In a market filled with good horror comics like The Walking Dead, Locke & Key, Hellboy, B.P.R.D., Fatale, Rachel Rising, and Revival, an unheralded gem runs the risk of slipping under the radar, falling into obscurity. It would be a shame if that happened to Ray Fawkes’s new book The Spectral Engine, a graphic novel consisting of twelve short stories linked via a ghost train traveling back and forth through time across the Canadian landscape.
Fawkes (a Harvey, Eisner, and Shuster Award finalist, and author of the 2011 graphic novel One Soul) focuses on tales from Canadian history and folklore, stories most Americans have probably never heard of, which is really the point. These are tales of forgotten lives, souls who hunger for companionship, recognition and purpose in the world. They’re often caught trying to do the right thing when tragedy takes them, leaving their spirits destined to travel back and forth across the centuries on the ghost train. We see a ship’s captain in 1813 who would rather die an honorable death than suffer defeat, a nun in the Northwestern Territories who dies an accidental death while seeking to help a man in need, and the daughter of an Assiniboine Sioux chief who marries a rival Cree to keep peace between two tribes in 1695, just to name a few.
Perhaps the most powerful and frightening story is “The Woman in Red,” which chronicles the loneliness of a young woman in metropolitan Toronto in 1966. Although Fawkes draws our attention to her by framing her face in each panel — foregrounding her as a character by literally framing her head within each panel — no one in the city notices her, not until it’s too late. When she’s finally drawn in a full-page spread, without the framing, her longing attempt to connect with a living soul is both terrifying and heartbreaking.
The Spectral Engine features black-and-white art as stark and raw as a blizzard howling across an open wound. Fawkes gives us a sense of the vastness of the seas, skies, and snowy landscapes of gloriously pure white, while the black representation of death encroaches, seeking to engulf the faintest hint of life. The characters often seem caught between the real world and the ghost world as their blank white faces betray the dread of the approaching unknown as much as the fear of death itself.
Fawkes often uses a “splatter” technique to great effect. While many of the characters are clearly delineated, the black-on-white (or white-on-black) splatters can convey many things: sweat, dirt, blood, or something dark defiling the purity of the white. His use of motion, especially in regard to the train images, carries a frenzied urgency that will leave you breathless. These are not illustrations you can easily skim over. The longer you look at them, the more you’ll see.
Many of the deaths are tragic. Some are inevitable. All are attention-getting scenes of great power. The Spectral Engine is filled with characters crying out in desperation, not necessarily to be saved, but to be recognized, to be counted as people who matter. And after all, who doesn’t want that?
The Spectral Engine also features a glow-in-the-dark cover, which on a book of such depth and beauty as this, seems like a gimmick. This graphic novel needs no gimmick because what’s inside is something of lasting worth. You can buy lots of good horror books this Halloween that will no doubt deliver many scares, but The Spectral Engine delivers not only solid scares, but separates itself from the rest of the pack by showing us not only our fears and dread, but ultimately a hope that maybe we’re not as alone and unworthy as we think.
Be sure to check out The Spectral Engine and other works by Ray Fawkes: