatural elements grounded in a kind of realism. The creepiest things in these pages are the very human corpses, the symbols sketched on cocktail napkins or carved into flesh, the minions rendered identical and anonymous by matching pairs of round eyeglasses. Yet in true Lovecraftian fashion, that vertigo-inducing sense of having reached the precipice of awareness—which is also, simultaneously, that vertigo-inducing sense of how radically ignorant one is about the mechanisms of the world—remains more terrifying than any particulars. When a central character reveals his monster face, it passes as believable enough in the dark world of Phillips’s drawings because other faces—the actress, disconcertingly hungry for something she doesn’t have; the cop at the jail, a cameo roll, disturbingly angry; even the waitress at the diner, pinched countenance accentuated by horned spectacles—are as creepy as anything with tentacles attached. Likewise, the gritty and very real-world violence that punctuates these books is far more terrifying than anything done by superhuman teeth. Tendrils of gore string out from gun blasts. A man with his throat cut sits, sloppily, on a park bench. A man missing much of his skull and brain matter sits more stiffly by a fireplace. Indeed, Phillips—and Dave Stewart, the colorist for each volume—can make a pool-side scene sinister, the bright California sun muted, spooky. Framing and angles transform everything, from the steps out of a Greyhound bus to a moonlit ocean swim, into something reminiscent of nightmares—even as nothing explicitly frightening happens in either instance. Foreboding radiates from every page. There are some minor glitches in the art, where perspective skews body shapes or faces—particularly that of Josephine—take on an awkwardly silly, cartoon-strip quality. But these books are such page-turners that passing imperfections will barely register.
Rather, readers will be left with certain images—the trio of cloaked corpses stacked against a wall, blast-marks above what remains of their necks and jaws; the loupe in the eye of the collector of specialty films as he holds a particular reel up to the light; the close-up of Josephine’s full lips as she rubs two gloved fingers against them, remembering the pressure of a recent kiss and contemplating her unique variety of damnation—or certain phrases—a baffled narrator realizing that a certain “folk tale about the owl and the ribbon, it was in Dominic’s unpublished manuscript” or a debonair and mustachioed stranger promising a pregnant housewife that “This won’t take any time at all” or Josephine, having accepted a cigarette from a handsome young reporter, thinking to herself “It’s happening again” and “Why are men such damned fools?” Why indeed? Or, to return to Lovecraft’s observation, why must humans so consistently, and with such effort, wrestle against the warm embrace of ignorance? Why must we ask questions, why must we step into the shadows? As several of the hapless victims of Fataleknow all too well, along with the risk of madness and death, the shadows also promise an implacable attraction, an unparalleled thrill. These books deliver on that promise.
Click here to purchase Fatale, Book One: Death Chases Me at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase Fatale, Book Two: The Devil’s Business at your local independent bookstore