Glaswegian crime novelist Denise Mina serves up a uniquely dark and deliciously jaundiced tale in which Gothic madness infects the present, in her first Graphic novel for the Vertigo Crime series, “A Sickness in the Family”. Its theme -- that of a family being torn apart by its own greed, resentment and avarice -- may well come straight out of the pages of King Lear, but this is a story firmly set in the present day, beginning in the all-too-real corridors of Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary with a yob's beaten-up girlfriend preparing to meet her fate when she returns home. The exploitation of Polish migrants, domestic violence, neglect of the old, drug addiction and good old-fashioned marital infidelity all weave their way into a cleverly structured narrative, bursting with contemporary ills and brought into shadowy life by the grainy, monochrome artwork of Italian comic book artist Antonio Fuso, whose gritty work for this pocket hardback volume invokes new, inky depths to the label under which the writings of Denise Mina, in her eight published novels, have habitually been filed in the past: that of Tartan Noir.
Like much of Glasgow itself, the present is steeped in the dark façade of the past throughout the Pages of this book. A Victorian era townhouse in Glasgow’s Park Circus district is its main setting, and also the dwelling place of the dysfunctional Usher family who are at the heart of Mina’s grimly satisfying tale of the domestic uncanny unfurling in the midst of some decidedly stark social reality. This reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher” proves rather amusingly apt as the events of the graphic novel take place in an atmosphere of increasing Gothic decay and hysteria. A Christmas family dinner with its symbolically bunt Christmas pudding, riven with the Ushers’ usual simmering squabbles and resentments, is interrupted by the discovery of a brutal double murder downstairs -- the bodies of the couple who’d been renting the basement flat below have been found slain in their living room, ‘THIS PLACE’ scrawled on the wall in their blood. The patriarch of the family and head of its furnishings business, Ted Usher, sees this disturbing event as a great opportunity for some frenzied property development to increase the value of the house, and sets about ripping out the old staircase, leaving a gaping hole in the ground floor. But this seems to be the catalyst that sparks a sequence of revelations and disturbing events that ultimately leave the Usher family as a whole just as devastated and broken as the house itself, and which leads eventually to their being murdered, one by one, as the paranoia of the remaining survivors increases.
First of all Grandma Martha has a stroke and falls down the hole in the floorboards during the night, leaving her in a semi-vegetative state and needing constant care -- which no one else in the family seems willing to provide for her, apart from Ted and Biddy’s adopted son Sam. Already feeling like an outsider, Sam’s exam studies aren’t exactly being helped by the demands of caring for his sick grandma, whose been callously shifted out of the family rooms on the first floor and dumped in the damp and dark basement room below – the same one, in fact, in which the killings occurred, and which bears its bloody daubings still untouched on its walls. Meanwhile, detached and sarcastic elder son William has been sent down from Oxford for his heroin addiction, foul-mouthed and embittered daughter Amy is desperate to start her own business and escape the stifling family legacy, while Ted and Biddy are seeking marriage guidance but getting nowhere in healing the huge rift of contempt and mistrust that seems to have opened up in their relationship. A strange fire in Amy’s room and then a suicide that might have been murder lead to suspicion amongst the surviving Ushers’ as well as the burgeoning interest of the police: for one of them might be attempting to gain full possession of the family inheritance; Grandma Martha seems to be acquiring unaccountable scratches and bruises though alone in her basement hovel, and Sam’s internet investigations lead him to the discovery that the family home was erected on top of the grave of an elderly witch -- Esme Lawrence, burned at the stake in the 16th Century -- and to the belief that the opening up of the basement floor has disinterred her malevolent spirit!
Rich, dark and powerfully bleak in both story and visual imagery, “A Sickness in the Family” is a mordent little horror tale, cunningly crafted by Denise Mina and beautifully illustrated by Fuso. The quality black and white artwork is beautifully macabre and threatening, full of expressionistic shadows, jagged edges and grotesque character designs that imbue Mina’s tale with an extra level of disturbed malevolence. Her narrative construction is exemplary, revealing information in a clever way and manipulating the reader’s perspective right up to the fantastically horrific carnivalesque ending. The melding of history, Gothic literary themes and contemporary social issues is skilfully achieved with an unforced ease: the increasing decay of the house echoes the crumbling of the family structure and the mad woman in the attic becomes the forgotten woman in the basement. Even the cover image by Lee Bermejo adds an extra frisson of nightmare surrealism to this Grand-Guignol of the family unit. Denise Mina has been writing for comic books since 2006 but this dark little gem is her best effort yet and is well worth checking out.