Written by Scott Snyder & Scott Tuft
Art by Attilla Futaki
Colours (Chapters 4-7) by Greg Guilhaumond
Additional inks by Bill Nelson
Lettering & Design by Fonografiks
Published by Image
The call to adventure drags Jack Garron out of his bed, in 1916, to join his father in Chicago. Oh sure, his adoptive mother’s nice and Jack loves her but the simple truth of the matter is this; his father is in Chicago, his father is a musician and his father has asked for Jack to come and join him. There’s really no other choice. Jack heeds the call. Jack rides the rails. And Jack’s Nightmare waits in Chicago, his teeth sharp and gleaming…
Snyder is best known for his defining runs on Batman and Swamp Thing as part of the New 52 and its his love of horror, as shown by both Swamp Thing and American Vampire, that comes through here. Written along with friend Scott Tuft, Severed is a remarkably pure story, both in terms of plot and character. This is an innocent abroad, a coming of age tale that, like Mark Twain’s books, has an edge of terror to it.
Which of course also means it’s actually very sweet. There’s a rich tradition, initially in American literature and increasingly in global YA, of having a story begin by giving your lead everything they want and then taking it all away. Katniss opens The Hunger Games with enough freedom to want more, a sort of boyfriend and a family life which, if not what she wants, is at least stable. By the end of the book she’s got no idea which of the two men in her life she loves, has killed people and shamelessly used the media and the sympathies of the very people she detests to keep Peta and herself alive. It’s all a long way from bow hunting in the woods, let’s face it.
Jack, here, is no exception. He’s a talented musician, loved by his adoptive mother, in line for a scholar ship and on the road to being one of the few children in 1917 America who doesn’t have to worry about anything. But he isn’t on The Road, and that’s what Jack wants. So off he goes on his adventure, with no idea of what’s coming for him. We, and his older self, who we see only has one arm, know different. The horror doesn’t just come from the razor-toothed Mr Fisher, but from the fact Jack doesn’t even know what sort of story he’s in. The polite, enthusiastic, studious young man who sets out to embrace his new life is actually running headlong into the jaws of a predator. The jaws that, we know from the framing sequence, will leave a permanent mark on his life.
This leads to a tangible sense of doom and tragedy to the book that makes the sweet sections sweeter and the horror even more sweaty-palmed and frantic. Snyder and Tuft have a lightness of touch with characters that you don’t often see, leading to the reader wanting, desperately, somehow, one of the other characters to survive despite knowing full well they’re all but doomed. The sweetness of the earlier chapters is replaced with cold, dead-eyed cruelty and a couple of moments of intensely brutal violence that leave marks on your retina long after the page is turned. This is predatory horror, the story not just of a boy coming of age, but of every ounce of his innocence literally being cut away from him.
Which brings us to Mr Fisher. Mr Fisher is old, polite, has a little bit of an odd sense of humour and very specific tastes. It’s Mr Fisher, attempting to exercise those specific tastes, you’re seeing on the front cover up there. Mr Fisher is the most fascinating part of the book because you have no idea what he is for almost its entire run. He talks, a lot, about being alive forever and there are elements of him that seem less, or more, than human, but at his most basic, he’s one thing; hunger, an absence, a void in every page. His scenes with Jack and Sam are like watching two puppies take tea with a shark, and Fisher’s constant struggle to appear normal, and human, is as fascinating as it is successful. There are large sections of the book where he’s genuinely likable, one in particular where you believe everything he’s saying just as much as Jack. After all, he’s just a kind old man, making his way through the world. One sequence in particular, where he and Jack spend the night with a woman and her family is as heart-warming as it is disturbing. Fisher seems genuinely affectionate towards these people but there’s every possibility he views them as nothing more than an investment of time, a worthwhile place to stop and rest and check on the people he’ll feed on in a few years. Fisher’s a patient hunter, so patient you forget he is one at times and that adds utter terror to the moments where he reveals himself. A man in a hat and coat becomes a monster, a grotesque approximation of life that burns every question about him (Human? Immortal? Serial killer?) away with the blazing intensity of his hunger. Fisher is death, plain and simple, and he has his eyes firmly set on Jack.
I could talk about the script, and the way Snyder and Tuft evoke everything from Kerouac to Road to Perdition for another thousand words or so but that would be a huge disservice to the art team. Futaki’s work manages to make the ordinary extraordinary, with the book’s huge cast of characters and supporting characters all distinct and all somehow real. This isn’t a book filled with barrel chested men or women with pneumatic waists, but rather one where children have unkempt hair and broad faces, people carry extra weight, everyone is flawed and as a result, even more beautiful to look at. Great horror lives and dies on reality as well as absurdity and there isn’t a character in this book that doesn’t feel real and fragile. Even Fisher, for all his monstrous tendencies, is a long streak of gristle with dead eyes and razor teeth. Futaki also excels at period detail, taking us from freight trains to dilapidated hotels and the final, apocalyptic confrontation in the backwoods. Bill Nelson’s superb colours help immeasurably here, shifting from gentle, almost pastel shades to increasingly dark, hard tones as the story curdles in the closing chapters. Finally, Fonografiks lettering and design gives accent and period touches that raise the overall quality still further.
The end result of all this work is an exemplary piece of horror fiction. Severed is crammed full of period detail, gentle humour and that unique factor all great horror shares of making us look want to look away even as we dive further in. If you’re a fan of Snyder’s work then you’ll find a huge amount to enjoy here and if you’re not familiar with him, then this is a great place to start. A dark, beautiful story it’s one of the best pieces of horror fiction I’ve read in a long time. Terrible things hunt the Road, but Snyder and co make reading about them a joy.