January 10, 2009

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House

Written by Josh Simmons
Illustrated by Josh Simmons
Fantagraphics

Yet another book that took forever to get off of my library hold list and into my hands--roughly six months, to be exact. It's like the library decided to give me Christmas presents or something of the items kicking around on my hold list for most of the year.

After reading House, I have decided to use it as exhibit a the next time Erica wants to try and explore an abandoned house. Because I just know that what happens in Josh Simmon's slow-burn horror comic is exactly what will happen to us, except that instead of a broken water bottle, she'll be carrying a soda.

I think the hardest job a reviewer has is handling a book like House, where discussing the merits of the book--and I thought House was excellent--would spoil the joy of reading it for anyone who hasn't had the pleasure yet of doing so. I'm gonna try my best here, but you'll pardon me if this review seems a bit more clipped of details than usual.

First of all, this is a wordless comic, ala Jason (also of Fantagrahics), so if you require dialog in your graphic novels, this is not for you no matter how good I think it is. While I admit I was surprised at the lack of any sound effects whatsoever, the creepiness value of the story is definitely heightened by a lack of what would almost certainly have been typical horror exclamations. If you have an imagination--and I bet you do--you can fill in what the characters are thinking just fine on your own.

The second thing to understand is that this is a slow-burn comic. The first half of the story is there to establish a mood as the plot builds to its terrifying conclusion. I am a big fan of stories that work in this manner, having cut my teeth on a lot of old-school books and movies. If the payoff is worth the build-up (and here it is, as the protagonists dig themselves--at times quite literally--into further trouble), you have a winning story. However, I am aware that a lot of people prefer things that get right into the action. If that's you, then I think you'll find House disappointing.

Still with me? Okay, good. House is the story of two girls and a boy who are urban explorers, namely folks who poke their heads around in abandoned properties. It's something they must do often, because they're very prepared--matches, miner's helmets, a full lunch, the whole nine yards. This time, they're after a really huge mansion in the woods.

This place is HUGE, as established by many camera angles by Simmons. Unfortunately, it's also not very structurally sound. Despite this, our trio presses on, even as their dynamics change in ways that may not help them if they run into trouble. As they explore the house, more secrets are uncovered. Soon, however, the house may have a few secrets that can't be solved...and that's where the book starts getting really good...!

Simmons' art is very dense and filled with intricate lines, almost like the line art of a lithograph or similar art styles that went out of style over a century ago, only to be resurrected by comic artists. This places a shadow over the whole story, as it feels like there's something bad about to happen on every turn of the page. Even the scenes where only innocent things like a man walking in the woods occur have a feeling of menace. Printed on black pages, the borders between the panels themselves close in on the story and missing panels give the effect of blackness cutting off the story's air.

In other words, this is creepy in the old Universal Pictures sense, not in the Friday the 13th sense, and I thought it was great. If you like old-school horror, I'm betting you'll agree. I look forward to reading more by Simmons in the future.