“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”- Stephen King
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” –Primo Levi
“We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know: the best of us did not return.” Viktor Frankl
I hope you can tell by the abundance of quotes I’ve already used that this book got to me. I will also be very transparent and say the use of Stephen King, Primo Levi, and Viktor Frankl quotes was not an accident. This book tackles: death (a lot of it), the Holocaust, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, murder, sexual orientation, guilt, survival, family, secrets, past/present, and the symbolism found in dreams. There were monsters both imaginary and real. There was love. A lot of sex. There was not a lot of happiness.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to mention in this review the whole dramatic story of how this book came to be, because I’m afraid that story will take away from this story, but both stories are so surreal, maybe they belong together. So: Emil Ferris, the author, contracted West Nile Virus(!) and she almost died, but while she was battling the raging fever of the illness she had a dream. Maybe a lot of dreams, or maybe just one, I can’t remember. Anyway, she had a dream about this book, so when she made it through the virus, but couldn’t walk, or use her hands, she had to reteach herself how to draw. She went back to school, in a wheelchair, sat in a room with kids that were a lot younger than her, and she retaught herself. Now, If you’ve seen this book in a bookstore, you may notice that it’s thick as shit. Yeah, apparently she had a lot of drawings for this book, and the book was huge, so the book is split into two volumes. I have volume one now; volume two will be out sometime this year. So, with the use of a hand that was crippled by a terrible disease, Emil Ferris created a masterpiece. An absolute, one hundred present masterpiece. Oh, read it please.
This book is about Karen, a young girl living in uptown Chicago in the sixties. The whole book is supposed to be her journal and is drawn on lined paper. A bit like Lynda Barry’s yellow legal pad drawings. But, this is beyond Lynda Barry. This is beyond Art Spiegleman. This is something born out of a fever dream that I can only assume came from the gods. So, Karen is 11(?) 12(?) and an amazing artist. She lives with her single mother and much older brother Deeze. She worships her brother, and he has taught her about art. He’s also a ladies man, and has a big secret that Karen is not supposed to know about. The story centers on a murder that happens in Karen’s apartment building. A beautiful woman named Anka is shot through the heart, and the police rule her death a suicide, even though the gun was found in the other room, and really- who shoots themselves in the heart? Anka is from Germany, and a little bit unhinged, but she looks out for Karen, and Karen is really affected by her death. Karen, a bit like Harriet the Spy (this is way darker though folks, for real: not kid approved!) decides to look into Anka’s death. And from there, the secrets she uncovers is like nothing you’ve ever heard are read about in a Holocaust story. It’s ridiculous (and I mean that in the best possible way). I would like to give a quick disclaimer: I’m very sensitive to child abuse, especially sexual abuse, and often put books down if I feel like that’s the direction a book’s going- this book went there, but it was so compelling, so horrifying, there’s no way you could just look away and let it be.
The fever dreams: this book was born from a dream, and the dream sequence at the end was breathtakingly gorgeous. The illustrations in this book were like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Emil Ferris is blessed.
Now, on monsters: I started this review with two quotes, and I did that on purpose, because I thought about them both as I read this gorgeous, beauty of a book. First, Stephen King, the horror master himself, and the monster that exist inside us. Every character in this book possessed a monster. Karen, are darling protagonist, draws herself as a little adorable werewolf. Only once does she draw a true image of her reflection. She feels like a monster, is treated like a monster at school, so she embraces the idea of escaping life into an undead creature. We all have escapes like Karen though, right? Obsessions, or interests that take us away from real life. That’s Karen’s monster obsession, and her drawing; a way to escape the horror around her. Karen’s monster is adorable, but the adults around her, their monsters… not so much. Second, Primo Levi, Auschwitz survivor, and the dismissal of monsters, because the true horror are the people that stand back and allow terrible things to happen. Were monsters not created to reflect the degradation of the world? Count Dracula was a fictional character based on real life Vlad the Impaler. Men were afraid of powerful women so they burned them at the stake as witches.
Fictional monsters have nothing on our real life monsters.
Also the whole past repeating itself… shoot. This has gotten away from me!
Reasons to read this book: everything I’ve already said, the artwork, and the writing. It’s hard to be an amazing artist, and an amazing writer, but Emil Ferris- are you a witch? Because you’ve cast a spell on me…