More thoughts on some of the miniseries that have (relatively) recently wrapped up, and two of them that seem a very likely pair: Steve Niles and Glenn Fabry’s Lot 13 (DC Comics) and Jan Strnad and Richard Corben’s Ragemoor (Dark Horse). Both are horror stories, both delve into the supernatural, both are focused on physical location as sources of terror, and both are created by some of the best that horror and fantasy comics have to offer. Unfortunately, both don’t quite live up to their full potentials. For examples, I had high hopes for Lot 13, written by Niles, one of the most notable creators in horror comics today. His track record on such titles as 3o Days of Night, Criminal Macabre, and Simon Dark would suggest that he would be the perfect writer for this miniseries. (And I’m trying my best to give him the benefit of the doubt by ignoring his work on Suicide Girls from a couple of years ago.) Plus, the title is completely illustrated by Glenn Fabry, who has done some incredible cover art on Preacher, Hellblazer, and Transmetropolitan. I absolutely love his work. So with two such gifted creators, I thought that Lot 13 would be a success. But while the five-issue miniseries had its high points — and many of those are due to Fabry’s art — the narrative as a whole was unfulfilling. And curiously enough, I have very similar feelings regarding Strnad and Corben’s Ragemoor.
Lot 13 taps into a popular horror genre convention, so common that it’s almost too predictable in its execution. A group of individuals, in this case a family, finds itself at a site with a sordid and unsettled history, and the supernatural reverberations of that history come back to haunt the new occupants. The Nelson family is all packed up and ready to move into their new house, but they discover that the purchase of the new home won’t be finalized for four more days. They’ve already moved everything out of the old place, have their moving van stuffed to the gills, and now have no place to go. (From the beginning, the premise is a bit unlikely. Would these serious homebuyers really have mixed up or been unaware of the actual closing date?) They have to find a place to stay in the interim, and they end up discovering an unlikely and dated hotel. Unbeknownst to them, the dwelling is located on the site of historical atrocities, one dating back to the seventeen century (a mother and her children are murdered by the father, who himself is tried before court for the act of committing the ungodly act of suicide after killing his family…tried while dead?) and another to the 1920s, when a young woman is gang raped and then commits suicide as a way out of her shame. And there are apparently other evil acts that take place around this location, I assume, since throughout the series we see an entire cast of tortured and mutilated souls in addition to the aforementioned family and young woman. We’re never really privy to other stories of violence. From what I can gather, their committing suicide has robbed them of their eternal rest, and they need the souls of the unsuspecting Nelson family to get out of their tormented state. So the Nelson family undergoes what families normally undergo when the inhabit a haunted locale: fighting through a series of terrifying and otherworldly experiences in the hopes that they’ll break free of the place’s haunted grip. But as one of the murdered figures tells the Nelsons midway through the miniseries, “Evil stays where evil dies.” And as you might expect, the Nelsons are forever trapped in this haunted space — which we learn in the series’ closing pages is referred to as “Lot 13” — and there’s no Spielbergian happy ending as we have in Poltergeist. There are some interesting scenes in this miniseries and some gruesome scenarios that drive the plot — again, it’s the art of Fabry that really shines through here, with his highly detailed renderings of supernatural activity and psychic chaos — but taken as a whole, the story is a little thin. Part of the reason is its predictable nature. I would have liked to have seen Steve Niles take this popular horror convention and do something different with it. Insert a little time manipulation, have history feed back on itself, problematize the family dynamics, show how the “evil” we assign to the past actually pales when compared to acts taken in the present. As the story is actually presented, Niles takes a well-traveled narrative route — one that is engaging at times — but doesn’t deviate from the set course in any innovative or interesting ways. As such, the miniseries has the feel of a missed opportunity.
I got a similar feeling from Strnad and Corben’s Ragemoor. First let me say that I am a gigantic fan of Richard Corben’s work. He’s done a lot of non-horror comics, such as his collaborations with Brian Azzarello on Startling Stories: Banner/The Hulk and Cage, but the fantastic and weird is really where you’ll find some of Corben’s best work. His art for Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella is truly outstanding, and in my book there is no one who adapts the work of Edgar Allen Poe better than Corben, something I’ve written on previously. (In fact, given his recent adaptations of Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm” and “Fall of the House of Usher” for Dark Horse, I wouldn’t be surprised if Corben has another collection of Poe adaptations planned.) And while I’m not really familiar with the writing of Jan Strnad, I know that he’s collaborated with Corben before, so I had high hopes for this four-issue miniseries. The story started well enough: a castle linked to a family name, inherited reluctantly by the younger generation, with an ambiguous macabre grasp on its occupants, possessing a sordid and ill-define history, and containing dark secrets that suggests that the manor has a life of its own. There are also the suspect relations within the family, complete with deception, lust, jealousy, and of course hints of incest. Reading the first issue, I couldn’t help but think of how Poe-esque — or Poe-tic — this story was, how Strnad was setting this up as another kind of “Usher” narrative. Maybe that was my problem in reading this miniseries, trying to find in it a contemporary expression of Poe. That’s setting a high bar, indeed. But beginning in the second issue, I felt that the story was losing its way, that it was getting a little too wacky, with its ape-skeleton population and the caterpillar- or maggot-looking creatures. Then there is the psychedelic potion that Herbert’s servant, Brodrick, concocts to understand the underlying truth of Ragemoor. And then things get really freaky in the final issue, where we see Herbert’s love interest and supposed cousin, Anoria, being used as a breeding ground for “Ragemoor’s army” of maggoty things. She looks like a tick engorged on blood and just about to pop. None of these strange turns undermine the story in and of themselves, but taken together they present a tale that reads more like a series of scattered horrific events than they do a coherent and compelling narrative. When I finished the miniseries, I couldn’t help but think that Ragemoor was like an uneasy coupling of Edgar Allen Poe and H. P. Lovecraft…interestingly enough, two horror writers whose work Corben is adept at translating. I love the work of Poe and I love the work of Lovecraft, but in mashing up the styles of these two authors, Strnad and Corben lessen the effect of both. Ragemoor isn’t a bad narrative, but it ultimately comes across as fractured. That being said, the miniseries’ strong suit is Corben’s art…much in the way that Fabry’s illustrations are a saving grace, or the closest thing to it, of Lot 13. The stories of these two titles may not hold up well under close scrutiny, but the art of both is distinctive and wonderful to look at.