I reviewed Chris Kent’s Medusa last year, a tale of a serviceman returned from Iraq, deeply damaged in his soul, haunting and disturbing, using a mixture of art and collage with roughly printed newspaper images (see here). For his new work Chris has remained with the horror theme (and a classic one at that, the Golem) but in every other respect this is a very different approach from Medusa. The artwork signals this from the start – in the place of that dark, mixed media, grainy look from Medusa here it is all hand-drawn in atmospheric greytones, laid out regularly in nine-panel grids.
The Golem is set in the late Victorian period (1897 to be precise, the same year which saw Dracula introduced to the nightmares of generations of readers, I’m assuming a deliberate act by the author), that wonderful period which makes a terrific setting, poised between the buttoned-up era of Victoriana, gas lamps, fog-bound cobbled city street and the birth of the hi-tech 20th century with all its wonders and terrors. It’s a terrific setting, and Chris makes full use of it to establish an atmosphere which could have come from a classic 50s Hammer film, or perhaps 70s era Doctor Who (think the theatre in the Talons of Weng-Chiang which was both intriguingly magical and yet at the same time creepy and disturbing).
Alfred Larchmont is a struggling performer, a stage magician, struggling to keep his name higher up the bill, slowly sliding downwards, losing ground and money, career seemingly on the downward curve, debts rising, his colleagues at the theatre (manager and two very creepy and luridly nasty looking performers – the strong man and the clown) circling like jackals sensing a weakening prey – even his wife is clearly tired of his lack of success and her loyalty is becoming fickle. And then a dreadful disaster – an illusion with a guillotine goes wrong and his attractive lady assistant loses her head, literally… And it’s no accident, those same creepy colleagues at the theatre have covertly sabotaged his equipment, and now they hint that they could ‘help’ cover up the accident from the authorities. For a price, of course.
And into this seemingly unstoppable downward spiral of career and marriage comes an unexpected bequest from a deceased fellow magician. Not just money, although there is a little of that too, but there is also a very peculiar piece of kit, some sort of figure – a mannequin, perhaps? Some sort of stage prop the old magician has left him? But what is it? How does he use it and why has this old magician left it to him (and why is the dead man’s son so keen to pass it on to him?)? And then his young son finds it and a scrap of paper with certain words and suddenly the figure comes to life – he is Golem. And he seems to understand Larchmont’s predicament perfectly, offering his assistance. Unlike many golems of myth, this one can talk and indeed he seems quite a cultured and thoughtful chap, especially for someone born of clay. Larchmont discovers the Golem has certain abilities and powers, and he designs a new performance around those, a unique performance to save his career and pay off his vile persecutors at the theatre at the same time. And then things go further and darker – remember, in myth a golem isn’t just a servant, they also often serve the purposes of protection and, if need be, vengeance and justice…
I won’t spoil the story by revealing any more. Suffice to say it’s a very atmospheric tale, mixing the myth of the Golem with that rich Victorian theatre setting, murderous conspiracies, that always intriguing premise that perhaps behind the stage illusions there may be a little genuine magic and mystery, and even a touch of Spiritualism. As I said at the start Chris has taken a very different artistic approach from his previous work – this is some lovely work, monochrome, with many lingering close-ups, especially of the faces of the characters, which in the case of some like the criminally manipulative theatre manager prove to be uncomfortably close-up, the face, those eyes, the large moustache too close, leering almost as if he was right there with you, one of those bullish people who invade your personal space as an act of social dominance, all of which adds to the sense of menace.
The layout too is very different from Medusa, here staying strictly to a nine panel grid. This could become repetitive, but Chris, while adhering to this layout still manages to vary things, by having some panels act as individual stand-alone panels while others act with their neighbouring panels to depict a larger single scene taking place across a few moments, and this keeps the nine panel format quite dynamic and visually diverse from page to page. It’s an intriguing piece, atmospheric, dark, disturbing, haunting, the sort of story those of us who love classic British horror films like Hammer or those iconic Victorian tales of the supernatural will find suits them perfectly. Properly bound as a book (no mini comics for Chris!), The Golem is available from the Graphite Fiction site and you can also find it in the small press sections of our Edinburgh and Glasgow branches. Good friend of the blog Alex Fitch recently interviewed Chris about Medusa and The Golem for Panel Borders, which you can check out here.