Writer: John Lees
Artist: Iain Laurie
Letterer: Colin Bell
Colours: Megan Wilson
Release Date: 28th January 2015 (available on ComiXology – CLICK HERE)
Greg Hellinger is a man haunted by visions of horrifying monsters. A former detective, he spends his days drinking and his nights praying for a release from the creatures that torment him. When a mysterious girl convinces him to help find her best friend, he travels to a remote community in the Orkney Isles. But as Hellinger delves deeper into the mystery surrounding Emily’s disappearance, reality and madness blur together as he descends into a surreal world of nightmares from the darkest folk tales.
I want to take a moment of your time to tell you about a book. It’s not a new book and it’s perhaps not a very well-known book, but it is a book that, if you’re a horror fan, you really need to put on your shelves immediately. This is a story that was published back in 2015, and I’m going to be honest, it’s something of a sod to get hold of in the UK, but if you do manage to find a copy then in the name of all that’s holy, pick it up and take it home (remember to pay for it first, I’m not advocating shoplifting here).
You will, I’m sure, have already read my thoughts on John Lees’ writing, and this is yet another stellar piece of writing from a truly deranged mind which genuinely defies comparison. There’s something of the feel of The Wickerman here, but that would be selling this story short. Perhaps if you took The Wickerman, then ran it through David Lynch, Ben Wheatley, The League of Gentlemen, hired an artist from an institution for the criminally insane and gave the artist some acid… you may come close to how disturbing this book really is!
Time and time again John Lees has shown us that a seemingly nice and wholesome young man can write fiction that is so disturbing and uncomfortable that you have to fight the urge to scratch off your skin with your fingernails and bleach the tattered remains in an attempt to feel clean afterwards. There are moments of violence in this book that are so shocking, callous and abrupt that even I felt uneasy, but that’s not what crawls under your skin in this story. There are moments that go way beyond chilling you to the bone. Urban horror, folk horror, eldritch cosmic horror, moments that will turn your stomach, that will stay with you for days, that will make you check the dark corners of your bedroom at night, even though you’re a grown ass man with a wife and two kids. At least, that’s what my friend told me… *cough*
Even before the Lees ferry docks at Merksay, any sane rational reader should be going “nope”, shredding this book and then setting fire to the lot just to be safe. But you won’t. You won’t because John Lees is an evil genius and you already know it’s too late, that whatever comes next you know that you aren’t going to put the book down because deep down you have to know what happens and just how far down the rabbit hole we’re going this time.
The artwork for this book is provided by Iain Laurie, who has just recently provided the artwork for House of Sweets (one of my top five titles of 2019). Laurie has a gift, and I think is criminally underappreciated in his field. In a comic world where rippling muscles, chiselled jaws and perky breasts are de rigueur, Laurie is one of only a few artists out there today that can do truly grotesque on an epic scale. There are no beautiful characters in this story. Everyone is a grotesque caricature with every scar, worry, heartbreak and mile on the road, visible in their eyes. These are characters that don’t attempt to hide their fetishes and deviancy and the horrors they’re capable of behind a veneer of respectability and glamour. They are characters that you would actively cross the road to avoid, probably at speed and preferably in a moving vehicle.
For a moment, let’s assume that you’ve managed to uncurl your fingers from the handrail long enough to be dragged off the Lees Ferry, and you’ve made it through check in at the local B&B without your guts turning to jelly. Your first visit to the Jaunty Tart would be enough to send you screaming for the dock, jumping in fully clothed and hoping to god you could swim back to the mainland without something catching hold of your ankles. Because at this point the prospect of an icy death with lungs full of salt water seems vastly more preferable than spending one more minute in the local. This is a pub that makes The Slaughtered Lamb look like the local Wetherspoons. Just whatever you do, don’t go into the abattoir! I did and there’s just some things can’t be unseen!
Assuming you’re of stern enough stuff to survive a pint in the little pub of horrors, this is the point when things go completely sideways. This is where things get really surreal, and anyone who knows Iain Laurie knows that he excels at surreal. There are eldritch, cosmic horrors that would give Junji Ito nightmares, creatures from folk tales that will rob you of sleep, a cavalcade of circus freaks that put Clive Barker’s Nightbreed to shame and the truly terrifying Bonnie Shaw directing the whole horror show from his throne in the dark and ancient woods.
Okay, so it’s no secret that I’m a huge admirer of John Lees and Iain Laurie, and I think they’ve produced some of my favourite books and artwork of the last few years, but I think that this has to go very near the top of my list if I had to rank their work. As someone who spent a lot of his youth roaming the more remote parts of Scotland and her myriad isles, as someone who was brought up on the old-fashioned folk tales (the ones before Disney sanitised everything and gave them all happy endings), I found myself loving every nerve-and-gut-wrenching moment of this book, and honestly, it’s as close to perfect as I could hope for a folk horror tale to be.
If there are any filmmakers out there looking for a folk horror story that will have their audience wetting themselves with fear and frantically hitting every social media platform conceivable to warn people how traumatised they were, then John and Iain are the people you need to be speaking to! This would, for me, make a film experience that would rival pretty much anything that’s been produced since the original Wickerman!
I cannot urge you strongly enough to try and grab a copy of And Then Emily Was Gone. It is a truly great hidden gem that needs a much wider audience. Ignore this plea at your peril, because it’s just possible that Bonnie Shaw will come to claim you…
The writer of this piece was: Mark Scott
Mark Tweets from @macoy_comicgeek