by Shawn C. Baker
Vault Comics’ The Plot
I am of the ilk that believes comic books can be literature. There are the obvious entries into that argument, graphic novels by authors like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Brian K. Vaughn, etc. But those iconic, high-water mark novels didn’t just change the fabric of the comic book industry; they influenced a subsequent generation of creators to follow suit. This influence is especially apparent in Horror Comics. In recent years there has been a surge in high concept Horror titles. Many of these find a home with independent publishers that don’t carry the same weight as institutional companies like Marvel or DC. Even Image and Dark Horse, as big as they are, put out titles I’m always surprised go largely unnoticed. It will be the goal of this column to try and expose some of those titles.
I thought for this first entry in A Most Horrible Library, I would start things off with a book currently on the stands.
Title: The Plot
Author: Tim Daniel and Michael Moreci
Artist: Joshua Hixson
Publisher: Vault Comics’ Nightfall Line
Vol. 1 TPB available 7/01/20 (collects issues 1-4)
Issue 5 also available 7/01/20
During a recent re-read of Grady Hendrix and Will Erickson’s Paperbacks From Hell, I realized that Ancestral Horror had become something of a lost sub-genre. Perhaps ‘lost’ is a touch melodramatic; there have been some considerably successful examples in recent years. Crimson Peak, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are all rooted in Ancestral Horror. I’m even of the mind you could argue that Ari Aster’s Hereditary fits into the genre. But as the past has become less important to our society, the ‘sins of our fathers‘ plot device has likewise lost its power to horrify us. That said, it wasn’t all that long ago that religion’s faltering grip on our hearts and minds appeared to banish Horror’s ties to the Devil. I’ll never forget how disappointed I felt when I learned the REC remake had replaced demonic possession with terrorists making rabies. My point is, it wasn’t too long after that remake that a veritable deluge of films about possession appeared in theatres, one after the other. The lesson?
Everything old is new again, just like those generational sins that plague the characters in Ancestral Horror stories.
If you put your ear to the ground of most film genres, you’ll hear what’s bubbling in the world of the written word. Horror films take a lot of cues from Horror literature, and thanks to those icons mentioned above, comics are now recognized as just that. This brings me to The Plot, a relatively new ongoing monthly horror comic published by Vault Comics under their Nightfall imprint.
The Plot starts, like all good Ancestral Horror stories, with the proverbial chickens coming home to roost. Charles Blaine is the successful head of Sortvand Pharmaceuticals, a company he took over after his father passed away. When we meet Charles, we see him go from enjoying the spoils of his empire on the eve of his fortieth birthday to meeting his end at the hands of something monstrous. Something that has dragged itself up out of his family’s past and come to collect. “In order to give, first you must receive,” the cryptic message that proceeds his death also echoes through each issue, taking on ominous connotations that would appear to tie into nefarious deeds perpetrated by previous Blaine family Patriarchs. Don’t worry; none of this is spoiler country. Charles’ death is the inciting incident that kicks off the story, sending his black sheep brother Chase back to the Blaine ancestral home in Cape Augusta, Maine.
As the story progresses, we learn that, while big brother Charles’ was being groomed to take over the family business, Chase ran away. We don’t know why he ran, but there are intimations from other characters that don’t exactly paint him in the most flattering light.
Whatever drove Chase away, his return comes off as part heroic, part foolish. Certainly, his impetus to take up the mantle of raising Charles’s two adopted children, Mackenzie and Zach, is as altruistic as it gets. But there’s something else deep-seated in Chase. An impulse that ties him to the family mystery, and thus, makes him either the inevitable next target or part of the cause.
So the three Blaines arrive in rural Maine as fish out of water. With the help of Reese, the love Chase left behind, now a local school teacher, they try to make a home. Only the town itself opposes their attempt at happiness. Bigoted locals do not appreciate Mackenzie and Zach’s Chinese heritage. The Sheriff makes no bones about telling Chase he needs to leave, that his family has always been bad news for Cape Augusta. And the house, well, the house is a horror show all its own. There are hidden tombs inside its walls, rooms that flood with phantom water, and what I can only describe as Bog Creatures that haunt every nook and cranny of the estate.
In The Plot, Tim Daniel and Michael Moreci have conceived a story that, while clearly an homage to an outlier sub-genre, still manages to have its own unique pulse. There’s a modernity to some of the character dynamics that balances the tried-and-true ‘villagers with pitchforks’ vibe percolating in the background. Mackenzie and Zach’s heritage feels as though it will eventually come to play a more significant role, and the ties to 70s-era big Pharm adds the possibility of a conspiracy of macroscopic scope.
Likewise, Penciler Joshua Hixson and colorist Jordan Boyd employ a dark, almost gothic palette to populate the book with eerie, often earthen textures drawn directly from the Hammer philosophy of setting-as- character. Their wonderfully subtle approach to juxtaposing rotting, sepulchral entities with the visual tropes of Ancestry anchor the Blaines, both past and present, in an environment that feels perpetually unsafe. The underlying tension this creates makes each issue throb with promises that Horror lay around every corner. To me, that’s what Ancestral Horror is all about: What lies in wait.