Gothic/Grotesque

Black Metal in the Time of Corona

I have wanted to write about black metal for some time, but a number of things have stopped me. Firstly, I am not confident that I actually know what black metal is. I understand almost nothing about the intricacies and technicalities of metal sub-genres. I can’t, for example, quite fathom what people mean when they state, as though it is obvious, that the album A Blaze in the Northern Sky isn’t true, unadulterated black metal. Secondly, I find music journalism to be tedious and/or pointless. I have little interest in the opinions and stories of musicians and I’m even less engaged by journalists describing the songs and albums made by musicians. There will, therefore, be limited space here given to explaining the murder of Euronymous, the meetings at Helvete, the church burnings, or blast beats, corpse paint, and arguments for the superiority of Hvis Lyset Tar Oss over In the Nightshade Eclipse. This will, all told, be a very short article. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder whether I even need to proceed beyond this one paragraph. I am an expert at writing myself into a corner.     

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It’s worth pointing out, at this stage, what I mean by black metal, or what kind of black metal stimulates me, as even within this sub-genre and scene there is a complex web of other sub-genres and scenes. I will not be attempting to untangle any of that, nor do I care for proto-black metal acts such as Bathory and Celtic Frost or new-wave black metal bands like Deafheaven. So, when I use the term black metal, what I am referring to is a very narrow sound and timeframe, which is early to mid 90’s Norwegian black metal. In essence, my passion for the genre really only extends to Mayhem, Emperor, Darkthrone, and Burzum, with the latter two being my true loves. What unites these bands, at least during that early period, is an aesthetic and a musical and political ideology. Moreover, they all knew each other personally. Varg Vikernes (aka Count Grishnackh) of Burzum, for example, was once the bass player in Mayhem (and stabbed their guitarist to death). He also wrote half of the lyrics for Darkthrone’s Transylvanian Hunger album.

My first exposure to black metal came in my teens when I chanced upon an article in a magazine. I can’t remember too much about its contents, except that it, as these sorts of things do, focussed on the more controversial elements of the scene, particularly the arson and the violence. Of course, I did not advocate murder or the burning down of churches, but there was something about the danger, the bleak atmosphere, the outsiderness, the cultishness, that did speak to me. However, it was the accompanying black and white photographs that were the most affecting. There was, and to my eyes still is, something stark and unsettling, but also sad and moving about the corpse-painted figures in them. Viewed as art, divorced from any musical context, they are incredible, beautiful images. If I now try to understand the appeal of all this to me then, it would be that – as someone who looked for, and simultaneously sought an escape from, myself in art – I saw a reflection of my brutal circumstances in this black metal world; yet, at the same time, that world seemed completely alien and other.

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It surprises me to recall that, for someone who was so poor, much of the music I wanted to hear was accessible to me as a child and teenager. If one of my friends couldn’t copy or loan me the album I was currently fixated upon, then more often than not they, or I, knew someone who could steal it for me. If that didn’t work out, there was a market stall, which set up on Tuesdays, where you could buy cheap bootleg, second hand or stolen CD’s. You could even put in an order. However, I never asked for Emperor (which was the only band name I could remember from the original article, even though I now realise that they were little more than a footnote in it), because it seemed perhaps pointless, but certainly inadvisable. Black metal at that time struck me as almost illicit, like a snuff film. In my immature imagination I attached all kinds of malevolence to owning and playing that music. I had convinced myself that it would bring misfortune to me; and misfortune was something I already had in spades.

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It was quite some time before I actually heard the black metal music I had once longed for and yet been so wary of. As I passed through university and coasted into my early twenties, I focussed instead on my love of hip hop and abstract electronica. I didn’t, however, completely forget about my black metal; it – indistinct yet deformed – continued to creep around in the dark corners of my mind. It was the end of a relationship that prompted me to finally seek out that which had become legendary, and therefore perhaps best left alone, in my private history. I downloaded a dozen albums, and two of those possessed me: Filosofem by Burzum and Transilvanian Hunger by Darkthrone. I played them for hours, back to back, over and over again. One might assume that losing Sasha, the only woman I have ever loved, the woman who convinced me it was possible to love, had left me with feelings of anger and frustration. That was not the case. What I was left with was fear, loneliness, and pain. And black metal. The reality of it, the true sound of it: cold, relentless, crushing.

Which brings me to the present day. To COVID-19 and the end of civilisation. There is a cliche about black metal that its guiding principle is atmosphere, that to truly appreciate it one should isolate oneself somehow. Go to the woods by yourself or walk around an abandoned building. Or take a long train journey late at night, fixing your eyes on the barren landscapes you pass through. Whatever you do, it is important to be alone, to play the music, and to focus on the emptiness; let it envelop and soothe you. As I live, as we all live, in the time of corona, I often find myself in this situation and this frame of mind. I’ll play Jesu Død and look out of my window in the evening upon vacancy; and for a little while I don’t think about the following morning when I must go to work; and I don’t think about my friends, my past lovers, and the people I don’t know at all, who will risk their lives, and perhaps lose their lives, tomorrow.

KIJIN GAHOU BY SHINTARO KAGO

We hadn’t even finished our first drinks. This is what I do now. I invite strangers back to my place. She invited herself, in fact. She thinks I have a cat. But the cat is dead. She doesn’t seem to notice. I guess she isn’t here for the cat. I’m wishing I had drank more, so I could feign impotence. She notices the books. It’s difficult not to notice the books. ‘Wow, you have a lot of books,’ she says. She wants me to show her the one I spoke about on the way home, which, I now realise, I mentioned in an effort to put her off. The disgusting one. She’s not unattractive, but I have done this too many times to find meaning in it. I’ll cover her in my scent, in my DNA, and then she’ll leave and never return. I collect these women now, in the same way I collected all those books, without ever really enjoying it. I’m surrounded on all sides by shaky towers. One day I’ll die under a book avalanche. ‘You must love reading,’ she says. I want to tell her I hate it. This, I think, with an imaginary sweeping gesture that encompasses her too, is not about love.

“Met her at my younger brother’s family barbecue. I punched a hole in her cheek with an iron spit. My cum was leaking out of it. Amusing.”

The disgusting book is Kijin Gahou, a collection of one-shots, or standalone short pieces, by mangaka Shintaro Kago. I don’t know who put it together. Does it exist because the author wanted it to or was it fan-made? I can’t imagine that any publisher saw it as an opportunity to make money. Or not a lot of money, anyway. There’s something so unsettling about parts of the collection – and one story in particular, which I will discuss in detail later – that the healthy, immediate response would be to suppress it, to hide it, to look away. But, then, the world isn’t a healthy place. So maybe this is the book we need right now, maybe it’s the book we deserve. Certainly, I feel as though I have reached a [low] point in my life where it is one of the few books that has any significance for me, that says something meaningful about how I see and experience the world.

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On the surface, ‘collecting’ is what ties together many of the stories. In fact, the opener is actually called The Collector. It features a girl who is so in love with a boy that she wants to keep and catalogue everything he comes into contact with. It’s one of the strongest entries in Kijin Gahou, for the way that it unfolds with a satisfying, gruesome logic. If the girl wants the pencil that the boy touches, simply because he touched it, then it seems to naturally follow that she would want the skin of the people he touches too. I’m starting to realise that this is something of a Kago trademark, which is to say that he takes fairly banal or commonplace situations or phenomena and draws them out to an absurd, but still logical conclusion. While The Collector is, of course, about the act of collecting things, the author’s real focus is on the psychology behind it. The obsession and madness, I mean; and the strange – to me – desire to own something that once belonged, or was touched, by someone notable, often someone you admire. I have never understood how an object can become significant purely by virtue of having passed through the hands of another human being, but then I have always been unsentimental.

The most distressing, the most notorious, and the best, story is Suck It. Immediately after finishing Suck It I did not want to think about, discuss, or write about it. It affected me that profoundly. Yet even while I was reading it I knew that it had an incredible power, and that it was important in some way, even though I simultaneously hated it for what it was doing to me. It is concerned with a man who wants to photograph women giving him oral sex. For the most part, all that we see are the photographs themselves, with a short comment by the photographer. At first, the pictures are fairly standard, but they quickly increase in extremity and depravity. One way in which Suck It is so disturbing is that it makes you feel complicit, or made me, and perhaps most men who read it, feel that way. Having a dick, and having taken many a photograph and video of this sort myself, I could not help but put myself, my dick, in the situations I was observing. It was, in a sense, my dick that was being sucked; and that is the genius of Kago’s choice, of presenting us with the photographs, rather than a traditional narrative.

Suck It has many notable, and disconcerting, things to say about male sexual psychology. One gets the sense that the man is more interested in the image than he is in the blowjobs themselves, that he is, in other words, more concerned about his project than his pleasure; or, perhaps more accurately, it is the case that working on the project increases his pleasure. It is the desire to try something new, to get a different kind of picture, that appears to motivate him. ‘If you get down to it,’ he comments early on, ‘all faces look pretty similar’; and he then endeavours to make then look as different as possible. I have had many discussions over the years with men who want to fuck a range of women, simply to be able to say they have done it. Like a fat girl, for example, or someone of a race or nationality other than their own. It is a sort of competition with oneself, a kind of cataloguing of the opposite sex. The pleasure gained from these experiences is not from the acts themselves, or not primarily, it is in the accomplishment of a goal, in ticking a box. Maybe it is the case that women do this too; I’m certain that some do, at least; but it doesn’t seem to be as prevalent and toxic.

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I’ve read a lot of ero guro, both in terms of conventional literature and manga, and it is undeniable that much of it verges on, or just is, misogynistic; and, if one glanced at his work, one could accuse Kago of it too. Indeed, almost every story in Kijin Gahou involves sexual, or sexualised, violence against women. There are, for example, images of breasts being cut off, and of a woman sucking dick while having a hole drilled in her head, to name but two of many. However, the further I progressed through the book the more convinced I became of the author’s warmth and empathy towards women. In fact, he seems to focus on issues affecting women far more often than those affecting men, such as abortion in Fetus Collection. The young woman at the centre of the story is ‘filled with inertia.’ She has regular unprotected sex, she says, ‘to please and to avoid seeming unappreciative.’ The sad image accompanying this statement is of her vagina, with semen dribbling pathetically out of it. She then states that ‘the value of my existence is defined by the sexual desire of men.’ In any context I would find this thrilling, this subtle fuck you to all the guys who sulk and bitch if a woman won’t accept their cum, but in male-authored ero guro it strikes me as almost unprecedented.

PANORAMA OF HELL BY HIDESHI HINO

I could feel the needle enter my vein; painless, but cold and invasive, like running your tongue along chilled glass. It had taken me an hour to work myself up to it, to convince myself to go through with it, to allow this woman to take my blood. Yet I felt as though it wasn’t only mine she was taking, but every drop I had ever seen spilled. As she filled her little containers, my head was similarly filled with memories and moments. I saw myself as a child, dispassionately watching the red pool form in my brother’s cupped hands. I saw a trail, from the gates of my school, where some kid’s nose must have been broken, to the house where he apparently lived; following it in my mind like breadcrumbs. I saw a mother grab the hair of a boy her son was fighting, pushing his head down to allow her son to kick him in the face; the boy’s pink spittle dribbling onto the concrete. For almost half of my life I lived under a dull red sun which bathed the world in crimson light. So much violence and madness, I thought it would never stop.

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When I began to show a serious interest in manga I anticipated that I would turn up a lot of what I will inelegantly call ‘extremely weird shit.’ Yet it hasn’t really been the case, and hours of searching dedicated message boards and websites has been largely fruitless also. There is horror, plenty of it, and some is very impressive, such as Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, but that’s not really what I had been hoping for. The Ero Guro, or Erotic Grotesque, genre promised to satisfy my inclinations, but, aside from Shintaro Kago and Suehiro Maruo, I haven’t come across much of that either. Recently, however, I discovered Hideshi Hino’s Panarama of Hell. With my limited knowledge, I would place it somewhere between the Ero Guro and horror manga that I have read so far. Unlike Ito, I don’t believe that it was Hino’s intention, or not the primary one, to scare his audience, although there are supernatural elements to the events outlined within his work. On the other hand, it is grotesque, but without an emphasis on the erotic. Moreover, the style – which is actually my least favourite part about it – is not what I would want, nor expect, from Ero Guro either, being cute, almost charming, in a Tim Burton kind of way, which negatively impacts upon the intensity of the narrative.

The plot, what little of it there is, centres on a painter who may or may not live in hell. The man talks openly to the audience, explaining that he creates ‘hell paintings’ and that he is currently at work on his biggest and most important project, ‘The Panorama of Hell’, which will be a ‘breakthrough in technique’ and will depict ‘the end.’ He then spends the majority of the rest of the book exhibiting and detailing these hell paintings, including The Guillotine, The Bottomless River of Hell and so on. It is through the paintings that one gets a sense of his personality, situation, and past. I said recently, to the unfortunate few whose ears I have, that the book reminds me most of Maldoror. There is a similar theatricality to the central characters’ misdeeds and personas; they both revel in their evilness, in gore and pain. For example, the painter declares that ‘the sight of fresh corpses broiling is remarkable.’ This sort of thing clearly amuses and excites him, in the same way that Maldoror enjoys slicing up children. Indeed, he actually paints using blood, which he describes as the most beautiful thing in the world; and Hino’s most unpleasant images involve the man vomiting up blood and cutting and bleeding himself.

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Yet, the further you progress through the book, the more his statement that ‘the overpowering odour of blood always surrounds me’ takes on a more subtle, deeper, even moving significance. I stated previously that it is through his paintings that one comes to know the man, but it is when he tells the stories of his family – his grandfather, father and brother specifically – that most is revealed. All three of these men were brutal and violent, all damaged and destructive. Big drinkers, they beat their wives, their acquaintances and their children. In this way, Panorama of Hell is a portrait of how the sins of each generation can be passed on, about cycles of violence, and how your upbringing can harm and mould you. It’s particularly interesting how the other men are strong and overpowering but the painter is weak and, well, morbid. He is still disgusting, no doubt, but strangely sympathetic at times. He says at one stage that ‘I’ve seen images of hell since I was in my mother’s womb,’ and is born holding blood clots in each hand, and this resonated with me, affected me emotionally, perhaps more than it ought to have.

IGUANA GIRL BY MOTO HAGIO

One of my earliest memories is sitting with my mother while she passed judgement on my brother and I. “Girls will love you,” she said to my brother, “because you’re beautiful.” He had, at that time, long curly blonde hair; and I now imagine that she caressed it as she spoke to him. “You!” she turned to me. “Girls will like you because you’re cheeky.” I don’t think my mother intended to hurt me, or even that her aim was to criticise me, but I was old enough to read between the lines. I felt clearly who she favoured, and who she found the most appealing. But, more than that, she was, I realised, so sure of her opinion that she was able to speak with such authority for other people, for the rest of the world, who would, I now knew, never like me for my appearance. For a period following this incident I would stare at myself in mirrors, at my large eyes and plump lips, which never before had struck me as unattractive, and become ever more disheartened, because my brother did not look this way. My mother had defined beauty for me, and it belonged to only one little boy in the world.

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Moto Hagio is considered to be the most notable, and influential, creator of shōjo manga, which is to say manga that is aimed at a teenage female audience. While shōjo manga is not restricted to any particular subject matter, or genre, it generally features more prominent female characters, is more introspective, and more focussed on emotions and issues affecting young women, than traditional manga. Iguana Girl, which was first published in 1991, is the story of Rika, whose mother believes her to be an iguana and therefore ugly. This may sound something like a manga version of The Ugly Duckling or that awful Mask film, but the reality is something more moving and complex. Iguana Girl isn’t about being unconventional looking or different [or certainly not in terms of appearance]; it is not about the beauty within, or anything so glib. For Rika is not considered ugly by all, or even most; only her mother sees her that way. Indeed, her father calls her beautiful and boys find her attractive. There are, moreover, moments in the text when one is allowed glimpses of Rika as human, in other words as she appears to everyone except her mother, and she is, even in cartoon form, obviously a pretty girl.

Yet, while Rika is not ugly, she is often awkward and clumsy. For example, in one scene she runs to show her mother a bug in a box and accidentally lets it out to fly in her face. She is also, and more significantly, not stereotypically ‘girly.’ She is, with her interest in baseball and her ‘good throw,’ what we might call a tomboy, although that is a phrase that I dislike. In fact, one character says of her that she should have been born a boy. In this way, Iguana Girl engages with some of the issues surrounding gender roles and identity. What does it mean to be a girl? Or a boy? What is a boy activity? How should a girl behave? Certainly, Rika’s mother has firm ideas about such things. She considers grace and reserve – which her iguana daughter lacks – to be feminine qualities. When she has a second child, Mami, she is pleased that she now has a daughter with whom she can bake [suggesting she couldn’t with Rika]. Mami, we’re told, also looks good in a dress, while Rika does not.        iguana-girl-d20fe387-d4c9-408f-9d6c-392ac441ac1-resize-750 (1).gif

However, one gets the impression that Rika’s awkwardness is not natural; it is her mother who makes her so by repeatedly criticising and abusing her. Likewise, if she is tomboyish, one might argue that it is because she has been raised to believe that she is unsuited to traditionally feminine activities. There are a series of panels in which Rika applies make up to herself, and the mother is angry when she finds out; so it is not that the girl has no interest in such things, simply that she has been convinced that they are shameful, and that she is made ever more monstrous or ridiculous by them. Rika isn’t born thinking that she is ugly, either; she learns her self-loathing about her looks. Iguana Girl is, therefore, as much about how one’s upbringing affects you, about parent and child relationships and dynamics, about nature versus nurture, as anything else. While Rika gives the manga its title, the most important character is, in fact, her mother. It is her disappointment in not getting the kind of child she always wanted that drives the action; it is her expectations that are not met. She cannot love Rika for what she is, because she does not see her as a person in her own right; she is, instead, a breathing, bumbling, broken dream.

BLACK HOLE BY CHARLES BURNS

What do I remember about that period of my life? It was intense, you know. I was intense. Thing is, I was never a little boy; I skipped childhood and went straight to the awkward, brooding teenage years. I was a teenager at six or seven, if you know what I mean. So those feelings weren’t new to me; but yeah I guess they were kind of heightened around that time, at like seventeen or something; all the negativity about myself and the world. The drugs didn’t help, and the girls made it even worse. I discovered girls late, I guess. Like I really had to discover them; they weren’t always there, you know. I didn’t take drugs to feel good or have a nice time. I took them because…shit, who knows. Because I didn’t understand myself, I guess, and so couldn’t accept myself. But I don’t really want to talk about any of that; about me, I mean; this isn’t about me, for once.

So who then? Not Tom. I can hardly even picture him now, which is probably something he’d approve of. He’s lost to my memory like he was lost to the world. But the others are there, crowding my brain like a prison. I’d go to the same club every week and every week I’d make new friends. Friends that weren’t really friends, you know. Or maybe were more my friends than anyone else I’ve ever known. People you fucked in the toilets; people you bought drugs from; people you gave drugs to; people you fought with, like physically, but still said hi to later that night; people who stumbled into your life, often for mere moments, but who somehow left an impression on you greater than those you now see every day. Gareth, for example, who was gay as fuck but couldn’t admit it to himself; and so he drank all the time. And Sherry, who I gave a Love is All badge to and then never saw again. Beautiful Sherry who thought she was just a ‘typical ugly Asian girl in England.’ And Rick, and Mark, and Ally and Jemma; and so many more. Every one of them struggling with something, some terrible thing inside that beat so hard against the surface of their skins that it contorted their faces and their bodies. I’d have given them all a badge if I could.

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I guess I’m trying to say something about Black Hole; about how this comic book moved me; about the associations, you know. But it didn’t start off that way; moving me, I mean. At first I was kind of irritated by it. The way the characters speak to each other, for example. It reads like the dialogue from a crappy teen tv drama, like Dawson’s Creek or something. Like one guy says I love you and the girl says ‘don’t say that unless you mean it.’ Shit like that. Then there are the vaginas. Not real vaginas, but the suggestion of vaginas. It’s not at all subtle. The title, don’t forget. And also the open belly of the frog, and the wound on the girl’s foot and on her back, and so on. Like, I get it; I immediately got it. Horny teenagers; hormones; that feeling of sex being everywhere, all around you. Vaginas, dude. I should probably mention the bug too; the disease that the characters pass to each other and that causes the mutations; well, that’s an STI. So, anyway, initially I was a bit pissed about all that stuff; it struck me as unsophisticated, if you know what I mean.

But soon enough the whole vagina thing sort of faded into the background. And, yeah, the dialogue was still corny in places but I started thinking that maybe it’s intentional, you know; like maybe Burns was going for that. I’ve seen it written that he was aiming for a B-movie type feel or something; and the artwork backs that up, with it being black and white and blocky, and so on. I mean, as an allegory I still think the book kind of sucks, B-movie or not. I don’t like allegories much. Animal Farm and all that. Like how the mutants are the unpopular, ostracised kids, you know. Kids who wear the wrong clothes and laugh too loud at the wrong things, or something like that. Or maybe you could say the mutants are like society’s cast offs; the drug addicts, the homeless, the alcoholics; the ones who really fell off; the ones who really got lost. I don’t know, I guess that pretence stuff just makes me cringe too. Like it wants to dupe you – the reader – into thinking you’re smart because you figured all this out, when actually it’s so obvious and in-your-face that a boneheaded child couldn’t miss it.        burns_c_blackhole4.jpgI’m sure it seems like I’m being super hard on the book. Like I’m not finding much to say that’s positive. But I am coming to that. I just don’t know how to structure something like this; a review, I mean. I want to say only nice things, but I keep getting sidetracked. Of all the allegorical stuff I guess I most appreciated how Burns worked in the body horror theme. Like obviously a lot of adolescents feel that way; like they hate their bodies, are disgusted or embarrassed by their bodies. So, for example, Chris, who’s a girl, goes swimming; and she’s got the bug and she doesn’t know it yet, or doesn’t know that it’s showing; and all her friends or whatever see the open wound on her back and snigger and gossip about it. Or that other girl, who has webbed hands and wears gloves; that girl worries that her boyfriend is disgusted and embarrassed by her hands. And because of all that, I couldn’t help thinking of the girls I’ve known who wouldn’t let me see them naked; all those girls who thought their sex was gross, you know. Vaginas again, dude. Associations.

Yet, ultimately, what really got to me was something else. I felt like after a while Burns got as sick of the allegory as I did. At some point I realised that he had just kind of let it go; like he stopped trying to find clever ways to say stuff and decided to just say it; like he stopped trying to hit you over the head with the Gen X thing; and Black Hole then became emotional, warm, sympathetic and all that. It became sincere, I guess is what I’m trying to say; and that really woke up Sherry and Mark and Rick, and the rest. Like how Chris loses her way when she loses her guy. Just that; that one moment, that one incident, and she goes down and finds it tough to get back up. I’ve seen it happen, you know. People who can’t cope with the rough and tumble of life; maybe forever, maybe for only a period of time. Chris drops out and becomes pathetic. I’ve seen it happen. That she has the bug or is a mutant or whatever doesn’t matter. Or Eliza. I don’t know, I think Eliza got to me the most. Drugged up and zoned out and all. When she fucks that kid with the sideburns she says something about how nice it is to fuck someone you like for a change. And my heart nearly broke. Her tail is neither here nor there. I’d have given her a badge if I could.

THE LONELY DOLL BY DARE WRIGHT

I did not read children’s books as a child and do not remember ever having them read to me. We did not, in fact, have any in the house, and I knew instinctively that, being poor, I should never ask for anything. The only books we owned were a large leather bound collection my dad had bought when he and my mother married. These included poetry anthologies, the complete Shakespeare, and so on. Occasionally, I opened them. They smelled of damp and appeared to be written in a foreign language. At the age of around six or seven I did attempt to steal an adventure book from my primary school teacher, but I was caught and ordered to give it back. I was told that if I wanted to borrow something I should say so. I stared into his beard and remained silent. It was impossible; he didn’t understand.

I have never wanted to recapture my childhood and do not consider myself to have an inner child. Whatever is inside me is not playful and innocent and I don’t feel as though it ever was. In this way, perhaps The Lonely Doll would have been then, and is now, the perfect children’s book for me, the perfect evocation of what childhood meant, and means, to me. It is the story of a lonely doll, of course, who ‘had everything she needed except somebody to play with.’ The girl, who is called Edith, prays every day for some friends and eventually gets her wish when two bears appear at her door and move in with her. However, if that sounds cute or magical, the reality, the presentation, of the story is anything but. It is, in fact, deeply odd and at times genuinely unnerving.

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The first thing you notice is the photographs. There is some narration, but most of The Lonely Doll is made up of large black and white photographs staged and taken by the author using an actual doll and teddy bears. There are people who are frightened of dolls, and although I am not one of them, I imagine that the reason is that they strongly resemble the human, but are not human; which is to say that they look real, and alive, whilst being of course not real and not alive. They cannot move spontaneously and they have a fixed facial expression; and yet, at the same time, they can be manipulated and made to be anything you want them to be. In Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties the old men wanted to be with the sleeping women precisely because they had these doll-like qualities.

In this way, presuming that Dare Wright did want to create something touching and magical, the doll was a strange choice. Firstly, one is always aware that the author, the photographer, had to put Edith in those positions; one cannot look at the pictures without imagining an adult playing with a doll; or even, if you are able to believe in Edith, without seeing her as being somewhat in bondage to Wright. Secondly, because of her fixed expression, Edith cannot convey a range of emotions; and the expression that she does have is, with her sideways glance, one of unease. This works in the early stages, when she is alone, but becomes disquieting when Wright puts her in situations where she is meant to be mischievous or having fun, such as when she is at the beach or trying on adult clothes and make up. The same problem applies to the bears. The bigger bear, Mr. Bear, always looks angry, and the smaller one, Little Bear, looks positively despairing.

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There is one, almost now infamous, photograph in The Lonely Doll, which shows Edith being spanked by Mr. Bear for being naughty. It is this photograph that readers tend to [or claim to] find the most disturbing; and to some extent I can understand that, although I feel as though it has more to do with a kind of prurience than anything else. Certainly, for me there are other images that are much more problematic. For example, on one page, when the bears first arrive, Little Bear whispers to the doll that she should see what kind of fun they are going to have. This alone is a little menacing, but the accompanying image – which can be found further up this page – shows her with her arms outspread and the two bears – one on each arm – giving the impression of holding her down. When the idea of having fun is later referenced again the photograph shows the doll running away from the bears. It does not, on any level, look like fun. Indeed, in this context her unease seems more like outright fear.

I would guess that the photographs are black and white because it was cheaper to reproduce them, but this too lends a kind of gloomy air to every image. However, not all of the weirdness is confined to the images and the author’s choice of toys. For example, when the bears arrive Mr. Bear calls Edith by her name, and nothing is ever said about how he knew it. After the introductions, they then simply move in. Where did they come from? Why is Mr. Bear, who one can only assume is an adult, moving in with a child? Why, for that matter, is the child living alone in the first place? What, finally, is the relationship between the two bears? Little Bear [is he a child? or just a small bear?] calls the larger bear Mr. Bear, not dad or father, or uncle or anything of that sort, which suggests that they are not related. In short, on every level, on every page, visually and within the story itself, The Lonely Doll is baffling, peculiar, and disconcerting.

LIKE A VELVET GLOVE CAST IN IRON BY DANIEL CLOWES

I started to draw my response to this. I completed only four panels. A man walks up to me. I’m sitting reading. He asks me what I’m reading. I tell him: it’s Like a Velvet Glove Cast In Iron by Daniel Clowes. He then asks me what it’s about. The fourth and final panel shows my sad, frustrated face. I dream in words, rather than images. It has only recently occurred to me that this is strange. Clay Loudermilk enters what appears to be a pornographic cinema. He watches a film called Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. I see nothing, darkness, blackness, void, but I hear words. Or I sense them. The content of the film is a kind of fetishised violence. In the fifth panel, the man waits, a look of concern or perhaps impatience on his face. I am not adept at drawing facial expressions. Clay Loudermilk becomes intent on finding out more about the film. He borrows a car, sets off on a road trip. My waking life is more like a dream than anything I experience while asleep. I try to explain to the man that Clay Loudermilk goes off in search of information about the film. Like a Velvet Glove, I tell him, gives the impression of being a kind of quest. I speak to myself more often than I speak to other people. The man wants to know what I mean by ‘gives the impression.’ I tell him: the film really isn’t that important.

[a quote from the text]

The man, I have forgotten to mention, has an overly large head. It is as though his head isn’t really his head, but a false head, a joke head that he has placed over his own, ordinary-sized, head. This is most likely due to my artistic limitations. There are hints at a wider, overriding significance to the individual events. The tease of being able to pull it all together and arrive at an explanation, a satisfactory resolution. Mr. Jones, for example. As the story progresses there is the sense that you are getting closer to the truth. Mr. Jones is, I should explain, the face that is carved on Clay’s foot by the policeman. The image, henceforth, crops up multiple times. Like a Velvet Glove gives the impression of being something like a detective novel. There are clues, which may not be clues, if you understand what I mean by that. In panel number twelve the man is crying. I do not know what I have done to upset him. Perhaps it wasn’t me, however; perhaps the man is having some trouble at home; perhaps this is why he, without any encouragement, has approached a stranger and engaged him in conversation. The man is angry because he feels as though I am making fun of him with my explanation.

[an image which gives some indication as to the content and tone of the book]

It is with earnestness that I describe the plot of Like a Velvet Glove. I slowly count and recount the panels. The plot isn’t really a plot, although it gives the impression of being one. If I cared less I would say that Like a Velvet Glove is weird or surreal or something of that sort. My dreams are not my waking life. My waking life is a nightmare. He cries, terribly; his face is contorted. It is with great conviction that I state that I am not sure at all about what I am saying. I draw in the tears, which, as I am using a black biro pen, look like large ants, or bullets. There are so many striking images, I tell him. Paul, Clay’s friend, with crustaceans in his eyes, for example. These things are accepted in Clowes’ world without so much as a raised eyebrow. They are part of the ordinary fabric of this world, I tell him. The dog with no orifices. These things are, I tell him, strange only to the likes of you – I cough – and me. Even Tina, the odd fish-like young woman who lays eggs when sexually aroused, is accepted. It is possible that I am mistaken and the man is neither crying nor angry, but is, in fact, laughing. My eyesight, I have until now forgotten to disclose, is very poor.

[sometimes there is a second image here]

It may be, in fact, a woman whom Clay is seeking, an actress. Daniel Clowes did once state that Like a Velvet Glove was inspired by his dreams. Yet, while there are peculiar, and unsettling, and unexpected events, the action does move forward in a linear fashion. Accusations of meaninglessness are, I tell the man, wide of the mark. Clay has a purpose. Billings has one too. What is absent is a relatable cause. In panel thirteen or fourteen I assure the man that our lives are random and unpredictable, in both large and small scale ways. One might argue that Clay’s quest is itself a search for meaning. In one of the panels, perhaps the last panel, the truly last, I am glumly smoking a cigarette. I hold up one finger, the first finger on my left hand, and then plunge it into the hole made by my right hand. The actress may be Clay’s mother or his wife. The man laughs, or cries, or whatever. His big head shakes like a dandelion in the wind.

Clowes’ art, I say to myself, is noirish. B-movie noir. I’m embarrassed by my inability to capture, on paper, a true likeness of a dick and a vagina. My head pounds. The vagina, I must admit, is causing me greater problems than the dick. Tropical slush. Shush. The man wakes. It is possible that I nudged him. Hey, I might have said, don’t sleep. This is panel something or other. A black bordered panel; a black square with nothing inside. The people in Clowes’ world are grotesque-looking. Not only Tina the fish. Everyone, really, except Clay. Hey, I say. Something something America. Cults and conspiracy theories. Charles Manson and murder. Something something America. I don’t know. I have never been. I don’t own a TV either. Hey, mister, have you ever been to America? The man solemnly walks away. I sketch his receding figure. Hey, mister! His big head trembles, like a golfball rattling the rim of the hole.

DISAGREEABLE TALES BY LEON BLOY

I don’t watch or read the news. Not anymore. I don’t want to know about current affairs. I’ve closed down almost all social media channels too. I’m leaving you to it, for my disdain for humanity was once at such a prodigious level that I was concerned about my mental and emotional well-being. Hooligan of heart; our souls are grim bestiaries. The world is a foul place. It reeks of death and decay. It stings my eyes and nose like cat piss; it clogs my throat like black smoke. It is only in cutting myself off that my anguish and bitterness has eased somewhat, like pus and bad blood being drained from a large boil. I wake up in the morning now, open the curtains, and look out upon nothing. Nothing, but the gentle twittering of birds and the calm flow of the river I live beside. It is a dull scene, but it is only in this way that I can stomach my existence, our existence; it is only without you, away from you, that I can tolerate my own wretchedness.

“The very sight of the old man engendered vermin. The dung heap of his soul extended so far into his hands and face one could not possibly imagine a more frightful contact. When he walked the streets, the slimiest gutters, shuddering at the reflection of his image, seemed to flow back to their source.”

According to his wikipedia page, French author Leon Bloy was ‘noted for personal attacks’ and prone to outbursts of temper; which, having read his Disagreeable Tales, seems like it might be something of an understatement. Perhaps only the work of Celine and Thomas Bernhard, and occasionally his friend J.K. Huysmans, could lay claim to being as vitriolic and hateful. In The Religion of Monsieur Pleur, for example, he writes of a man who exuded the stench of a ‘knackered beast’ and whose filth ‘did not assure him welcome in any abyss.’ In Two Ghosts, a woman’s face is said to have resembled ‘a fried potato rolled in scrapped cheese.’ Her odour, he continues, was that of ‘a landing in a hotel of the twentieth order – on the seventh floor.’ My sense of humour being of the sour kind, I found many of Bloy’s venomous barbs amusing and some of them genuinely funny. It is, of course, easy to say that someone stinks like shit, but there is a real skill – which the Frenchman had evidently mastered – in being able to fashion imaginative, and truly cutting, putdowns.

However, I imagine that for some readers Bloy’s narrative voice, and by extension his character, would be as disagreeable as many of the actions in the book. To criticise institutions, moral failings, etc, is acceptable, but to consistently highlight bad personal hygiene or appearance will likely strike the more sensitive amongst us as being too mean-spirited and lacking in manners. Certainly in England, where I live, we are especially uncomfortable with this sort of criticism. However, I found it both interesting, and a blessing, that Bloy does not position himself, at least in this book, as a saint with indefatigable reserves of love, understanding, and patience. He is petty, brutal; he is, by his own admission, ‘intoxicated by indignation.’ There is, of course, a sense of superiority in anyone who so lambasts and lampoons others, and while that isn’t an attractive quality in a friend, in a narrator it helped to hold my attention. Moreover, it should be noted that in many instances the unpleasant, slovenly physical state of the characters mirrors the state of their souls.

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Bloy was, without question, a moraliser. His Disagreeable Tales, which are told in the form of short anecdotes, are judgements. The people who populate them are murderers, crooks, hypocrites, etc; they are venal, self-centred, idle, duplicitous, grasping and base. It is clear that the author saw the world, as I do, as something like a slagheap; and considered it his duty to comment upon it. In the first entry, Herbal Tea, Jacques spies on someone in the confessional who admits to poisoning a man’s tea and whom he recognises as his own mother. The son is said to worship the woman as the ‘paragon of rectitude and kindness.’ Many of Bloy’s stories are like this, where the ‘twist’ is someone being not what they appear to be. The most satisfying and surprising example of this is in The Religion of Monsieur Pleur. Here, the author sets the titular Pleur up to be a miser who will not spend his money; a rich man who willingly lives in appalling circumstances, such that the sight of him ‘engendered vermin.’ The reveal is that he is, in fact, exceedingly poor, having given all his money away to charity.

If I had one criticism to make of Bloy’s work it is that, as with Dickens, there isn’t a great deal of moral shading; the good are almost angelically good and the bad irredeemably bad. But, in spite of that, Disagreeable Tales is a lot of fun to read. It is well written – some of the imagery is fabulous – and gothic and grimy, and is, undoubtedly, still relevant today. Indeed, upon finishing it I, for a brief moment, thought about switching on the news. Donald Trump is, I’ve been told, in the U.K. With rightful, righteous indignation people will, I know, be greeting his visit. Yes, for a moment I wanted to share in that, to gorge myself on it, to myself decry that orange clown with the Weetabix hair. And, yet, instead I stood up, moved over to the window and looked out: nothing. Nothing except the gentle twittering of birds and the calm flow of the river that I live beside.

BLACK MIRROR: SELECTED POEMS BY ROGER GILBERT-LECOMTE

Rien. Nothing. I have the word tattooed across my fingers. Not to remind myself, because I never forget. That which awaits me? No, because there will be no me to experience it. It will be the absence of me. Nothing. The absence of all things. Including me. The void. I never forget, although it is impossible to contemplate it. For my thinking is always targeted towards something. Everything we do, every aspect of our existence, is targeted. Even when we think we are not doing anything. It is simply a lie we tell ourselves. We are always doing something. We live with the idea of the void, not the reality of it. There is no reality. It is nothing. Not even the word with which we attempt to pin it down. Does anyone understand me? I am scared of this phantom blackness. Less than a shadow, than the wind. Less than the stillness, the silence. It is the absence of shadows, of wind, of stillness, of silence. Rien.

I’ll speak of the dark 
To dank caves
Mushroom beds eyes glowing in the blackness
I’ll speak of the dark to coiled snails
I’ll speak of the dark 
To rain to soot
To the circle of moonwater motionless at the bottom of a well
To barrels rolling in the cellar at midnight
When the white lady moaned
I’ll speak of the dark
On the blind side of mirrors
I’ll speak of the dark
Of immortal torture
Of most ancient despair
In the absence of a universe

To discover something is to draw it out of the void, to give it existence. Before it was nothing, now it is. To discover is to create. You, in your discovery, are responsible for that thing. You are the creator of the universe, or at least those bits of it that exist, which is to say the bits that you have experience of. I came upon the work of Roger Gilbert-Lecomte in the same way that I happen upon most writers or books: by semi-accident. I found him, I created him, I dragged him out of the void, by following a trail. By now the marks left my footprints have been erased. Which is a pretentious way of saying that I have forgotten what led me to Black Mirror. A brief mention in an online article covering the surrealists, perhaps. Or Rene Daumal, whose work I admire, and with whom Gilbert-Lecomte founded the avant-garde Le Grand Jeu artistic group and magazine. A long-term morphine addict, he died, I’m told, at the age of thirty-six as a result of an infection caused by the use of dirty needles; and yet now I have breathed new life into him and written his poems.

Whether accurate or not, my understanding is that Gilbert-Lecomte published only one full length book in his lifetime. It is called La vie, l’amour, la mort, le vide et le vent. Or Life, Love, Death, Void and Wind. It is tempting to end my review here, with that. No other title summarises a writer’s body of work better. However, what that title hints at, but doesn’t fully convey, is the hysterical, gothic surrealism of some of the poems. In Notes for a Coming Attraction, for example, he writes of ‘horror in tar: the grin of certain dead people.’ Indeed, some of his lines wouldn’t look out of place in the liner notes of a death metal album. Like this from The Borders of Love:Veiled in a red fog and buzz/Of blood seared by the venomous spells/And prestigia of desire/Exciting in the bend of your nocturnal throat/The voracity of vampires.’ Throughout, there are references to the ‘icy slithering of ghosts,’ and lemmings bashing their brains out, and fingers that ‘sprout insanely squealing diamonds/drops of blood singing in midair,’ and so on. Some of the images are theatrical and ridiculous, a great many of them are beautiful, but, regardless of how you feel about this sort of thing, there is certainly an impressive dedication to a specific [gloomy and anguished] mood.

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Of all the things promised by the title of his book – life, love, wind etc – it is the void that dominates. Gilbert-Lecomte’s poems are filled with phrases like ‘black oblivion’ and ‘ethereal abyss’ and a ‘place of absence.’ There is barely a line in the collection that doesn’t mention blackness or darkness, which, in our attempts to understand the concept, to grasp it, are words that are invariably associated with nothingness. However, while fear is certainly a present emotion in the text, I did not get the impression that the poet directs it specifically at the idea of the void, at the state [although of course it isn’t a state] of non-being. In fact, he appears to always exist within it. In The Borders of Love, for example, he writes ‘Blind as I am/In the caves of being that are the antechambers of annihilation.’ Which suggests to me that rather than being, as I am, petrified of nothingness, of what happens after death, Gilbert-Lecomte’s despair is directed at his being [not the future lack of it]. 

This makes sense when one considers how troubled and difficult his existence was. On the Station Hill Press website, the publisher responsible for Black Mirror, it is written that ‘his life was a succession of jail and hospital confinements.’ I have also read that he was forbidden to marry a woman who was later deported to Auschwitz [and did not return]. And there was, of course, the years of drug abuse and addiction. Non-being might begin to look attractive in such circumstances, or certainly not something to be afraid of. It is notable, therefore, that so many of the poems allude to the womb, or explicitly mention it. For example, Gilbert-Lecomte writes of ‘caves of darkness,’ and being ‘at the bottom of the deepest cave,’ and of being ‘rooted in uterus/A ghastly fetus doomed to one more round/Of procreative desperation/Spinning on the wheel of the horror of existence.’ It is often [wrongly] claimed that our only experience of nothingness is pre-life, pre-consciousness, but again I don’t think that this is entirely what he had in mind. The womb, unlike life outside, is safe; to return to it is a comforting notion. Moreover, certain drugs, including morphine, are said to give you a feeling of contentment and safety that is womb-like. To my mind, Gilbert-Lecomte was preoccupied with the void, yes, but as a pacifier, and as something to aspire to, perhaps.

FRACTION BY SHINTARO KAGO

Have you ever wondered if what I write here is true? If the face I present to the public is genuine? Isn’t it possible that everything I appear to reveal about myself and my life is fiction? It could be the case, for example, that I am not English, nor even a man. There have been many occasions that I have been solicited for a meeting through this website, and one of these women – for they are almost always women – began to stalk me. She moved to my city, and for what? For a phantom, perhaps. Whatever she thought she knew about me she had garnered from here, from my writing. The connection that she imagined we had was based on an illusion or at least an idea in her own head, rather than any living person. There is an assumption, a kind of naive trust or blind faith, that what is written in the first person, in a context known for being factual, can be taken on face value. The public are, for want of a better word, gullible, especially when experience has conditioned them to have certain expectations. It would be easy, therefore, for me to manipulate them, to manipulate you.

“I give up on ero guro! I will write a story without nudity, without murders, without guts hanging out, without scat, S&M, or torture scenes!”

Shintaro Kago’s Fraction manga is, at least in part, a murder mystery involving a serial killer called The Slicing Devil and a potential copycat. It seems, in the early stages, that the author/artist is paying homage to Edogawa Rampo and the like. Certainly he is working within the ero guro – erotic grotesque – style and genre, with which he, and Rampo too, is primarily associated. This means that there are a number of gruesome images, one of which adorns the cover, and some that are fairly explicit. I won’t focus too much on Kago’s art, as you can check it out for yourself, but there is a pleasing, and appropriate, realism and sophistication to it. The aforementioned cover image is particularly striking, what with the way that the eyes appear to be making contact with your own, despite the top of the girl’s head having been sliced off. In any case, the mystery at the centre of the story is not the identity of the serial killer; that is revealed almost immediately. What Kago does instead is very clever: he makes his murderer the pursuing detective.

Whilst in Uzumaki the characters were barely one dimensional, those in Fraction are at least a little more well rounded. The serial killer, for example, believes that his actions are just, that he in fact embodies justice. Kago gives you some idea of his personal history also, explaining that he is motivated to murder as a kind of payback for his brother’s suicide. This brother, whom he also talks to in his moments of doubt or weakness, killed himself because of a woman. The Slicing Devil, therefore, focuses on female victims, cutting them in half to reflect the way that his brother was dismembered by a train when he threw himself on the tracks. There are, of course, no impressive psychological insights here; it’s all a bit pulpy and ridiculous; but it does flesh out the story. There is less a sense of the characters sleepwalking through the book than I have found in other manga; they have emotions, motivations and meaningful conversations and interactions.

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When the copycat killings start The Slicing Devil is understandably perturbed. Indeed, he amusingly lambasts his rival’s ‘sick needs’ and, as previously suggested, begins to investigate. In other words, he becomes more concerned with catching, or unmasking, the copycat than he does with his own, self-styled, righteous mission. This too is somewhat amusing. As this story progresses, Kago increasingly seeks to bamboozle the reader by implying that all may not be as it seems. It could be, for example, that his serial killer is not actually a killer after all, rather that he is simply a man so traumatised by his brother’s death that he is having a psychotic breakdown, that he is, therefore, imagining or hallucinating the murders or at least his part in them. Certainly two people whose deaths he witnesses later turn up alive. It is also hinted that the brother might not be dead after all, and he may be one or both of the killers. Finally, it is possible that The Slicing Devil is both the killer and the copycat, and as such is actually investigating himself.

So far I have perhaps made Fraction sound something like a comic book version of the film Memento, and that isn’t an entirely inappropriate comparison. However, The Slicing Devil is only one of the novel’s two main sections or stories. The second is called The Manga Artist and features Kago himself, mostly in conversation with a publisher. I must admit that initially I rolled my eyes, having a particular dislike of authors appearing in their own work, but I quickly found that I enjoyed this part of Fraction immensely. What makes The Manga Artist worthwhile, and so stimulating, is not how it provides the answers to the book’s central mystery, or at least helps to tie all the threads together, but how Kago intelligently discusses the nature, limitations and possibilities of manga, both for him personally and as as art form. In the beginning, Kago states that he should move away from ero guro towards something more commercially viable. A manga artist must, of course, make his living, and drawing guts and blood, rape and murder, is not the quickest, or most certain, route to success. Moreover, he acknowledges that while violence is fun to draw there isn’t a lot else to it, indicating that it isn’t intellectually engaging enough for him.

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The central theme of The Manga Artist, and Fraction as a whole, is narrative manipulation, which is, by Kago’s definition, when an author tricks, or manipulates, the reader, rather than the characters. He admits that this is much easier with words or film, because in the former anything can be suggested without visual proof and in the latter there are things such as lighting, effects and fluid motion. Manga, however, is necessarily static and one is limited to a few boxes per page. Kago does, in any case, give some examples of how narrative manipulation in manga might be achieved, with my favourite being the idea that a group of images within a frame can look like certain, identifiable things, but without the frame they are revealed to be something else [i.e. a monster]. He also discusses how the audience accept the images within a graphic novel on face value, because their expectation is that they are being given the whole story, that they aren’t being tricked. What Kago does in The Manga Artist is cast doubt; he makes you question your assumptions, your ideas, your eyes, and ultimately how you interact with the world.