By T. Trewhella
The best horror leaves a mark after exposure. Even after the pages are closed and the books returned to the shelf/pile/library, the best horror refuses to be consigned to the page. It whispers to you in moments unexpected. The ideas bubble up from the depths of your brain and wrap themselves around your heart. I saw Erika Price’s work on a table at a con, and This Dread Disease We Call Skin hooked my attention like a barb. Her art is immediately distinctive; full of scratches, incisions, and cross-throughs.
This Dread… lays out its wares from the cover. A tangle of limbs constrain a figure whose scream can be felt but not heard. It is unclear whether the limbs which constrain them are their own. They gaze in silent horror at the book’s title which is overlaid with smudges and lines and the effect is that from afar the title is legible – but as you bring the cover towards comfortable reading distance it falls into unreadable chaos. It’s a simple effect: once you pick up the book at a comfortable reading distance, a fundamental part of the cover stops working. These two concepts – of being held back or constrained, and in order falling to chaos – repeat throughout. Collecting Price’s short stories from 2019-2020, this is a project which exists in a terrible orbit around the two concepts of constraint and entropy.
“Screens” opens the comic, a four page story about a person in a medical setting who begins to sprout screens. Each page shows a slice of their change – as they go from a person wreathed with screens to something beyond that. The internal chronology of each page feels knowable; page 1’s eight-panel grid opens and closes with static which coincides with the patient’s loss of consciousness. A neat little pattern: the gaps between the pages, however, are unknowable. The medics disappear. The screens grow and warp. We drop into a 12 panel grid, but each subsequent line of panels splits further.
The bottom third of the second page has 7 distinct panels, allowing us to feel the elongating madness of “now”. Time is falling into entropy. Our brain expects 4 panels on the bottom third of a 12 panel grid and instead we get double that. Our ability to proceed through the story is constrained. And the oppressive weight of entropy is brought even more to the forefront on page 3. Here the panels are offset so the act of reading from left to right becomes impossible and readers can’t construct a timeline of what’s happening here. The moments showing the patient describing the agonies of their change are connected – but we can’t know the exact order. We are sinking into an eternal now. The patient is changing but this story is not about what they might change into. There is no apotheosis in these four pages. There is only the chrysalis-hurt of the ever-stretching now. A labour without birth.
The final page of the story takes this even further. By now the patient is almost all screens and they describe their body shifting, “collapsing in on itself” before declaring that they “can’t do this any more.” They lie on the ground, now just a person-shaped collection of screens/panels. Panels of eyes and mouths are overlaid (two eyes and two mouths – the patient is now beyond the expected human ratio of eyes:mouth) as we see a spiral of static-filled screens/panels cascade up to the centre of the page. The last image of the last page pulls our attention back up towards the middle of the final page. We cannot proceed without breaking the “rules” of reading: both the patient and the reader are snared in the now.
We must decide for ourselves what lies next for the patient as Price doesn’t give us an easy out. Did the patient self-admit to hospital? Are these growths benign? We know they hurt, but is the patient transforming into something better? We aren’t shown the patient’s final form, just them giving up in pain, so the reader has to decide if the labour pains of change are worth it – without the luxury of knowing the ending.
In “Again”, we’re trapped in another looping narrative. It’s a one page story where the narrator awakes in hell, is torn apart by a horror, and collapses into a noiseless panel of static. A pure burst of anguish. We turn the page and find out… that we’re back at the start, and we repeat this cycle over and over, getting closer and closer to the horror and seeing the narration get less lyrical and more frantic each time. Each loop decays until we’re left with a four word thump at such a tight zoom that any sense of an image is lost. The story grows ever more threadbare but the story will not snap and release us: we are caught in a spiderless web of now, fearing not for death, but that death won’t be an escape.
This unbearable and inescapable sense of being caught in a moment recurs throughout “This Dread…”. It’s woven through the panel structure, the intricately detailed art and scratchy letters which need you to stop and dwell to fully decode them, and in the liminal dreamy storytelling about unnamed protagonists with uncertain pasts and denied futures.
Price’s work in this book makes the reader confront the crushing sense of being trapped: trapped in our situation, trapped in our current modes of thinking and being, trapped in ourselves. It’ll come as no surprise that as someone who changed their gender and works hard to make themselves and their society better, for me this overwhelming inertia is a genuine middle-of-the-night tearful fear. “This Dread…”, like all effective horror, wraps this real fear in just enough fictional casing to allow it to slip down your throat. What if all your personal progress could just be reset? What if the only force for change isn’t under your control but is instead the irresistible unwinding of entropy reducing everything to flatness? And then what if there was nothing beyond that except having to relive it all again?
“We Were Fishermen” is the last of the five stories. It begins with a person in nautical gear wandering a submarine which floats “10,000 feet down”. Across the story we see this person drink and decay whilst they berate those outside the story (their superiors? Those that eat the fish? The reader?) for forgetting them down in the dark. The sub shifts and decays too, but neither fisherman nor sub decays linearly; the rot and shift jumps from panel to panel. The fisherman doesn’t know why they’re forgotten in the dark or who they were beyond the context implied by their now. They are another of Price’s characters unmoored from the progress of time. As with the earlier stories, across the three pages we see the panel count once again increase – 6, to 12, to 24.
And then comes the twist. Whereas in the previous stories we’ve seen loops and stories oroborosing their protagonists into inescapable moments, the final page offers us a glimpse at something beyond. The fishman’s mournful narration to who they might have been sits in a 24 panel grid, same as on page three, but instead of the achronal, rapid-fire, cuts of rot, rant, and rage we see a repeated pattern of gears and organic matter. A checkerboard of metal and flesh. And “in front” of this pattern and their words stands the final form of the fisherman, literally outside of the boundaries of the comic grid. Even the line of the last syllable of their final word in the story distorts into a line which flows to the page edge (and beyond). They are something post decay and post human. A thing of rope, tentacle and otherness. Transformed and free. In time even entropy itself falls.
Price is a trans creator making art in a country which wants to deny her and others the freedom to transition, making it infinitely harder for those who’ve transitioned on a medical, legal, and societal level. That sense of being unmoored, of feeling change as a force outside of your control, of being cut off from your community’s history? Those are my concerns, and I can’t help but feel them radiate from the pages. My fears in the world are here on Price’s pages. This Dread Disease… is a rich and potent comic.
Like Price’s other work it uses her distinctive black and white imagery whose scratches, extra lines, and heavy detail produce a deeply anxious mood. The art bears the scars of its creation. Similarly Price’s words aren’t anchors of certainty; they’re snippets of unease which amplify the gaps in her worlds – gaps which it’s all too easy to imagine yourself in. The constriction and entropy that writhe through this book invite you and your doubts in, to feel your own world fall apart, to consider whether the hands around your throat are your own.
This Dread Disease We Call Skin
By Erika Price
T is a writer who writes about comics, games, feelings, the future, and nail polish. More of their stuff can be found on Twitter over here. They are toxic.
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