Sometimes evil takes up residence in a building. No matter who resides there, the evil permeates, penetrates, and takes over. In the case of the graphic novel, Pandemonium, evil has taken hold of the Waverly Hills Sanatorium, and the patients are dying by the dozens.
With echoes of Locke & Key as well as American Horror Story, Pandemonium is a truly creepy book which relies more on character than cheap shock. It is easy to draw a scene filled with gore and terror. It is much more difficult to make the reader feel for the characters involved. Writer Christophe Bec lures the reader in slowly, feigning pastoral tranquility with just the merest hint of terror to come.
The book opens with a pair of construction workers struggling to tear down a massive building. When they go home for the night the night watchman freaks out his rookie partner with tales of the building’s days as a Tuberculosis hospital and all the ghastly deaths that entailed. The story then drifts back in time some fifty years to a young woman and her daughter arriving at the hospital. As they enter, the young girl spots a stern-faced woman looking down from an upper window. When the girl sees a photo of the woman and asks about her, she is told that it must be a mistake because that woman has been dead a long time. Before long, the little girls’s every waking moment is filled with visions of the thousands who have lost their lives in the sanatorium.
Pandemonium never makes it clear if the building itself is haunted (a la American Horror Story) or if evil people are simply drawn to the building (as are so many in Locke & Key). However one thing is clear, the people who live and work on the grounds of Waverly Hills Sanatorium are rarely as innocent and friendly as they appear. Many of the doctors working there have secrets they are keeping, and some have little interest in actually helping those who are in their “care”.
It would be easy to dismiss some of these characters as evil and one-dimensional. But Bec takes the reader further back in time, another thirty years in the past, and shows that the building was home to unspeakable death and horror long before any of the current cast of characters were involved. So, instead of looking at all the people as evil, the reader is left with the unsettling feeling that maybe they had, at one time been good people, but the building made them do unspeakably bad things.
Artist brings a clean line to the story which helps lure the reader in and give a false sense of security. How can anything bad happen to these clean-cut and well-dressed people visiting the gorgeous brick structure? Were the book to be cast in shadows and filled with blackness, the startling revelations and glimpses of horrors would be telegraphed, much as the music and lighting of movies lets the viewer know when something bad is about to happen. But Raffaele instead uses a cool color palette for most scenes, which gives the red blood (so prevalent in Tuberculosis cases…and horror stories) much more of an impact.
The final chill comes after the end of the book. In the afterword, Bec explains that much of the story is based on fact. While the details have been changed and the situations exaggerated to make for a compelling narrative, the fact remains that hundreds, if not thousands of people died on the site. The details of the building, including the death tunnel, are all true. The sanatorium site is considered one of the most haunted in the United States. That is one thing Locke & Key and American Horror Story can never claim.