Tales Of Woe Review

By | Tuesday, August 17, 2010 Leave a Comment
The back cover of John Reed's Tales of Woe reads, in its entirety, as follows...
True stories of totally undeserved suffering.
Spectacularly depressing.
Nobody gets their just desserts.

Crushing defeats.
No happy endings.
Abject misery.
Pointless, endless grief.

Sin, suffering, redemption. That’s the movie, that’s the front page news, that’s the story of popular culture—of American culture. A ray of hope. A comeuppance. An all-for-the-best. Makes it easier to deal with the world’s suffering—to know that there’s a reason behind it, that it’ll always work out in the end, that people get what they deserve.

The fact: sometimes people suffer for no reason. No sin, no redemption—just suffering, suffering, suffering. Tales of Woe compiles today’s most awful narratives of human wretchedness. This is not Hollywood catharsis (someone overcomes something and the viewer is uplifted), this is Greek Catharsis: you watch people suffer horribly, and then feel better about your own life. Tales of Woe tells stories of murder, accident, depravity, cruelty, and senseless unhappiness: and all true.

I'm opting to use the sales copy here because it really does describe the book very accurately. There are two dozen short stories here, all accounts of real events, mostly from within the past decade. And every one of them ends unhappily. A freak accident lifts an inflatable castle skyward and then drops to the ground, killing two people trapped inside. A mother recovering from a drug addiction dies unexpectedly in her home; her young son then starves to death before either are found. A chemical plant dumps their waste in the local brook causing a number of local children to be stricken with cancer as they enter their teens. These are absolutely horrific tales with no heroes to root for and no villains to despise.

While the book is written in prose, it is punctuated with a number of spot illustrations by various artists. Several of them (notably Delia Gable, Kiki Jones, Sarah Oleksyk, Chadwick Whitehead and Ralph Niese) are comics artists, and some of that shows in their work here. Not so much in the style of execution -- their art styles range all over the map -- but their choice of subjects. The artists with some comic education take an approach which centers on specific moments in time, whereas the other artists tend to focus on emotional portraits or broad themes. Even if you opted not to look up which artists did which pieces or what other types of art the create, it's not difficult to pick out those who more often work in some form of comics. While there are certainly any number of artists in the world who also choose to depict specific moments but do not actually work in comics, it's interesting to note the division here and makes me mildly curious how all of the artists were selected.

The stories themselves are well-written. Some are as short as two or three pages, some are considerably longer. It's an interesting mix, too, in that it's not all just people who died in drunk driving accidents or something. Every story has a different ending with a different kind of tragedy.

I get where Reed is coming from with this. Every movie and comic book and TV show runs kind of the same way. The hero not only resoundingly wins against the forces of evil, but he gets the girl and all is right with the world. It's a bunch of pap and it gets tiring. I sat down to watch Kick-Ass last week, and I found it dull and predictable; the best thing I could say about it was that I liked the musical score and the lead actor did a pretty decent job with what he was given. That's one of the reasons I don't go to movies more; I just get bored with how predictable the vast majority of it is.

But I had a hard time reading through Tales of Woe. I could only get through two or three stories at a sitting before I had to set the book aside. That Greek Catharsis they mention on the back cover? I totally did not get that at all. Maybe that's just me, but the stories just came across as sad and depressing to me. I guess it's supposed to be something like, "Wow, my life might suck, but it's not as bad as THAT guy" but I never got that as a takeaway.

Coincidentally, I'm also currently reading a book called The Devil and Sherlock Holmes which also details true stories of the unusual. The author's approach there, however, is decidedly more upbeat. Some of the stories end not-so-great, but they're not written in a way to specifically cater to a negative impression. I've gotten more from the stories there than in Tales of Woe.

But that could very well just be me. I also generally don't like horror stories or disaster movies. I did rather enjoy a lot of the art here, and I'll be looking at the various artists, especially their comic work, more closely. Tales of Woe is in fact well done overall, but it's just not my cup of tea at all.
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