Horror stories are supposed to scare and shock. There’s no doubting that this post-apocalyptic nightmare will manage that. But whether you can stomach the result is going to be a matter of personal taste (or lack thereof).
The story starts in an American diner. People are happily eating their cherry pies when a man walks in. The man has welts on his face, in the shape of a cross, and he’s carrying the freshly ripped-out spine of a human. It soon becomes apparent that the man is crazy. A scuffle breaks out and the man with the crossed face literally bites the nose off the restaurant’s owner. It isn’t long before the owner also gets the markings on (what’s left of) his face and, despite his wounds, also turns into a blood-crazed psycho.
A few lucky customers manage to escape the diner, but outside the scene is no different. The crossed are everywhere, infecting more people with terrifying rapidity. Cars are crashing, planes are falling out of the sky and news broadcasts are deteriorating into chaos. Civilisation is falling apart.
A handful of the diner survivors manage to escape the town but they soon learn that they’re facing a worldwide epidemic. The crossed are everywhere, and every second of their lives, from now on, is going to be a fight for survival.
The nature of the problem is a mystery to the survivors, but the symptoms are all too real. The crossed take great pleasure in killing, maiming and raping, all of which is graphically depicted. While most deteriorate into simple savages, some appear to have carried some of their previous human intelligence through with them, making them doubly dangerous.
There’s no point arguing that this isn’t gratuitous. It revels in its gratuitousness. It passes through over-the-top and extends so far out the other side that we need a whole new vocabulary to describe how horrific it is. What makes it even worse is that it isn’t done with any humour or subtlety. It’s dark and it’s grim, and there’s nowhere to hide.
The list of taboos it embraces is immense. Rape, mutilation, torture and infanticide are common occurrences, sometimes concurrent. It’s vulgar, harrowing stuff.
However, it’s also expertly executed. Ennis and Burrows shy away from nothing, reveling in the gory, destructive detail. And while Ennis may have an endless supply of gut-wrenching, blood soaked situations to inflict upon his characters, those characters also have depth and sophistication. It can sometimes be difficult to spot amongst the nightmarish times they’re living through, but there’s humanity amid the chaos.
There’s no point embarking on this unless you want to face the horror, though, and I struggle to recommend it. Large chunks of it are so nasty, so gratuitous, so downright depraved that I’d hate for anyone to stumble across it without being strongly warned about its content. It certainly must not fall into the hands of children – mature readers or not.
Still, if you’re a grown up and can face the worst horror that certainly I’ve ever seen in a comic, then be my guest. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.