Thursday, July 12, 2018

Book-A-Day 20-18 #193: The Chuckling Whatsit by Richard Sala

Richard Sala is one of the comics world's great originals, telling Gothic-infused stories in gorgeous pages equally rococo in art and text -- even his lettering is that bit more ornate and distinctive than expected. Doom stalks his pages, often of a supernatural kind: mad scientists and maniac killers and secret societies of assassins, monsters and fiends and lunatics. His main characters are young and plucky and very unlikely to make it to the last page -- slightly less so if female, but their odds are never good. He comes from some of the same influences as Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, and Gahan Wilson, but works much more specifically in the comics medium than any of them, focused on telling stories -- his equivalent of penny dreadfuls -- to thread together the creepy pictures.

The Chuckling Whatsit is one of his best books: his first long story, serialized in the mid-'90s in the Zero Zero anthology and then collected into a single volume in 1997. (And then brought back in 2005 in a slightly spiffed up edition, which is the one I read.) Way back in the early days of this blog, I wrote about this book quickly, but maybe I can say something new, or at least different, this time.

This was a serial, and Sala takes advantage of that form -- each eight-page chapter is an episode, with its own action and mysteries, like some downmarket 19th century shudder tale. It centers on a young man named Broom, a jobbing writer in this dark, moody city, who is hired by a newspaper to take over the horoscope column temporarily.

What Broom doesn't know -- but learns quickly -- is that someone, dubbed the Gull Street Ghoul, has been murdering astrologers in this town. And now he's next on the hit list.

Also quickly mixing into the stew of plots and secrets and murder and mysteries and death: a secret organization of assassins posing as a group studying the Ghoul, an independent female French assassin and her mysterious masked boss, a psychiatrist with deep secrets about the current Ghoul and one from twenty years before, and a collection of bizarre little dolls -- which may be art or may be the records of crimes, or both -- the most important one of which makes a horrible laughing sound when jostled.

Sala runs those complications through seventeen chapters of fiendish action and devilish suspense, building up a large cast so that he can kill large numbers of them as those plots go on and the monsters turn on each other. On the last page, we do see one character walk away, as we must.

Chuckling Whatsit is presented well in this edition, with a larger page-size than Sala usually gets, plus a "Rogue's Gallery" at the end: over a dozen inky pages depicting all of the characters of the book, in various thematic groups. Each chapter also gets a two-page frontispiece to separate them, and emphasize the serial nature of this story.

If you've never read Sala before, this is where to start: it has all of his trademarks, deployed well and shown to best effect in this edition. And if you've ever liked Wilson, Addams, or Gorey, Sala should be right up your alley.

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