At the end of World War II, a desolate English church on a rocky crag crumbles under a raging storm, killing its priest and cutting it off from the small village it supports.A year later, Marwell Clay comes home, scarred from the war and bearing the wrath of the people that have decreed him an outcast for his crimes. Dr. Robert Temple has also come to this village to build his dream house, an immense creation of precise standards and calculations . . . and dark knowledge. Because everything is not right in this village. People are disappearing, and the villagers are seeking an answer. And, if they can’t find that . . . a scapegoat.
Martin Stiff’s The Absence presents us with that most English of tales: a ghost story wrapped in a locked-room mystery, with the nice twist being that the entire village is the locked room. As if sucked in, people come here and never leave . . . until they vanish. Old and young, no one is immune to the strange forces dwelling here, and suspicions run high.
But, like most good ghost stories, the things that haunt these characters are more the results of their own guilts and desires, adding a sweet churlishness to a moody, complex story of discovery and redemption. In Clay and Temple, Stiff has created two distinctly troubled characters, one driven by the weight of knowledge, the other by the knowledge of the darkness of men’s souls, and placed them in a world where loss becomes both sudden and tangible, and discovery is not always a joyous release. And, in a country on the edge of a new age, both find themselves bound by the constrictions of the past, unable to move forward without resolution.
Also acting as artist/illustrator, Stiff renders his tale starkly, shifting from present day to memory with ease, allowing his drawing style to flow as a bridge between the two. His deft penwork propels the story from daylight to darkness with equal power, and his realization of the horribly wounded Marwell is a haunting sight.
Originally created over a five-year period, this six-issue opus is collected for the first time in a gorgeous hardcover edition by Titan Comics, and includes some nice (but too brief) supplementary materials about the genesis of the work. And, the length of this work, with issues ranging from 20-60+ pages, allows Still to unfold his mystery at a deliberate and suspenseful pace, deepening the mystery from page to page. There is no sense of rushing here, and the story is all the richer for it.
If you’re a fan of gothic British horror, The Absence will be a winner for you.
VERDICT: FOUR AND A HALF Foggy Nights on the Moors out of FIVE