Hannah Berry's Adamtine: A True Journey into Mystery

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An intensely unnerving, deeply unsettling and self-consciously uncomfortable read.

Hannah Berry’s last graphic novel Britten and Brulightly, published in 2008 by Jonathan Cape, was rightly hailed as a remarkably confident debut for a first time graphic novelist. In that outing Berry invited us into the shady world of a guilt-ridden private eye so downtrodden that he could only aspire to world-weariness, in a mystery that embraced the true traditions and recurring themes of noir storytelling rather than the vague pastiche approximations of them that most stabs at that genre seem to proffer now. Combined with certain fantastical elements thrown into the mix for good measure it marked Berry out as an exciting and distinct voice to be watched for in the future.

Earlier this year Cape also published Adamtine, Berry’s foray into the horror genre; a compellingly disturbing read with fatalistic undertones. The main thrust of the story follows four commuters on a late night train that becomes inexplicably stuck between stations, with a gradually revealed backstory behind events that is inextricably woven in and out of the central narrative in a series of flashbacks. Some years ago a number of individuals disappeared after receiving missives detailing minor misdemeanours they may have committed in the past. Rodney Moon, dubbed “The Postman” by the media, was tried for the crimes and, although he admitted delivering the letters, he remained adamant that something far darker was responsible for the abductions.

The majority of the population, however, held Rodney responsible for the murders and his eventual acquittal was considered a travesty. Justice would catch up with him  when he, himself, was brutally killed. Now, in the present, those four commuters on the last night train home – all of whom are linked in that they played a part in Moon’s demise whether directly or tangentially, willingly or unknowingly – find themselves suddenly alone in their carriages, trapped motionless between stations with an ominous presence quietly stalking them. As the true terror of the situation becomes implicit in the smaller, commonplace details of their shared experience, and time begins to fold in on itself, the inescapable reality of their plight becomes simultaneously both palpably undeniable and yet wholly inconceivable…

The name of seminal early twentieth century ghost story writer M.R. James is one I have, perhaps, overused in articles at Broken Frontier of late but Berry’s narrative so vividly evokes the spirit of James’s work that I hope you will forgive me if I make that comparison one more time. The power of the storytelling of James lay in a number of recurring motifs, but chief among them were, firstly, his ability to convey menace in the mundane and the ordinary, and secondly his determination to make his readers work a little harder to piece significant plot elements together. Those answers weren’t always easy and the audience were never patronised; in these regards Berry provides a similar reading experience in Adamtine with the lack of spoonfed explanations creating an even more disquieting layer to this chilling piece.

By using the concept of a nightmare journey commuting – an experience we’re all largely acquainted with – Berry adds an extra dimension to the book’s sense of tension by rooting it in something humdrum and everyday. But it’s the smaller touches relating to unremarkable, run-of-the-mill objects that resonate even more here:  a packet of Love Hearts sweets takes on a cleverly realised sinister role in the narrative while contemporary communication devices like mobile phones – those very tools that we have come to so rely on as our technological comfort blankets in modern life – only exacerbate the threat rather than provide any relief from it. In this regard I’m reminded of that infamous quote from the late, great Jon Pertwee, the third of Doctor Who’s Doctors, who similarly opined that the truly frightening episodes of the programme had an integral element of the familiar and the earthly to them, when he argued something along the lines of “there’s nothing more scary than coming home and finding a Yeti on your loo in Tooting Bec.” Quite.

And then there’s that greater force manipulating events here. That unknown lurker in the dark bent on supernatural retribution, and picking off our players one by one. It’s here, predominantly, that Berry evokes that sense of anxiety and apprehension in her readership by dropping hints and teases but, ultimately, letting the audience draw their own conclusions as to the true nature of this entity. Of course there’s a fine line to be drawn when dripfeeding partial explanations in this way but Berry stays the right side of it; her plotting oblique rather than obscure, her story leaking just enough background information to allow the reader to remain invested but without ever giving away too much to lessen that sense of profound unease that a lack of straightforward clarity provides. And, again, just like the esteemed Mr. James, it’s the consequences of disturbing these malevolent powers that becomes the important focus of the tale rather than the exact nature of that force itself.

There’s something quite dreamlike in the situation that the principal cast find themselves in here and that atmosphere of dislocation is hauntingly emphasised by Berry’s dark and claustrophobic layouts. The characters are incredibly ordinary in depiction, underlining the everyman component to the story’s central premise; that disconcerting sense throughout the book that the events therein could be happening to any one of us. Frustratingly, what’s particularly clever in the visuals is a little spot of storytelling playfulness that I feel obligated to no more than mention – this is ostensibly a review and not a critical dissection of the book after all – but it’s a technique that is brilliantly effective in allowing the reader to be aware of the impending approaching threat that the characters remain oblivious to.

Structurally, the tension-building pacing is near exquisite in its delivery, with those notable quieter moments in the book almost more unsettling in their implications than the explicit horror that occurs elsewhere. Indeed, there’s a feeling of helplessness to the proceedings – that by a single past decision each character has allowed themselves to become trapped within their own fates – and somehow, fairly or unfairly, they brought this on themselves. Again I find myself turning to Brit pop cultural references but in the cyclical and deceptive nature of time portrayed here I’m reminded very much of cult ‘70s TV show Sapphire and Steel.

Adamtine demonstrates Berry’s acute understanding of not just the language of the comics page but also of the vast, often untapped, potential of that sprawling sequential canvas. If you like your horror subtle rather than graphic, careful and intelligent rather than recklessly uninhibited, then Adamtine is an intensely unnerving, deeply unsettling and self-consciously uncomfortable read, tailor-made to your particular peccadilloes. Like Britten and Brulightly it's another labyrinthine, twisting tale of murkiness and guilt that cements Hannah Berry’s rep as one of the most exciting talents to break out in the U.K. comics scene in recent years.

Adamtine is written and illustrated by Hannah Berry and published by Jonathan Cape priced £14.99.

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  • Jason Wilkins

    Jason Wilkins Dec 8, 2012 at 12:53am

    Like the layouts...and the cover is truly striking...

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Dec 8, 2012 at 11:29am

    One of my recommended reads of 2012 without a doubt!

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