Daylight Horrors: In Which I Swear Off the Comics of Rick Geary
April 7, 2010
I used to be a night person. Now that I’m no longer a night person or a morning person, it takes a special kind of book to end up on my bedside table. I drop off to sleep instantaneously; that’s not the issue. My bedside book has to be something good enough that I can put it down without feeling I’ve devoted the last few minutes of my day to something pointless or cheesy, but not so good I’m tempted to keep the light on because I can’t find a stopping place, while Der Mann (who gets up early to catch a bus) flops in increasing half-asleep irritation. Plus, when I read too long after Der Mann’s sleepy-time my hands and forearms get cold from holding up the book, and sometimes I can’t warm them up again. Fifteen minutes to a half hour is usually about right. If I’ve got a book I literally can’t put down I just get up and read in a chair. Social satire is good, but not too cringey. Period drama, but not too weighty.
Well, last night I made a terrible terrible mistake when I selected my reading options. I took one of these. I don’t even want to write its title, because that could turn into an unintentional advertisement. From now on I have sworn off Rick Geary.
Geary wrote a non-fiction comics in a series known as A Treasury of Victorian Murder, and now he is writing about early 20th century crimes as well. About twelve years ago I found The Borden Tragedy in general nonfiction at a public library. It was probably the first edition; crude printing, small publisher–I assumed it was somebody’s little moneymaking scheme, the kind of thing you might find for sale at a tourist bureau in Fall River. Back then the only graphic novel I’d seen was Maus. Epic and serious. So I barely knew what to make of this.
But I read it, and it stuck with me. Geary was reporterly–even humane–in his treatment of a gristly crime of passion. The distance in time from the events, combined with the objectifying effect of comics in general and of Geary’s reductive-yet-detailed drawing style in particular, was compelling. I avoid horror and true crime books, so this was the closest my reading would get to any kind of real-life-type murderers; coming this far was kind of interesting. Hopeful, even. Geary presents his disasters with the accompaniment of a careful diagram, defused of their explosive craziness, so that you can examine them. He doesn’t obtrude his own personality or emotions on his narratives; both in his pictures and in the tone of his text he steers clear of spatter in favor of the slightly smarmy tone of contemporary newspaper accounts (perhaps directly quoting from them) and traditionally composed panels that owe a lot to old photographs and postcards. It sounds weird to say so, but I felt like I was learning and being diverted at the same time–the same feeling I get at a really good museum exhibit.
I didn’t know the Borden tragedy was part of a series until just a few weeks ago. Then I read Famous Players (the 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor in Hollywood) and The Fatal Bullet (the assassination of James Garfield).
By the time I realized how much more disturbing last night’s little book was going to be than the other three, it would have been worse NOT to finish it than to find out what happened.
Another thing I’d liked about Geary’s comics was the intentional variety. Although his drawing style and pacing is very consistent, each comic had a little unique device in the telling, an emphasis, that made you feel like you were entering a separate miniature world from the last. The emphasis in the one I read last night wasn’t the murderer’s character, because he was a cipher, but the the repetitive, frenetic, a-logical series of events he generated. His constant scurrying, like an insect. The fact that, like an insect, he was able to perpetrate so much disgusting awfulness completely disregarded and completely unchecked.
I like to think about times when everything was messier and on a more human scale. It comforts me to remember how recent they were. In The Fatal Bullet I enjoyed the atmosphere of late 19th century Washington D.C., with the president strolling out of the White House by himself after dinner and walking a few blocks to visit a friend! In Famous Players, I was impressed that just 90 years ago a Hollywood director like William Desmond Taylor was living in a normal courtyard bungalow, where an actress in a neighboring unit usually spent her evenings knitting. The book I read last night offered no little socio-historical compensations for the murderer’s mess. The events took place in a time modern enough that a clearly screwy fellow couldn’t be kept in line by the watchful eyes of his community–this one had no community, just business associates and incurious suburban neighbors–but not modern enough that there were official structures to take the community’s place as watchdog.
Seeing all the ways he might have been caught if anyone was paying attention gave the whole thing a fatalistic feeling which only got worse, and worse, and worse. You know a book’s not doing you good when the only bright spot is an incident of arson.
When I had finished it–and it didn’t take long–I put it down with a feeling that it was physically tainted. I’m not generally subject to the horrors, or even persistent unwanted thoughts, but last night took me back to early childhood. My sense of hearing was heightened, and the caterwauling cats, distant coyotes, squirrels working to get into the eaves, and animals going thump as they jumped onto the porch gave me plenty to listen to. There was also the dread of opening the door on the dark bathroom–the shadowy no man’s land behind the tub. It occurred to me for the very first time in the year we’ve lived here that Something Bad might easily have happened in a 97-year-old house. Even in a 97-year-old house with a crappy down-to-the-studs remodel, that wasn’t even built as a house. “The Creamery Murders of 1918” perhaps? Eh. Better not go there.
In the process of not going there, I lay perfectly still on my back and my side and my other side like a slow rotisserie. My shoulder muscle went into spasm. Every thought went foggily back to something from the book. It seemed to last all night. No bad dreams, thankfully, because I never dropped off that far. I didn’t feel personally threatened, just nauseated that there was such evil in the world. It seemed that it would have spilled over into everything it came near.
Now I’m angry. Not at Geary: Geary’s just doing what he always does. It’s a lot better than what true crime writers are doing. I suppose I’m angry at the murderer, who used his creative energies for destruction. The fact that he was caught and punished means nothing because it undid nothing he’d done. I wanted him never to have existed.
That made me think of eugenics. The whole notion of eugenics is repellent, but I am wondering if its popularity in the early 20th century may have something to do with that crack between pre-modern and modern social structures–when the moral cockroaches first started venturing out of the woodwork without fear, before we stood around with our cans of Raid, expecting them. Resigned to them.
The best I can do is not read about them. I need my sleep.
Is there a book you wish you could unread?