Tuesday, 23 August 2011

‘Pigeons from Hell’ – Joe Lansdale, Nathan Fox & Dave Stewart (Dark Horse Books)

Don’t worry; I haven’t picked up the habit of recycling old reviews, especially when they were only posted on Saturday ;o) What we’re looking at here is the updated and modernised version of Robert E. Howard’s ‘Pigeons from Hell’, originally published as a four issue comic book mini-series by Dark Horse. I didn’t pay this series much attention at the time, mostly because the title sounded a bit... well... soft. I’ve never been there but I’m pretty sure that Hell has creatures far more fearsome and demonic, than pigeons, that it could lend to a comic book title! It was only recently though (by which I mean this Saturday just gone) that I realised that the title isn’t an attention grabber so much as it is something that dovetails perfectly with the atmosphere that’s set up in the book.
I gave the original text a shot and enjoyed it a lot so I figured that now was the time to go and give the comic book a go. Having finished it, and as much as I enjoyed the read, I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d have felt if I’d read the comic book before reading the original. I’ve got real mixed feelings about this one...

The old Blassenville Mansion has stood deserted for years now, passed down through the generations but shunned by its heirs. Until now that is. Claire and Janet Blassenville have brought some friends on a road trip to see just what they’ve inherited, maybe see if they can restore the mansion to its former glory. What they’re about to find though... Well, they’ll be lucky if they make it through the night alive; home decorating will be the last thing on their mind.

Visually, ‘Pigeons from Hell’ is a very easy book to get caught up in and this is all thanks to a very effective partnership between Nathan Fox’s artwork and Dave Stewart’s colours. That’s not to say it’s perfect the whole way through. Sometimes I found myself having to do a little more work than perhaps I’d want to normally in order to work out just what was going on in certain panels. The panels where the twins see something coming towards them for example, I’ve read the book twice now (and spent time really going over the panels in question) and I still can’t see anything. On the whole though, Nathan Fox does a superb job of showing us just how eerie and forbidding the Louisiana swamps are as well as providing some real shocks when you see what is lurking in the mansion. Dave Stewart’s colours do an amazing job of bringing everything to life and I liked the little touches he gave the piece such as the contrast between dark mansion and bright characters and the sepia affect that he gave the ‘flashback’ sequences. Like I said, it’s not perfect but it’s near enough perfect that you won’t mind too much.

Funnily enough, it was the story itself that ended up giving me trouble. On the face of it, Lansdale gives his readers a scary piece with bursts of adrenaline inducing fear in all the right places. I haven’t read much of Lansdale’s but he’s been writing for a long time and this comes through in the assured way in which he drives the plot to a possibly predictable but definitely exciting conclusion. Here is a guy who knows what he is doing and does it very well.

What got me though was that I wasn’t sure what the story itself wanted to be and the time I spent pondering this was time where I was taken away from the story. Lansdale does a lot of work to make his adaptation a smooth read but this ‘identity crisis’ derails things and undoes all that good work.
I get the rationale behind updating the original ‘Pigeons from Hell’ for a modern audience and I also got it when Lansdale said, in the afterword, that a lot of him ended up in the writing. Of course it would, that’s the way it goes and it makes for something fresh if you have one authors spin on the work of another.
What I didn’t get though was the way the book set itself up as an alternative ‘modern take’ on the original and then went on to connect these present goings on with the Blassenville Mansion of Howard’s original. At least that’s what it felt like to me. I might be mistaken and certain panels were in fact homage paid to the original but the way it read felt like a connection was being made that just wasn’t going to work. The two histories don’t match and Howard’s original will always come out on top. Like I said right at the beginning, I wonder if I’d have felt the same way if I’d read the comic book first? Maybe...

Lansdale’s ‘Pigeons from Hell’ ended up being a lot of fun to read but a lot harder going than perhaps it needed to be. I’m glad I picked it up though.

Eight out of Ten 

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