The Dreaming vol. 1
Chad Clayton rates it:
Author: Queenie Chan
Over the last several years, it seems there’s been a serious dearth of truly great horror stories. I think there’s a reason why – so many are content to merely portray the gruesome or sickening, rather than conveying a genuine sense of foreboding and danger. They bludgeon the audience with things that are supposed to look scary, in lieu of actually scaring them. This is why so many slasher/monster films are gruesome and ugly (or worse, silly), and so many gothic-horror stories are overwrought and toothless. The latter is true for The Dreaming, a well-intentioned but overworked and overly harmless attempt to make an atmospheric ghost thriller.
Jeanie and Amber are twins who have just arrived at a boarding school. It doesn’t take long at all, however, for things to start getting bizarre. From the beginning moments, the girls start seeing things and having weird, ominous dreams. There’s evidently a dark secret at the school that no one knows (or won’t talk about), save for some heavy-handed hints that it involves twins somehow. Eventually, for unclear reasons, students begin to disappear. As backcover-blurbish as that is, we really haven’t moved very far beyond that point. There’s a lot going on in the first volume, but not much actually happens, and it doesn’t feel as though we’ve made much headway towards a conclusion or even finding out what’s really going on.
The Dreaming certainly looks like a horror story; it has all the trappings of the genre, but it never takes on the task of actually being scary. Stories like this are the inevitable result of creating a horror story without a firm understanding of how the genre works. It reads like the work of someone who’s seen a couple of spooky movies and decided to take a crack at making one him or herself. It gathers together the expected elements of ghost stories – macabre legends, creepy paintings, secrets that no one dares speak about, malevolent old people, ominous soliloquies, and so on, but it doesn’t appear to know how to put any of them to effective or original use. There’s not a particularly original idea at work here, and the cliches are all calculated and obvious to the point of being cheesy and corny – one character’s Ominous Soliloquy at the end of the book is particularly chuckle-worthy. Worst of all, there’s no genuine sense of menace at work here. The story’s tone is so clinical and matter-of-fact that it’s deadly to any forming tension. We’re allowed to see ostensibly frightening things happening, but we’re never encouraged to feel scared alongside the characters, or feel concerned for their lives.
And it’s pretty hard to feel concerned for the characters, because the cast is pretty uniformly unpleasant. The most characterization that takes place is that Jeanie is The Freewheeling One who can’t stay out of trouble, and the Amber is The Reserved One who spends most of her time pouting about something or other. The other students are generally snippy, self-centered, or standoffish, and don’t really give the audience any reason to like them or care about them. As for the teachers and other adults, the only adult that doesn’t treat the students with naked antagonism and contempt is off on a business trip by the end of the first chapter, and any and all parents are conveniently absent. They’re not even dead in the case of the twins; they just don’t care about what becomes of their daughters. All this serves not to heighten the tension in the story, but to coat it with an aura of annoyingly humorless, sullen, woe-is-us gloom.
Visually, macabre is an odd synthesis of the sumptuous and the overwrought. It’s instantly clear that Queenie Chan is a talented artist who put a lot of work into the illustration of this comic – the Victorian-era costumes are rendered with loving care, and there’s a very rare amount of attention given to the school setting. In these aspects, she shares a lot in common with fellow OEL artist M. Alice LeGrow (Bizenghast), but unfortunately, she lacks the flair for surreal and grotesque imagery that really made LeGrow’s work stand out in my eyes. However, there are a few glaring visual problems: the characters all have more or less the same face and body type, requiring different hairstyles to tell apart. The artwork is oppressively ornate – there’s a lot of black on the page – and several pages are overcrowded with panels and objects. Panels are crammed together, nested within other panels, overlapping each other, running behind other artwork. In some cases, there’s even a different panel for every change of facial expression, which doesn’t help that the panels are often overstuffed with characters. The sheer amount of detail and objects on the page is impressive at first glance, but during reading, it becomes distracting and unpleasant to look at.
The Dreaming is a well-intentioned attempt at atmospheric horror, but it’s not reminiscent of an effective thriller so much as a Victorian tea party gone horribly wrong. It’s fascinated with macabre, gothic atmospheres and Victorian fashion, but it doesn’t use these fascinations to create anything more than a generic ghost story with a heaping spoonful of billowy dresses. There is some talent buried in the rough here, and I hope the author will continue to improve and move on to better things, but I can’t find it in me to recommend the purchase of a comic that doesn’t amount to much more than 175 pages of macabre costume party. This might have been much better received between friends at a slumber party than at a bookstore.
Added: Tuesday, January 17, 2006
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