I remember my first centipede sting. I was still in primary school and it was a week night. I’d already settled in and was probably sleeping when I felt a sharp pain on the right corner of my mouth that caused me to bolt into a sitting position, and something black fell from my face, landed on my arm and I was stung again on my forearm. I knocked it off with my other hand, and it landed on the bed and wriggled in a s-like motion to the foot of the bed. It was then I saw it under the glow of my nightlight and I screamed.
The theory was then that the centipede had crawled through a hole of the screen of the only window in the room which was at the head of the bed. Every night after that I always made sure that no part of my bed was touching the walls.
Reading the first issue of Clarke’s Heart Man reminded me of that creeped out feeling that I felt weeks after the centipede bite. What does a centipede have to do with Clarke’s graphic novel? Well his demonic version has a thing for getting under skin… literally. If I hadn’t read this then Shining Girls, by the South African writer Lauren Beukes, would have held the title of the creepiest thing I’ve read all year.
In Barbadian folklore the heart man kills children and offers their hearts to the devil. Clarke reaches down in to recesses of collective cultural memory and creates a version that has a more Jack the Ripper feel to him. He seems to go after young women. That Jack the Ripper vibe is highlighted by the fact that the heart man was ‘De Doctor’ from England who had come to work on Bayker’s Plantation in the 1800s.
The story then fast forwards to 2010, to the abandoned Bayker’s Mill that some teenagers on the wrong side of the law break into, accidentally unleashing this folkloric evil.
Clarke’s red, black and greyscale front and back cover set the ominous tone for the novel. Once you turn the cover there is no colour. It’s all shades of grey (this not a tongue in cheek reference to Nigel Lynch’s and Matthew Clarke’s All shades of Grey, which I’m still yet to read).
Clarke makes excellent use of panels to slow and speed up the pace of the story. My favourite is nightmarish two page spread where a long black arm is reaching out of the stomach of some kind of demon baby. It begins with two large horizontal panels on the left page, where I imagine (while squirming and breaking out into a cold sweat) the hand is slowly reaching out. Then on the right page the action seems to speed up with four vertical panels that look like broken glass.
The only negative thing I can say about Heart Man, other than the side effect of some really disturbing nightmares, is the language. I give credit where it’s due, I think he made an excellent attempt at bringing out the Barbadian vernacular, but his illustrations definitely tell a better story than his words.
And if you’re wondering whether I left on the lamp and made sure the bed wasn’t touching the wall after reading this title, yes I did.