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Since the entirety of October is officially Halloween this year (shut up, you!), we at Psycho Drive-In have decided to attempt to fill the month with thirty-one recommendations for horror-related movies, comics, books, TV shows, toys, games, and everything in-between. It’s gonna be a grab-bag of goodies we feel you should be exposed to, whether you like it or not! But don’t expect your standard suggestions for Halloween fun, we’re digging into some stuff that we love in the hopes that you might make this October a little bit weirder than usual.

Weirder in a good way. Not like what’s going on outside in the hellscape of 2020.

Charles Burns is an American cartoonist who started out doing illustrations for the Sub Pop fanzine and really started making a name for himself with his contributions to the avant-garde classic RAW. Most of Burns’ short stories were later collected in three volumes of the Charles Burns Library by Fantagraphics Books – El Borbah (1999), Big Baby (2000) and Skin Deep (2001) – and they are all well worth tracking down, especially since they are in prestige, oversized hardback editions.

It was his next project that established Burns as one of the premiere indie comics artists of his generation. From 1993 to 2004, he wrote and illustrated 12 chapters of what would become the Harvey Award-winning masterpiece graphic novel Black Hole (2005), a story of a sexually transmitted disease that causes physical mutations from the very slight to the totally horrific, as it spreads through a high-school class. It was an instant classic of body horror and teen angst that demands a place on your horror bookshelf.

But to be honest, Black Hole is so popular and successful that you can find recommendations for it everywhere, so I wanted to turn to Burns’ newer, lesser talked about work of existential guilt and dread, the Last Look trilogy. Published as a three-part series of oversized hardbacks, X’ed Out (2010), The Hive (2012), and Sugar Skull (2014), Last Look tells the story of pretentious art school loser and punk rock scene hanger-on, Doug, as we weave our way through his memories and dreams in a delicious dream narrative reminiscent of the work of David Lynch (Mulholland Drive or Eraserhead) or William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch or Interzone) or even the similarly bizarre graphic novel Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron by Daniel Clowes.

At some point in the past, Doug did something awful to his photographer girlfriend Sarah and over the course of the three books we discover that it has haunted him his entire life, trapping him in a never-ending cycle of self-loathing and guilt. But it’s not just what happened between he and Sarah that keeps him trapped and unable to grow emotionally. He’s also wracked with guilt about his relationship to his father, his other art school friends, and ultimately every woman he becomes involved with both before Sarah and after.

The exploration of this emotional trauma is represented by Doug’s dream state, where he wanders through an unintelligible foreign marketplace, surrounded by strange creatures, fetuses, eggs, blood, intimidation, and loss. And while the ultimate ending isn’t as dramatic or extreme as some readers were expecting and wanting, therein lies the real horror of Last Look. Doug isn’t some violent monster, he’s just a failure. A failure at just about everything. And he can’t get past what happened with Sarah, even as the narrative follows him from college through middle age. He’s a manifestation of having artistic aspirations but never fulfilling his potential, if there was ever potential to begin with.

The first two books, X’ed Out and The Hive, really build on the surreal otherworldly imagery and almost cut-up narrative approach, stretching out the mystery of what happened to Doug, or rather his dream alter-ego, Nitnit – a bizarro version of Hergé’s Tintin, itself a reference to his real life stage alter-ego, Johnny 23. Burns’ artwork moves smoothly from the clean, woodcut-like style that is his trademark, to incorporating tributes to Hergé (in fact, the cover of X’ed Out is an homage to the Tintin adventure The Shooting Star) and romance comics from the 60s.

I don’t want to get more into the specifics of the plot or the visual storytelling that Burns utilizes to create this nightmare of anxiety, guilt, and compulsion, but Last Look culminates in a breathtakingly poignant, if terrifically banal, conclusion that may be too mundane and depressing for some readers. But the thing is, Doug isn’t a character to pity. Whatever happens to him, happens because he is emotionally stunted and too weak-willed to grow up and take responsibility for his life. He moves through the world, barely leaving a trace, and that’s what really makes the horror of this hit home; that’s where the overwhelming sadness lies.

When the closing scenes of Sugar Skull circle back to the opening scene of X’ed Out, it just drives home how trapped Doug is in a never-ending ouroboros of reliving his failures over and over again, settling for the mundane, and pushing that rock up the hill like Sisyphus. But here, we can’t imagine Sisyphus happy, as Camus insisted, because we see intimately that this Sisyphus is not capable of being happy. And the readers are forced to confront the fact that most of us have some Doug in us, whether we want to admit it or not.

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