Two-Book Book Club: Five Ghosts and One Hundred Apocalypses

Once meek, and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death.
Roses are planted where thorns grow,
And on the barren heath
Sing the honey bees.

—William Blake (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

It seems almost disingenuous for writer Frank J. Barbiere and artist Chris Mooneyham to preface their beautifully drawn literary adventure comic Five Ghosts (trade paperback published by Image last month) with the epigraph above. For all his cool, for the cleft etched in his chin and his natty ’30s fashion and dashing and slashing and globe-spinning and ghost-defying resilience, quintuple-possessed treasure hunter (or thief, depending on who’s sizing him up) Fabian Gray isn’t an especially just man. He makes his living as a mercenary, a booty-swiper for hire. If his client’s really beautiful, he takes her to bed as deftly as he took their target to the cleaners. (Shades of Dorian Gray’s hedonistic streak?) In one pivotal sepia flashback, Fabian shoots his partner in the back (“BLAM”) to secure sole possession of the magical Dreamstone that will prove to be, okay, his Heaven and Hell. I guess we can let the epigraph slide.

The Dreamstone is a nifty, scary little artifact whose shards wind up embedded in Fabian’s chest, evoking (for one geek, at least) the shrapnel inching towards Tony Stark’s heart—except this shrapnel’s supernatural and now, Fabian’s body is host to five ghosts from classic literature: Merlin (“The Wizard”), Robin Hood (“The Archer”), Sherlock Holmes (“The Detective”), Musashi Miyamoto (“The Samurai”), and Dracula (“The Vampire”). Barbiere, a former English teacher, has assembled a dream team of literary stars not unlike Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen—the comics also share a pulpy tone, zippy pacing, and bits of dry wit—the difference being that this group shares a single body and isn’t thrilled about it. Presumably tired of being summoned every time Fabian needs to fire an arrow with pinpoint precision or marry a katana to a Nazi’s face, the spirits begin to reject and drain their host, eventually demanding he prove himself via five trials if he wants to keep tapping into their powers.

About these powers—some (The Samurai, The Vampire, The Wizard) feel summoned more often and potently than others. Sherlock’s, at least through these first five issues, are a little limp, a work in progress. Fabian channels the ghost of Sherlock Holmes to spot, oh, a gaping trapdoor or massive passageway. (“There!” he shouts, as if the latter could be missed.) This is the bare minimum of detection, at its most tellingly lame when, during one of his trials, all Fabian has to do is enter 221B Baker Street (Sherlock’s London address) for Sherlock to bestow a passing grade. Then again, the pacing here is so frantic as to practically preclude true detective work. Who has time to dissect clues when a volley of spears or family of giant spiders is bearing down on them?

Ultimately this comic is more adventure than literary, the ghosts more archetypes than characters—nerdy/cool devices for pulverizing and decapitating baddies. I got a little Shakespeare-chubby when an enemy revealed himself to be Iago (!), only to realize that in lieu of more cerebral attacks, this incarnation of Iago would be riding a dragon (?), wielding a spear, and shooting laser beams from his hands, turning monks to dust. (If you want less action and more accuracy—if there is such a thing in the world of fiction—try Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s wonderful series The Unwritten, which also conjures classic literary characters from a vast collective unconscious.)

Which might make Five Ghosts sound less enjoyable or well-written than it is. This is a rollicking, stylish, visually stunning story that capitalizes on a brilliant concept (the Dreamstone), katana-sharp dialogue (Fabian’s friend Sebastian gets the best lines), and a charismatic swashbuckling antihero with surprising depth (pray for his twin sister Silvia, guys). I’m still not sure how Barbiere and Mooneyham managed to coherently blend the Dreamstone/five ghosts, Nazis, Spider Island, an airship, Shangri-La, Zhang Guo, London, Barcelona, etc., but the compound that results is not just promising but dizzying, a hell of a lot of fun.

Less fun, perhaps, but no less mesmerizing is Lucy Corin’s (a Trop contributor) new story collection One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (published by McSweeney’s in August). The title might sound ironic or snarky, but it actually makes sense—the first part of the book consists of three apocalyptic short stories (“Eyes of Dogs,” “Madmen,” and “Godzilla Versus the Smoke Monster”); the second part, a hundred short-short ones (“A Hundred Apocalypses”). The stories all take place (or at least, could take place) on the same post-apocalyptic earth, but details of the destructive event(s) are hazy—a blast, banks’ collapse, myriad plane crashes, an oil spill, a new Ice Age.

This is not a book of the Apocalypse—certainly not in the biblical sense. There is almost no mention of a higher power; the narrator of “Signs” says, “Sometimes I look up and say, ‘Give me a sign!’ but of course I’m kidding.” This is a book of 103 personal apocalypses or crises, some of which could take place in a non-apocalyptic world, some of which are just a couple sentences long.

As to who or what to blame for all these catastrophes (including the big one), greed belongs in the lineup. (One could argue that greed is also responsible for Fabian Gray’s apocalypse—his possession and his sister’s consequent endangerment.) In the spooky opening story, “Eyes of Dogs,” a lost and likely traumatized soldier with mommy issues clears his mind “of everything except the idea of money.” A witch lowers him into a cave and the soldier braves three enormous blue guard dogs for the treasure therein:

And this chest held cash, in large bills for saving, in small bills for handy spending. What it suggested was endless possibility anchored in safety… the soldier nestled in the arms of an economy yet to collapse, dopey in the darkness of the beating chamber. In the womby light he dumped the jewels and lined his boots and cap with bills, stuffed his pockets in a stupor…

The grim fable ends with the soldier heading into town and sleeping with a repellant woman “happy to do just about any sexual thing you can think of with him,” then putting his mouth to that of a magical purse, “though it disgusted him more than anything,” so he can speak into it and reap a magical financial windfall. It may not surprise you to learn that the beauty and efficacy of capitalism are questioned several times in these stories.

The survivors (hyperbole, maybe) in Corin’s world are generally some combination of the following: lost, greedy, lonely, horny, willing to defile themselves and/or others for a chance at money or comfort or safety or (don’t hold your breath) happiness. The speaker of “Mirage” writes, “Postapocalypse, we were all still racist and clamoring for scraps of gold. I was still lusting after the girl who looked most like a fashion model.” He is more self-aware and sexually coherent than most of the characters in the book.

In “Time Machine,” a man wanders into a time-traveling booth in his coworker’s living room; when it starts to rattle and hum, “He was so scared he took his penis out and started fooling around with it… He hoped beyond hope that by the time he was done he’d know, by god, what would happen next.”

In “Apocalypses Past,” the narrator says that wanton sex is “necessary, heroic even, given the state of so many of our physiques.” In “Nice Day,” a character tries to read a book,

…but now the book takes a turn for a paragraph into a sort of rhetoric that pisses you off, and that seems to give rise to another sort of tension connected to loneliness because you’re afraid you might abandon the book for good and all your hopes for what it might have given you—and that just makes you masturbate.

They reach for a book, and when that aggravates their isolation instead of allaying it, they reach for themselves. Almost everyone in One Hundred Apocalypses is grasping in the dark—for companionship, meaning (characters often consider what an image or interaction might signify), money (which they think = happiness), or all of the above.

The groping loneliness, sexual confusion, capitalism razzing, and post-apocalyptic nature of this collection recall a gloomier, less funny (but who isn’t?) George Saunders. “Madmen,” in particular, in which girls—upon getting their periods—choose a lunatic from an asylum to take home as a sort of pet, feels like something Saunders might come up with in a dark place. The specters of madness and suicide loom large over the entire collection.

Other sections of the book feel like a less grotesque Blake Butler (if there is such a thing), but really, Corin has a voice all her own, and a distinct rhythm and sound to her sentences that almost evokes prose poetry: “Cold comes off the window and the sun is soft and clean”; “On the road to ruin the man in the maroon car was on meth and driving like it.”

Thank god there is humor here. The protagonist of “Madmen” refers to her mother’s purse as “the most crammed thing in history.” In “Cake,” a woman “tried to imagine making the cake, same as I often tried to imagine love. I would never make a cake.”

Sad, sure, but in a landscape this blasted and bleak, every laugh counts double.

Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.