First published in a graphic novel edition back in October of 2011, John Smith’s ‘Cradlegrave’ was originally published within the 2000AD comics serialised stories (known as “progs”) 1633 to 1644.  The story was written by British comic book writer John Smith, with artwork by British comic illustrator Edmund Bagwell.

The graphic novel edition includes a short introduction by British author Ramsey Campbell along with eighteen pages of ‘Extras’ consisting of original black & white pen and ink drawings and CAD drawings.

DLS Synopsis:
It was high summer when Shane Holt finished his eight month stretch at Thorn Hill Young Offender’s Institution.  Now it was time to go home.  Time to go back to Ravenglade Drive.  Although the estate was hardly the ideal place to return to after spending time in a young offender’s institute.  Known locally as ‘Cradlegrave’ the estate was a cesspit of antisocial behaviour and dysfunctional families.  Still, it was home for Shane.  It was where he’d grown up.  Where his family was.

Having lost eight months of his life to Thorn Hill, Shane was now adamant he wouldn’t be returning there again.  It was time to get himself sorted.  Get his life back on track. The minute he walked through the front door, he told his mum such.

But Cradlegrave has its way of pulling you down.  In fact, Shane had barely been back five minutes before Callum was on his back, getting him out to a party at his house.  What’s more, Shane’s younger brother, Craig, had started hanging around with Callum and his gang of no-hopers.  It was not a situation Shane was all that happy about.

Nevertheless, Shane couldn’t escape the fact that his roots were deeply embedded within Cradlegrave.  Everyone knew him.  They’d watched him grow up.  Knew his mother.  Knew he’d had a tough time.  None more so than Ted.  Of course Ted was getting on a bit now.  His wife, Mary, was ill.  No one had seen her around the estate for quite a while.  She stayed hidden away in their small bungalow, with Ted running all their errands and looking after her.

But when Shane and Callum are forced to get off the streets smartish before they’re seen by anyone, they turn to Ted and persuade him to give them refuge in his home for a few hours.  But Mary’s illness is far worse than anyone could have imagined.  No one would have expected the horror that lurks in their council house.  Least of all Shane and Callum.

However, when your life feels empty and hollow, when it seems there’s nothing out there to bring you out of the gutter, some much needed nourishment can be found even in the darkest, and foulest of places…

DLS Review:
Having Ramsey Campbell write the introduction to the graphic novel was the perfect choice.  Almost all of Campbell’s work includes a gloomy, downbeaten and washed-out backdrop in which the story slowly seeps out from.  And that’s exactly the case with ‘Cradlegrave’.

From the get go we’re flung into a perfectly depicted cesspit of a council estate, where drink, drugs and anti-social behaviour are pretty much a way of life for its residents.  In fact, this decaying and socially-deprived backdrop is executed to absolute perfection by both writer and artist.  It’s high summer and the bin men are on strike for the fifth consecutive week running.  As such, Cradlegrave reeks of decaying rubbish.  The streets are overflowing with binbags and endless piles of foul-smelling, fly-infested rubbish.

Edmund Bagwell’s artwork depicts all of this damn well.  Washed-out, almost sepia-like colours project a tired, sun-bleached and worn-down environment.  You can almost feel the heat and smell the cloying stench of the place.  Sense the inescapable hostility of the residents.  The oppression of the youths and their dog-eat-dog way of life project.

Yeah, there’s a fuck-tonne of misery and gloom submerging every inch of the tale.  Before we even glimpse the first hints of the twisted horror awaiting us in Ted’s council house, we’re immersed in a much more real and bitterly self-destructive grittiness that pulls you down into a gutter of melancholy.  Similarly, the characters we’re introduced to all reflect this downward spiral of a hopelessly dead-end way of life.  It’s all drink, drugs and getting off your face.  Even the parents are pathetically directionless.  Each one turning a blind eye to the sad self-destructive state of their own offspring’s lifestyles.

And then when we’re feeling well and truly sapped of all hope, when we’re fully adjusted to the gloom of this way of life, it’s then that Smith starts to drip feed us the first hints of the dark horror that lurks behind closed doors.  At first it’s kept shrouded in a haze of relative mystery.  Just hints and half-spoken comments that suggest something’s not entirely right in Ted and Mary’s house.

Soon enough we see that something’s drawing the boys into this most unlikely of places.  Why would these hoodie wearing ASBO thugs want to spend time in the home of two elderly residents?  It’s enough to have us desperately pouring through the pages to find out.  After all, we know it’s going to be pretty damn fucked-up.  These guttersnipe thugs have no motivation in life other than to get off their faces and wallow in criminal behaviour.  So whatever it is, we know it will more than likely not be all that good.

Nevertheless, I pretty much guarantee you’re not expecting the vileness, the despicable and downright disgusting horror that’s eventually unveiled.  It’s strong stomach time my friends.  We’re talking a Matt Shaw meets David Cronenberg style of fucked-up body horror.  Utterly perverse, yet completely captivating reading.

One of the real strengths of the piece is in its pacing.  There’s a constant tightening of the screws, a cycle of gradual ‘drip-feed-and-revel’, which together brings about a veritable mountain of tension to get us pulling at our hair to see what’s going to happen next.

Okay, so the tale’s not exactly awash with grotesque body-horror.  Instead it builds up the tension; masterfully lays down the building blocks for some utterly nail-biting suspense.  And only when it’s at its very peak do we see the real horror lurking behind it all.  The body-horror in all its grim and perverse glory.  And just as quickly, it’s gone and we’re building towards the next vision of truly fucked-up-ness once again.

This really is a damn, damn fine example of the sort of gut-wrenching gloom and stomach-churning vileness that can be achieved in graphic novels.  Half the horror comes from the setting, from the real-to-life grimness of a downtrodden self-destructive council estate.  And yeah, the other half is in the vileness that lurks within.  Behind closed doors, festering and corrupting the youths of Ravenglade aka ‘Cradlegrave’.

Nasty, nasty stuff!

The graphic novel runs for a total of 96 pages (including 18 pages of ‘Extras’ consisting of original black & white pen and ink drawings and CAD drawings).

© DLS Reviews


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