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July 14, 2020

House of Sweets (review)


Writer: Fraser Campbell

Art: Iain Laurie

Cabal Comics, September 2019

This is a nasty, disturbing horror story published under the independent imprint, Cabal Comics. Written by Fraser Campbell and with art by Iain Laurie, House of Sweets deals with a brother and sister named Hans and Retha. Hans is a writer who has holed up in an old family log cabin in the middle of the woods. Hans and Retha used to run, as children, through the woods in home-made masks. Now, Hans wrestles with an old-fashioned typewriter. Mr Laurie’s engaging pencils transform a steel button from “Back Space” to “Waste of Space”. Hans is under immense stress to finish his novel. Otherwise, his publisher wants its monetary advance back. Whiskey looks like a better place to escape than the cabin.

Hans has an unpleasant and unremembered dream, and then reads a script that he does not recall typing. It is here that we see Mr Campbell’s skills at poetry, that stiletto forgotten in an age of literary gunfights. The poetry, in the manner of Edgar Allen Poe, charges at us with an irrepressible force.

“Where I am from, sweet honey flows from the river to the mountain too, and we watch it for something to do.

I once ate a swine who thanked me as I dined, but this is quite edible too.”

The poem is read by a raven, a ribbon of something which might be flesh hanging from its lower beak.

“In the land of Cockaigne you trade pleasure for shame, and watch polecats perform in a band.

There’s a boy made of lies who spews time from his eyes, as a curate builds gallows from sand.”

The cadence is catchy and even child-like, but the lyrics are uncertain and chilling. Hans’ concerns about making a deadline quickly fall away as his mind is besieged.

Ravens feature in various forms of mythology. In the Christian mythos, ravens have been interpreted as symbols of vice. This particular demonic raven dresses as a man in an antiquated suit, and is avaricious.

But the other pervasive but not as obvious symbolic aspect of the story is the use of clinging vegetation: roots and branches, drawn with finesse by Mr Laurie, which bind and trap, living but rotting in forest mulch. Hans in his descent is a “wooden man [which] paints a new face“, a marionette with strings tangled. Even the house is made of wood.

Did Hans and Retha as children kill their housekeeper and bury her beneath a tree? The reader is left with the impression – the masks, the tunnels, the horrible and distorted straw bear, holding Retha’s hand, that meets Hans as he emerges from the dirt – that the dire fate of the two is linked to her murder.

The conclusion sees the two reduced to feed for the voracious raven. Peas in a bowl, silently screaming: a simple but remarkably chilling image. The panel is reminiscent of the story arc Mansions of Silence in Mike Carey’s Lucifer (2004, Vertigo Comics) , where the souls of two characters, Elaine and Mona, are sewn together by a dead Japanese god into a chain of lanterns, screaming silently and helplessly. Hans and Retha are the “sweets” of the title.

The raven’s rhymes suggest a disturbed mind, but to us, they actually evidence a singular purpose: the words are a distraction, or a hook, or just a meaningless prattling collateral manifestation of the carrion bird’s hunger.

The creative team, with respect, have done a marvellous job with this comic. Messrs Campbell and Laurie have created a remarkable symbol of loathsome hunger. We hope that this title does not consist of a single issue.

House of Sweets was a Kickstarter-launched title – see this link for more information: https://kickstarter.com/projects/frasercampbell/houseofsweets

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