Friday, April 08, 2005

Strange Embrace review

Courtesy of ever-generous Uncle Larry, I recently read David Hine's graphic novel, Strange Embrace, published in its collected edition in 2003 by Active Images. Before now, I'd only heard of David Hine as the writer of District X, a relatively new Marvel series that impressed me with its richness of ideas in the first three issues and then completely nose-dived into dreary cliché storytelling. So going in, I honestly didn't know what to expect; did Hine have the chops to put together a complete story, and take it beyond the "ripe idea" stage?

Well, yes, he did. Strange Embrace is a crafty, sly piece of psychological horror that I found surprisingly accessible; I was expecting this brainy English horror story, written and drawn by the same man (in black-and-white, no less), to be somewhat haughty and pretentious, but I was proven very wrong. The book tells its story in a very straightforward manner, broken into four long chapters that each focus on a different character, and the interaction between and among these characters' lives forms a remarkably linear, cohesive whole. The final effect of the book is chilling and thought-provoking, and strangely enough, while it ends with the total destruction of several lives (at least one of them innocent), there's a feeling of completion and satisfaction to it, as if a cycle has completed and a bizarre kind of justice has been done.

The first quarter of the story introduces Alex, a malicious psychic who will serve as the narrator for the remaining three story segments. His story really serves as a mood-setter more than anything else; the details of his life and what's happened to him ultimately have very little to do with the rest of the book, though he does introduced a couple motifs. A big one is bleeding walls. Throughout the story, walls are leaking, bleeding, exploding, and while it’s clearly got the potential to be one of those symbols that readers debate over and over until it’s a dead issue, I’m pretty sure it’s just intended to (A) be freaky, and (B) the obvious: people – all people – hide things, wall themselves off from others, build protective barriers, and a central theme of this book is that those barriers are essentially destructive, horrible things.

The rest of the story, and the bulk of the book, focuses on the tragedy of the family Corbeau. This family is populated by a number of well-intentioned but dangerously frail men and women, all of them hiding something, all of them meaning to protect themselves but ultimately sealing themselves off from the personal connections that would redeem them, would save them from the horror that takes over (and sometimes ends) their lives.

The point here – and it’s a bit of a spoiler for those who haven’t read this at least once – is both an emotional and a cerebral one, but there’s a slight of hand that takes place. Calling a story “psychological horror” usually implies that the tale will be more cunning and tricksy than your usual monster-in-the-shadows scare fest, that the Evil Creature’s secret plot is more intelligent than the usual “kill all the good people” plot. Still, the actual horror itself, the aberration that disturbs and frightens the audience, is usually some kind of unexplainable phenomenon, a terror from the shadows that strikes and then disappears back into the night, leaving terror and tragedy in its wake; we’re not supposed to understand exactly why it happened. In Strange Embrace, it’s much clearer what the horror is: it is psychology itself. The mysterious evils that strike the cast are revealed, piece by piece, to be the result of the intellectual and emotional frailties of the very same characters who suffer and fear. Alex and his limbo-dwelling collection of ghosts are a decoy. The effects of the horror element of the story – the fear and suffering of its characters – are the same as the cause. So there’s a satisfying, cyclical nature to the devastation that sweeps through every life in the story. It causes and resolves itself.

The result is that this book is well worth a second read, without seeming as if the first read was a waste of time (as was the case with, say, Fight Club). Nothing is revealed that cheapens what has come before; every revelation simply sheds more light on what has come before.

Hine’s art style is better than I thought it’d be. Most writer/artists who end up being just writers? I think they’ve made the right decision. I think Bendis’ art is terrible. Brubaker’s art suited the stories he used it to tell, but I’m glad he left it behind. Hine? Not so bad. He uses a very European inking style, very clean and bold, and a lot of his faces remind me of Jason Lutes’ style. He’s got more of an impressionistic method of characterization, though, using fairly natural, mundane face shapes for his more “normal” and benign characters and exaggerating the appearances of his more wounded and dangerous ones. He makes subtle use of visual motifs as well – it’s tasteful and reserved repetition, and while its meaning is not always clear, it helps lend some cohesion to the story, which shifts perspective a number of times. The visual consistency helps keep the story on track.


Strange Embrace engages some fairly cliché thematic material – the European obsession with the evil mystery of Dark Africa, religious fear of sexual intimacy, child abuse yielding crippled adults, and so on – but it resolves this issues in a satisfying way by leaping from foot to foot, demanding that the reader do the same, leading us on like a murder mystery. We’re sure it was the butler, until we’re sure it was the maid. When the end comes, and we realize it was the victims themselves, it’s a sobering close.

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