The X’ed Out Trilogy by Charles Burns

17/10/14, New Statesman

Charles Burns’s graphic novel Black Hole (2005) brought him to the attention of a wide, reverent readership. A twisted horror story of body dysmorphia and weird sex set in suburban Seattle in the seventies, Black Hole played knowingly and thrillingly with genres, including the Evil Dead series and The Blair Witch Project, while achieving the wider resonance of a symbolic AIDS tale. The clarity and focus of its black-and-white artwork, and the depths of its chiaroscuros, made for a work of great beauty.

For the last four years, Burns has been engaged on the X’ed Out Trilogy, the first volume of which, X’ed Out, came out in 2010, followed by The Hive in 2012 and, now, the concluding volume, Sugar Skull. X’ed Out is fifty large (slightly bigger than A4), full-colour pages of an intense, baffling fever-dream. A sick, bandaged Doug wakes up from medicated sleep and follows Inky, a cat he thought had died, through a black hole in the wall of his bedroom and emerges into what looks like a detritus- and rubble-strewn post-disaster landscape, which quickly changes to a world – clearly a dream – peopled by green Cyclops-style one-eyed men; a chubby, disfigured dwarf; writhing worms with humanoid faces; aborted foetuses; and eggs, vast white eggs with red jigsaw patterns on them. It is a world of horror, most of it biological. This dream-world will keep alternating with Doug’s real world in the present, in which he is recovering from something terrible that has happened to him, and the past, before his world was transformed. That past story revolves around Doug meeting an artist called Sarah at a party and falling in love with her. Sarah, however, is being hounded by a violent boyfriend whom she’s trying to escape. The alternations between the timeframes are effected with astonishing fluidity, and often not signposted, replicating for the reader some of the disorientated mental state of Doug.

It’s vital that we take note of the recurring imagery through the three books: a man’s surprised face seen through a basement skylight; dead foetuses; eggs; ashes; a pink blanket full of cigarette burns; television screens; rivers of effluents; a buzzing intercom.

The Hive gives us more on the progress of Doug and Sarah’s relationship, a tender story of young love with the shadows of fear and depression raking it, but the telling is anything but linear. Doug is now significantly older and healed of at least his physical damage. Crucial information is released in widely dispersed bursts, and that dream- or fantasy-world keeps interrupting, seemingly arbitrarily. This world, too, receives extended treatment: Doug works here as a dogsbody: in a forbidden wing of the Hive, a ziggurat-style building that dominates the town of weird creatures, he secretly carries romance comicbooks to the ‘breeders’, incarcerated women picked solely to give birth to ‘workers’, who are not human. The comics, missing crucial issues, tell the story of a passionate romance between a man and a woman which is troubled by the return of a violent ex-boyfriend. Timeframes and boundaries between reality and fugue states dissolve, chronology is severely fractured and redistributed as pieces of a seemingly random mosaic, texts within texts intervene, as do texts within dreams that bear deep connections with the framing reality – confusion has never been so exhilarating and, as we will discover at the end of Sugar Skull, so intelligently and intricately patterned.

Burns brings it all together in Sugar Skull. I don’t know which impressed me more – the slow build-up, over three books, to the revelation and the explosive knowledge that the final volume delivers, changing the entire way we see Doug, or the way in which Burns pulls all his pieces together into such a coherent whole. I don’t want to give anything away, but the reasons behind Doug’s fugue states, and how they torque the affective aspect of the trilogy, are breathtaking. Burns repays the reader’s trust in him with riches, and with interest on the riches, too. Everything – the havoc wrought by drugs; a father dying of cancer; Inky; channel-surfing on television; the reason for the elaborate, and elaborately depicted, fantasy-horror; the theme of fathers and sons – tightens into meaning.

Burns has the sick, profuse imagination of the kind that someone such as Bosch had. This imaginative fertility produces a frisson of atavistic horror, playing on that same revulsion of sex, and an attendant gynaecological phobia, that mad Lear rails against, ‘Beneath is all the fiend’s: there’s hell, there’s darkness,/There is the sulphurous pit – burning, scalding,/Stench, consumption …’.

A great joy of the trilogy is its dazzling allusive play. David Lynch seems to inform the porosity of Burns’s worlds, seamlessly flowing into one another, and another David, Cronenberg, the bio-horror aspect of it. The harmless exploding mushrooms seeded by meteorites in Tintin and the Shooting Star acquires the cumulative force of a symbol and becomes the objective correlative for horror for Doug (whose younger self sports a very Tintin-esque quiff). The confidence with which Burns positions himself within the larger map of other writing and art is entirely earned.