Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains Review (Neil Gaiman, Eddie Campbell)

Set on the Isle of Skye in Scotland a long time ago, a dwarf visits a man who knows the location of a cave far away in the mountains - a cave that contains gold to make a man rich for a lifetime. So begins the pair’s perilous quest into the darkness ahead… 

I know Neil Gaiman has a LOT of female fans, legions of them who probably outnumber the male fans, so it’s going to be interesting to see their reaction to this book as the female characters - all two of them - are treated very badly. 

Gail Simone’s theory of the woman in the fridge - when a female character is maimed and/or killed in order to advance a male character’s story - is very pertinent here as the death of a woman is the driving motivation behind this book. Meanwhile, the other female character is beaten and raped while our two “heroes” do their best to ignore it rather than step in. I suppose you could argue that it’s Gaiman showing the readers his narrator’s complexity as a character - that he would do so much for one female character but not for another. 

Short stories really are Gaiman’s forte. His novels are uneven but I find his short story collections - Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things - to be outstanding and he excels in The Truth is a Cave… in crafting a story that’s part folk/fairy tale and part horror with some powerful real human moments too. 

The story builds in a satisfyingly slow burn, starting in a way that feels like you know where it’s headed with some strange images popping up that, in hindsight, reveal themselves to be increasingly relevant foreshadowings as the tale unwinds so that you shouldn’t be surprised when the story takes a left turn and then another, but you are. Little moments like the dwarf running nimbly ahead of the man seem oddly magical under Gaiman’s hand while the fantastical, like what lies within the cave, seem terribly real. 

The book’s genesis started when Gaiman offered to read the story at the Graphic Literary Festival in the Sydney Opera House in 2010 with artist Eddie Campbell providing pictures to be shown behind Gaiman as he read accompanied by a string quartet playing background music (I know, very… art-y!). Since then, Campbell’s added to the pictures until there were enough to create this book which is a bit like an illustrated novella, a bit like a comic, and a bit like a picture book, while never being either one! 

Campbell’s painted images are very beautiful and suits the fantastical, scenic story with page after page celebrating nature and the forbidding, isolated atmosphere of the tale. He also experiments with his style to alternately shift from paint to inks to incorporating photographs into his pictures at various moments. Certain times through the story he’ll resort to comic panelling. I quite like Campbell’s art so I had no complaints about his work on this book except for one thing - the lettering in those panels. 

It’s definitely true that you never notice how important lettering is in a comic until you read one which has bad lettering, and I was surprised at how poorly lettered Campbell’s panels were, especially considering his lengthy career in comics. Scratchy, shaky letters done in a spidery hand that looked rushed, they were the only aspect of this book that let the reader down. 

The Truth is a Black Cave in the Black Mountains isn’t a perfect book but it is a highly compelling one. It’s an evocative story of revenge and death with fantastic paintings that lend new energy and interpretation to Gaiman’s haunting tale. His female fans may find their lips curling in disgust at times but when the story is this good, it’s hard to keep from turning the pages until you find out what happens in the end. A great horror fable from a brilliant short story writer with a terrific artistic collaborator.

The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains

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