Some horror fiction is so devoted to spanning the space between the seen and the unseen that its suitability for comic art adaptation is questionable at best. Prior to the publication of The Nightmare Factory (Harper Collins/Fox Atomic Comics) I'd have placed the works of writer Thomas Ligotti in that rarefied subgroup.
Peopled by unreliable narrators whose hold on sanity is tenuous at best, set in a universe where reality is mutable, Ligotti's unsettling style of horror is a far moan from the more physical imagery of the old EC horror floppies – or the splatterpunk work of modern comics horror scripters like Steve Niles. It's certainly an approach that's harder to effectively transform into pure comics than, say, a Fox Atomic property like The Hills Have Eyes.
Yet the four tales featured in the 112-page collection capture Ligotti's unique blend of nebulousness and gothic gloom far more effectively than I would've guessed possible. I credit the book's four artists for this success. Though the book's two scripters, Stuart Moore and Joe Harris, do a fine job parsing Ligotti's elegantly depresso prose to the comics format, it's this quartet of moody visual stylists who efficiently layer on the atmosphere.
To ease the reader into Ligotti's profoundly slippery world of horror, editor Heidi MacDonald has chosen the most "traditional" of the four tales, a Lovecraftian piece entitled "The Last Feast of Harlequin," for the book's opener. Set in a decaying Midwestern town (beautifully conveyed by artist Colleen Doran, who frequently tilts the visual plane ever so slightly to convey the place’s wrongness), it focuses on an academic suffering from seasonal affective disorder, who treks to the small town during its winter festival. The mysterious festivities involve two sets of clowns who roam the streets: the first of which suffers abuse at the hands of drunken townspeople, the second of which appears to exercise a sinister power over them. It's the latter who provide the story's ultimate moment of visual horror in a claustrophobic tunnel outside of town: the panels showing row upon row of gaping harlequin are particularly disturbing.
"Harlequin" contains a transformation sequence that you just know some CGI-minded director would love to film, but the remaining stories prove more of a challenge to hold onto. In "Dream of A Mannikin," Ben (30 Days of Night) Templesmith puts his blend of caricature and washwork to a work wherein the identity of the dreaming "mannikin" is never distinctly declared. As an artist, Templesmith's tendency to favor murky mood over visual clarity is tamped down in this tale – smartly playing against the story's ultimately unknowable world of "dream telepathy" – to strong effect.
Elsewhere, in "Dr. Locrian's Asylum," Ted McKeever takes us to yet another unfortunate small town, using broader strokes and woodcut-influenced visuals for these sequences taking us into the title setting. Michael Gaydos, the most painterly artist of the bunch, is perhaps less successful taking us into the boho "artistic underworld" of the book's finale, "Teatro Grottesco," but his final panels depicting its self-proclaimed artist hero's dissolution convey tons of cosmic despair.
"Anxiety," Ligotti himself writes in one of four introductions to the stories in this book, "is the only tune that rings true in our lives." After reading this quartet of stylishly ominous adaptations, you might find yourself agreeing with him. In a fall season typified by much more categorizable frights, Nightmare Factory provides a bitterly entertaining treat for those attuned to its storyteller's grim sentiments.