Alabaster: Grimmer Tales is part of a much larger, richer mythology than I realized, and coming into that mythology at the tail end, I was in the dark regarding much of the story’s machinations, but still found myself enthralled by the intimate cast of characters and the heavy, gothic tone of the telling. Jumping into the deep end of fantasy and horror writer Caitlín R. Kiernan’s damaged and terrifying world, I reeled at the intensity with which it recalled the earlier volumes of her Dark Horse’s Alabaster series, Wolves and Pale Horse, how intrinsically they all tied together, and how the trials and troubles of the characters built on top of each other, creating a solid, memorable history and strong emotional context.
This is Kiernan’s swan song for her character, Dancy Flammarion, an albino teenager who travels through the dark and foreboding South, encountering and slaying monsters, guided by mysterious forces or possibly just her own unbalanced mind. Accompanying her on this bizarre journey are a ghost named Maisie and a talking Blackbird, and as the events of this final volume unfold, their paths separate and cross multiple times, and a supernatural presence deliciously hangs over the entire book. Their experiences to me were largely abstract and surreal, burgeoning with a wealth of myth and unknown mystery, and I was terribly intrigued by Kiernan’s style of storytelling. Even when I couldn’t wrap my mind around an idea in its entirety, that which I couldn’t grasp only seemed to enhance the underpinnings of the uncertainty between what was real and what may be imagined, and it was up to me to draw my own conclusions, if conclusions could be drawn at all.
As to drawing things, Steve Leiber’s art is exquisite, dark, and brooding. He captures the eerie and the supernatural in a way that makes them appear alarmingly normal. Lieber, most immediately recognizable from his work with writer Greg Rucka on Whiteout and the Eisner award-winning Whiteout: Melt, has wonderfully thin lines and draws the characters with a delicacy that belies their tough exteriors, while revealing their fractured and insecure interiors. Lieber’s style is more traditional, and it works perfectly for a story such as this, because the horror lies in wait, sneaking up on you, and then, together with Kiernan’s storytelling, it pounces on you when you least expect it, and all Hell breaks loose. Adding to this, Rachelle Rosenberg’s colors bring Grimmer Tales to grim life, a world full of browns, grays, and blacks, often offset by Dancy’s pale white skin. There is a menace in the color schemes, and they somehow create a sense of unease and dread. Reading this book, I had no idea what to expect, or what to expect next, and that, in itself, was entertaining, but if a reader was already familiar with Dancy Flammarion and her struggles, then their experience would be all the more rewarding.
The device that Kiernan uses to tie all of these threads together is wonderfully relaxed, as the Bird regales a boxcar full of hobo monsters with his stories of Dancy, giving the entire book a feeling of a long-ago legend, passed on from generation to generation, and shrouded in a haze of memory and mystery. I must say that I have not read a better dialect anywhere else, because Kiernan writes to the essence of the language, instead of just dropping a “d” here and replacing an “o” with an “e” there. It is the way in which the Bird talks that informs the dialect, not the way it is written, and that makes his dialogue complex and interesting, rather than tiresome and overwrought. That actually sums up Alabaster: Grimmer Tales quite well, complex and interesting. If you enjoy stories of gothic lore and supernatural battles, of good and evil and the unknown in between, then give Alabaster a look. You can start closer to the beginning with Wolves, or you can dive headlong into the dark magic with these Grimmer Tales. Either way, prepare to be enveloped into an eloquent and unsettling world, where danger and madness may lurk within just as much as they lurk without.