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?

10 Responses to “Daylight Horrors: In Which I Swear Off the Comics of Rick Geary”

  1. Jenny said

    “When I had finished it–and it didn’t take long–I put it down with a feeling that it was physically tainted.”

    I so know what you mean. When I get a book like that, I can’t even go to sleep knowing it’s in the house, which I suppose is a testament, if an unpleasant one, to the power of the written word. I read Geary’s account of Madeline Smith’s murder, and wasn’t crazy about it, so I don’t mind steering clear of his other books.

    • trapunto said

      I always sympathized with the way Beverly Cleary’s Ramona was scared of the nature book with the picture of the scary gorilla in it, lurking in the bookcase at night.

      The next morning, when I took the Geary downstairs to put it in my library-return bag, I sandwiched it between Dorothy Sayer’s Essays and and a Kage Baker Novella so I wouldn’t have to glance at the cover while I carried it.

  2. I’ve never read any of his books, but I do know the feeling… :/ Sorry this one caught you wrong! I did this with the movie Coraline. Then Amanda bought it for me for Christmas. See, that’s what marriage is all about…

    • trapunto said

      Coraline! Wow. My experience with the movie wasn’t intense, except cringing at the artists’ cruelty to the burlesque actresses, which I thought was actually pretty true to how someone Coraline’s age would perceive old, fat, formerly oversexed ladies. But then, watched it on a fuzzy screen at a pub-theater type place, with a whole family chowing down on first appetizers, then hamburgers and fries, then goopy deserts next to us, and waitpeople going in and out.

      What was your thing with Coraline? (Which sounds challenging, but I don’t mean it that way, since I am completely not-invested in the film.)

      • It is difficult to put my finger on it precisely. I could certainly point out particular SCENES that troubled me. The part where you realize the moon is being eclipsed by a giant button, for instance. The particular desperation in Other Mother’s voice as she is calling out to Coraline to come back (oh god, I don’t even want to think about that!). Teh slow dissolution of Other Father. The ‘scary’ things weren’t that scary, I guess, and the carnival atmosphere would honestly have gotten a little tiring in most movies. The movie had moments of Beetlejuice-ish excess, like the artists were going ‘ooh, look, we’re so terrifically whimsical, yes!’ But there were just these little moments, and this little under current. The way the doll flops around so loosely and emptily when she moves it.

        Conceptually… I don’t know exactly. Part of it, I guess is, as a grownup (and one who has often done a terribly rotten job of BEING a grownup), I’ve always had a significant part of me that’s sort of that stunted-growth self, that never ages as it should. Much like you talk about with the eccentricity in your other post, people paint this little bit of the child in the grownup as being a lovely, wonderful thing. Childlike grownups are wonderful, they’re magical, they’re Mr. MAgorium or they’re the JM Barrie of Finding Neverland, or they’re loveable rogues or buffoons in romantic comedies. In fact, this is false (or at lest VERY incomplete). There is a reason we grow up, and when we don’t grow up, it’s usually because we can’t, or because we don’t dare, or because we’re simply too lazy (at least, that’s it for me), and that little child-self flounders and ruins all kinds of things and exhibits itself in horrible ways.

        It’s the very occasional story that is honest about this. The original Peter Pan has a lot of it in it, the way Peter is continuously self-centered and forgetful of the people who love him, the way all of his little loves and heroisms and everything else, all his courage, at some level stems from a sort of willful blindness and self-absorption. Coraline has the same feeling, it speaks these little volumes to that little inner child, while still being wise enough to remind the grownup self that the child is reprehensible unless it grows up eventually – that it’s PURPOSE is to grow up, and without that, it’s a failure. That in fact, children are lovely because they are children, and if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be lovely any more.

        For me the personality of Other Mother, and that of Coraline are really very closely related – they are both in search of control of their surroundings, of affection, etc. The only difference is that Coraline is mostly powerless, while Other Mother is not (this same parallel exists in PEter Pan, between him and Hook for me. When Peter takes over Hook’s ship, after he kills him, when I was young, I was sure he would become a new Hook. And I think Barrie intends this feeling). The ending on Coraline seems to tell this tale. Coraline becomes a better person because she leaves a bit of her childhood behind – her selfishness, for instance, and her need to be taken care of by the people around her, and her assumptions about grownups. AT the end, Coraline has grown. And that’s why she isn’t Other Mother. Other Mother never grows up. Other Mother is the one who is, eternally a child. That’s troubling for me. When I heard Other Mother calling out to Coraline to stop when she was escaping, I felt the very real loneliness and desperation in her voice, and realized that she would NEVER not feel those things, and that she would ALWAYS be a parasite, unless she were destroyed, and that there is a point where clinging to one’s childhood too long fuses one irreversibly with the misbegotten bits of one’s self. I found that very disturbing – not the hero story that was in the center of things, but the central problem she is trying to beat.

        Ironically, in the middle of leaving this comment, I had to run off, because I realized I was supposed to pick the boys up from school, and had forgotten them, leaving them stranded for half an hour. So, there you have it.

        • trapunto said

          There’s so much I would like to respond to here, it’s taken me a while. You convince me that my ambivalence about Coraline was a result of the distracting theater. (Clearly, it’s not the kind of movie that goes with other people’s hamburgers!) I remember thinking “shudder” at some of the exact details you mention, without *feeling* a shudder. So then I promptly forgot about them.

          Other Mother was disturbing, but I never parsed her. I think you are quite perceptive about what’s going on there. But I reacted differently to the relationship between her and Coraline. I didn’t feel the danger of Coraline turning into Other Mother (though that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there), only that she needed to RUN AWAY FROM HER LIKE CRAZY.

          I’ll leave that for now.

          My instincts about childhood are a photonegative of yours. The image is the same, but the values are reversed. I cringe at the inner child mumbo-jumbo as much as the next person who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, but I don’t attribute my own failures at grownup life (and I think most people feel at least SOME sense of failure about not having magically turned into what they thought a grownup would be, unless they are raging narcissists) to childishness. Childhood, maybe; stuntedness, maybe; childishness, no.

          Like, give your inner child break, mon.

          No, no. I don’t mean that. I hear what you’re saying. I mean, I KNOW what you’re saying. For many years now I have loved and lived with a man who, when I first met him, reminded me of nothing so much as a valiant young hobbit.

          There’s one thing I really wanted to know: did you apologize abjectly to your kids? It seems like a little thing, but it *isn’t.* It will make the difference between them spending long hours writing awkwardly analytical blog posts on emotional subjects when they are grownups, and doing whatever else grownups do that’s, you know, grownupy. I couldn’t say what that would be, but…

          I meant to write all about Peter Pan, which had a huge impact on me when I read it (Barrie wrote a short novelization of the play). What a profound little story lurking under the old cultural juggernaut. Basically, I wanted to be Peter Pan, but in a different way than you might think, for different reasons than the obvious. Weird that we have had the same signposts.

        • I agree with the whole ‘inner child’ overemphasis thing – though I think this is because most of the times I’ve heard the idea used it has been as an excuse. You’re supposed to let go your inner child or get in touch with your inner child, or whatever. IT kind of comes across as self-justification to me?

          I don’t know if Coraline is a great movie or not, it’s entirely possible, even likely that it’s just me. Relying on my good taste isn’t ALWAYS a safe plan… that being said, while I agree that the urge is ‘run away run away!’ in the words of Monty Python, the interesting, and disturbing, thing to me was that urge NOT to run away, the fact that she stayed so long, even when it seemed so apparent that she SHOULD run away, you know? THAT’S where I see that potentiality. Particularly, you look at Other Mother’s ‘devious plan’ – she gives Coraline button eyes to sew on, to make her just like Other Mother. The ghosts of the other children that have fallen for the ploy are eternally children (though powerless and therefore less threatening) after all.

          That’s what I mean, I guess. I think in my initial post I might fo come across as saying children are nasty little brats. They aren’t. I LOVE children. LOVE LOVE LOVE. I cry over babies, I sing songs with toddlers, I can sit through a whole game of Candyland. Children are wonderful, wonderful creatures – the younger in some senses the better. But, that’s the thing: many of the things that are lovely in children are terrible in grownups. This is good, and natural, because the thing is, being a grownup ought to be as potentially beautiful as being a child, though different, of course. An adult who remains a child, in the sense of refusing to be a grownup, is refusing to be what they are, and THAT’S ugly and dangerous.

          I’m interested in what your relationship is to Peter Pan, though I won’t push. Myself, I was always fascinated actually by the origin story, that all the children were ones that, as Barrie delicately puts it, were not paid close enough attention to by their nurses, and got snatched out of their prams – and that Pan himself was forgotten in Kensington Gardens. In the original story, Peter Pan shows up as an infant, in fact. The thing I ADMIRED about Peter Pan is the same thing I admired about, say, Gavroche in Les Miserables, the ability to make one’s own sensible world, even if the adult world refuses to provide you one, and actively works to prevent you from having one (actually, particularly if you read the passage where he’s helping the two children hide in the elephant statue, there are a LOT of interesting parallels between Gavroche and Peter Pan. Gavroche, sadly, not growing up because he dies, though…)

  3. Colleen said

    There are several books I wish I could unread, but generally it’s because they were just so bad, not because they were terrifying or sickening. Although one of these culprits – Timoleon Vieta Come Home – was both bad AND sickening.

    Btw, you mention Fall River. Probably there are lots of Fall Rivers in the world, but you don’t happen to be in Nova Scotia, do you?

    • trapunto said

      Actually, I was thinking of Fall River Massachusetts, which is where the Borden murder took place. I suppose there must be a lot of Fall Rivers in the world.

      I wish I were in Nova Scotia, because then I would be Canadian and that would be awesome. But then, if I were Canadian I would live on Vancouver Island so I could have a stunning temperate zone garden and live on an island.

      As it is, I live in Southwest Washington State.

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