Ghosts and Ruins

Author(s): 
Release Date: 
August 6, 2013
Publisher/Imprint: 
Fantagraphics
Pages: 
88
Reviewed by: 

“. . . wonderfully scary stories . . . told with such beauty and wit you regret when they end.”

Every town both big and small has is at least one deteriorating house or building. When we see these abandoned homes and buildings it is hard to not conjure up thoughts of ghosts, vengeful spirits, and the undead that could possibly find refuge inside these neglected walls. It’s only human.

Artist and writer Ben Catmull gives life to these thoughts and terror-inducing corners of our mind in Ghosts and Ruins. The softness of his exquisite scratchboard on masonite drawings may lesson the impact of what he shows us us, but at the heart of every image is a deep sense of unknown and hidden horror.

The stories that set up each full-page drawing range from simple declarations to narratives unfolding with deliberate precision. Each tale told speaks directly about the fear at the core of what he shows us.

The stories each hold a hint of humor and a sense of slight detachment. Our reactions to what we read and see can vary from a nervous smile birthed in discomfort at what we read to a broad smile at what the art implies.

“Drowned Shelly” tells the story of a lonely young woman who runs afoul of her drunken stepfather. In a fit he drowns the poor girl. The horror of the action is off set by the tender image of a bucolic rural homestead that looks as decent as any place of residence ever has.

On the next page we find out that she grew up isolated and alone, with only the creatures of the pond as friends. Despite the fact that the previous page just told that she was drowned we are momentarily distracted by the idea of youthful trust and innocence finding pleasure in the simplicity of nature.

It is only then that Mr. Catmull uses the next page to show us the horrific image of the lifeless girl leaning over the edge of a bathtub. Look closely and will see snakes exiting quietly around the rim. It as if the girl’s murder is so despicable that the ultimate incarnation of evil as shown in the “Book of Genesis” wants nothing to do with it.

Around her submerged head leaves float across the top of the water, just as they did long ago in her childhood playground of the pond. The image of the girl face-down in a tub filled with water is naturally disturbing, but Mr. Catmull begins to take us in a different direction. He starts to create a fable around her murder.

We are warned say her name 13 times while looking in the pond and she will drown you in your sleep. He shows us the victim looking through a window at the sleeping young man water is draining eerily from her eyes and mouth. The next warning moves the story into the world of the absurd.

“Say her name the wrong number of times while looking in the pond and she will leave hair in your breakfast dishes.”

After all those terrible images, the real horror in the center of the story is the top of a perfectly good muffin covered in hair. We begin to smile but the real laugh comes on the next image.

“Mispronounce her name 13 times . . . and she will kick you somewhere delicate at the stroke of midnight.”

We see the once fear-inducing specter from the window framed by two doorways kicking the now-awakened sleeper between he legs. At the front of the image a cuckoo clock hangs on the wall to the right. The bird is reaching up to the sky with it’s beak as it crows loudly at the stroke of midnight in a silly celebration of the event.

Not all stories are this long. On a single page “Hair and Earwigs” makes a simple declaration about the house to the right:

“The basement of this house is filled with hair and earwigs.” The art only shows us the outside of the house. It is surrounded by power lines, an ancient TV antenna juts up form the corner and lone light illuminates its porch.

Nothing in the drawing shows us anything odd, but the suggestion is more than enough to make us fret over being trapped in the basement of the house. Furthermore the single porch light indicates that someone is living there among all the hair and earwigs . . . the thought that someone would willingly live among the filth being a horror unto itself.

While the drawings often take up a full page, Mr. Catmull will occasionally expand the art by slipping into the more traditional comic use of sequential panels.

For “The Sculptor” he opens on a house surrounded by various sculptures that look as if it is part of a southwestern desert. Despite the beauty of what we are shown, everything before us has been decorated by a sculptor who is never satisfied with his work.

After he dies his works remain in the house, each piece slowly changing over time. Even in death the sculptor cannot escape dissatisfaction about his own work. Over the course of six panels Mr. Catmull shows us the changes that the deceased artist is making from the afterlife.

Like any artist Catmull knows the Pandora’s Box opened by over-scrutinizing one’s own artwork. The story of the sculptor becomes a cautionary tale about obsession in pursuit of perfection. Who wants to die only to remain here on earth constantly reworking what they couldn’t find happiness with in their life?

For those who like their horror with more then a hint of detached humor, Ghosts and Ruins is the perfect book to leave out at both Halloween and Christmas.

These are wonderfully scary stories drawn and told with such beauty and wit you regret when they end.