John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh, Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers

Posted by Chloe Buckley on January 06, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , , , , , ,

John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh, Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers.

Walker Books / Candlewick Press, 2010.

ISBN: 978-0763647353

Reviewed by Chloe Buckley, Lancaster University

The eerie cover art gives a taste of what's on offer inside...

Dedicated children’s publisher, Walker Books are perhaps best known for their picture book titles for younger children, such as the Maisy series and Where’s Wally?. At the older end of the market, Walker do publish a number of titles for pre-teen readers, including best selling dark fantasy series:  The Power of 5. Yet, the overriding brand image promoted by Walker through their ‘What a lot of books! What a lot of words and pictures! What a lot of stories!’ motto is not one that would seem, at first glance, to encompass the territory occupied by Dunning and Singh’s grotesque and disquieting graphic novel, Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers. This is a picture book – but there’s no cheerful Maisy or Happy Hector here. Instead, Dunning and Singh have created a graphic novel which takes readers in a decidedly more Gothic, and Weird, direction. It’s certainly far creepier than Walker’s other ‘scary’ titles for older readers, more disturbing even than horror collections such as More Bloody Horowitz. In fact, there’s nothing quite like it anywhere in the current children’s book market.

On their website, the publishers are keen to promote their ‘child centred’ approach to the industry:  “All that counts…is that a child says at the end of the book,  ‘Again!’”  Certainly, Salem Brownstone invites a second reading, though not necessarily for the reasons that Walker’s founder might have originally envisaged. Ok, I’m not a child, but my ‘Again!’ on reaching the end of the book was prompted by the unsettling effect it had. Rather than being filled with a nostalgic child-like eagerness to consume the pages of the delightful and enchanting book once more, Salem left me confused, disturbed, anxious, ambivalent… It left me thinking: What would a 12 year old really make of its twisted imagery and adult literary references? What exactly had I found so troubling about it? And, moreover, who is this book really for?  At the end of Salem, I said ‘Again!’ because I needed to untangle the puzzle of the book. It’s most definitely entertaining, darkly beautiful and intriguing, but Salem is a puzzle nonetheless.

Salem Brownstone is a relatively lengthy graphic novel that tells the story of orphan, Salem, who, on receiving a telegram informing him of his father’s death, inherits his father’s peculiar house and possessions and is plunged into a terrifying and dangerous mystery involving uncanny circus performers, shadow creatures, dark elders from another realm, and bizarre ritual magic. Initially, the images and tone of the novel place us in a film noir-cum-art-deco inspired universe, where everything is blanched, grey, ethereal and slightly out of kilter. The orphaned hero, who never knew his stage magician father, is plunged into a journey which, more than anything, is about the search for his own vacant and unstable identity. Jedediah Brownstone’s crumbling manse is itself a Gothic stage set, full of uncanny objects, bizarre portraits, twisting passages and unsettling décor, inhabited by the haunting presence of the absent father whose inescapable legacy pursues the hero into the darkest recesses of his mind. So far, so Gothic.

Salem's father's house is reminiscent of a Tim Burton animation...

However, for me, the text is precariously placed on a boundary between Gothic fiction, with its orphaned hero, decaying mansion and unravelling occult mysteries, and the Weird. By Weird, I refer to works produced by writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, Robert E. Howard and M.R. James. This double influence gives the text an oddly liminal and conflicted air. As China Miéville points out in his essay, ‘M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire’: “Weird writers were explicit about their anti-Gothic sensibility: Blackwood’s camper in ‘The Willows’ experiences ‘no ordinary ghostly fear’; Lovecraft stresses that the ‘true weird tale’ is characterised by ‘unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces’ rather than by ‘bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule.’”  Anti-Gothic, the tentacles and unspeakable horrors of the Weird sit uneasily alongside the hauntological aesthetic of Gothic tales. In Salem, the smoke and mist that hangs about the maze-like Gothic manse, and the rather spectral figure of Salem himself, contrast with the book’s obvious delight in the touchable solidity of its Weird aesthetic. From the oddly spider-like Cassandra the contortionist, to Oosik, Salem’s familiar, the graphic novel veers from the ethereal to the grotesquely physical in each panel. Salem himself might seem oddly spectral, and the ‘shadow boys’ reminiscent of the hauntological quality of the Gothic, but Cassandra, Oosik, and much of the visual landscape is thick, oozing and horribly fleshy. The ocean waves, tree branches, even an incidental fountain sculpture in the park, reach out from the page, grasping at the reader like Cthuloid tentacles.

Foetal and tentacled - Oosik is clearly a creature from the Wierd, not the Gothic...

There’s even more of a Lovecraftian influence detectable in the novel’s invented mythology. The dark powers Salem must fight are known as the ‘dark elders of Mu’bric’, and recall Lovecraft’s elder gods in their inexplicable malevolence. Again, Miéville’s descriptions of the entities of the Weird serves as an accurate description of what Dunning and Singh create in Salem: “The Weird entities have waited in their catacombs, sunken cities and outer circles of space since aeons before humanity. If they remain it is from a pre-ancestral time. In its very unprecedentedness, paradoxically, Cthulhu is less a ghost than the arche-fossil-as-predator. The Weird is if anything ab-, not un-, canny.”

The dark elders of Mu’bric wish to control and consume the human world from their midnight realm in the spaces beyond. This ‘Midnight city’, briefly glimpsed in the pages of Salem, resembles closely Lovecraft’s city of the Gugs in The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Visually, it recalls the colossal, horrifying cityscape of soaring, cyclopean towers of Lovecraft’s invention.

The seemingly subterranean Midnight City of Mu'bric

But it is not simply the Wierd works of Lovecraft that lend Salem its fair share of oddness. Seething undercurrents of sexual, even Sadean, tensions run through the panels. In one bleak sequence near the opening, Salem’s new found companion, red-lipped Cassandra, taunts our hero and calls him a ‘Suicidal Lush’ as Salem glugs headily from a hip flask. He then ignites the alcohol and creates a blast, sending the pair flying, legs and hands entangled, smashing through the glass window and into the the grounds below. The sequence ends with an eerily sexual image of Cassandra’s pale skin and red lips knotted by the ‘thousand whipcords’ of the bramble bush that couches their fall.

sensual, even sado-masochistic imagery?

Salem also makes frequent visual and verbal references to oral consumption in a way that might be read as sexual; it seems concerned with things and beings that seek to penetrate or invade  the mouth or body. In one horrific panel, a servant of the dark elders engages in a monstrous ritual with an unwitting human, Ed Harm, in order to grant him dark powers. The creature – a fly –  extends a number of grasping feelers towards Ed’s mouth, plunging its grotesque insect body inside to initiate the magic. What ensues is a series of grotesquely fantastic panels, recalling the adult graphic novels of Grant Morrison, in which Ed is initiated into the powers of the Dark Elders of Mu’bric. Thousands of contorted, naked, tortured bodies fill the panel, writing and grasping, in a scene very reminiscent of The Outer Church, the malevolent other-worldly armies of Morrison’s The Invisibles series.

The fly penetrates Ed to initiate him into the dark magic of the Elders...

Two panels from Grant Morrison's 'Kissing Mister Quimper', from 'The Invisibles' series

Like Salem, characters in The Invisibles are also subject to hideous ritual torture, involving penetration of their mouths or bodies by unclean creatures, and flies are likewise used as emblems of the filth of this other worldly magic contaminating the human realm. Such imagery felt to me to be deliberately repellant, designed to shock, and one can’t help but wonder what the 12 year old reader would make of it. Perhaps not necessarily having any Lovecraft, Sade or Morrison referent points, might make the whole thing less disturbing, yet I can’t help feeling that even the reader not aware of these influences is meant to be severely unsettled by the images Dunning and Singh present.

Salem presents other challenges to the reader too. Its imaginative combination of text and image is not simple to negotiate, creating devilish visual and verbal puzzles which are not easily decoded on a first reading. There’s violent brutality here too. Poor Cassandra ends the novel bloodied and ripped, wearing a t-shirt which reads ‘Get me a bubblebath and a medic’. Yet, in the end, Salem saves the day, the Dark Elders are banished and Salem finally finds a home, taking the first steps on the road to discovering who he really is. So, despite its revolting imagery, unsettling sexual tensions and repellent Weird creatures, Salem does deliver the restitution supposedly required of a children’s book, as well as the reassurance delivered by the traditional Gothic which demands that the darkness and chaos released must be, at the last, defeated.

And yet, Dunning and Singh still manage to leave us with something of an open ending: the character whose machinations led Salem to his father’s house in the first place is seen driving another lost soul out of the Gothic skyline of the city and on to somewhere else…

I await the sequel to Salem Brownstone with a mixture of eagerness and trepidation, though I’m still not sure if I would be comfortable with recommending it as a good read to the age range suggested by Walker…

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