Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, where each week one of our contributors goes crazy over a book they just can’t seem to get enough of. Intrigued to find something new? Seeking validation for your secret passions? Required Reading gets you.
By Arpad Okay. There’s more than just a dead body in the woods. This undiscovered corpse is the new home to a colony of creatures unlike anything else in the world. The contents of a child’s sketchbook come to life. They are little pixies, not one taller than a pack of cards, the living dreams of Henry Darger. Jane is the adult. Plim, the self-serving assistant. Zelie is the queen of attention. And Aurora is the one who holds it all together.
If the tiny denizens of Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët’s Beautiful Darkness come from our imagination, Aurora is the good little voice inside of you that keeps hope alive.
This new world they are thrust into has left everyone but Aurora and Jane as helpless as a baby. They are all starving because nobody knows how to feed themselves. But as summer carries on, their innocence begins to feel feigned. What was once childish selfishness born from a lack of understanding becomes plain indifference. The drive that makes kids pull the wings off of butterflies when there’s no one around to stop them.
By autumn playful ignorance becomes the excuse to indulge in cruelty, and a divide grows between Aurora and Zelie. The death count of the little folks has grown absolutely epic. This isn’t a fairy tale at all. It’s a post-apocalypse survival story. Despite being full of princes and cruelty and comeuppance, Beautiful Darkness is closer to the tale of the Donner party than it is to Cinderella. (Aurora reminds me of the doctor’s wife in José Saramago’s novel Blindness, the sole person who can see in an asylum daunted by an epidemic of sightlessness.)
In winter, Aurora goes into self-exile. The community that’s left pulls together under the only leader they have, and everyone is forced to live off of Zelie’s scraps. Putting Zelie in charge makes an already a topsy-turvy situation truly set through the looking glass. The story culminates in the chilling confrontation between the two princesses, Aurora and Zelie, and the dark transformation they undergo together.
Having only a handful of kind and empathetic characters in a world such as this imbues the entire read with anxiety. Characters die left and right, and those that survive in the woods are cruel and self-centered, so those who give themselves to others seem to be double-doomed. There is an indescribable humanity found in these cartoon baby doll doodles when Beautiful Darkness places them in constant jeopardy. I can’t help but think of Don Hertzfeldt’s films, how I can connect emotionally to the silliest things when their time suddenly runs out. I worry for Aurora’s longevity but it troubles me to see her take the actions her survival requires.
And the whole thing is rendered beautifully in a classic children’s book style, watercolor paintings that handle the whimsical Marcel Dzama-esque creatures and the naturalist, Audubon Society woodlands with equal grace. Drawn & Quarterly printed their English edition as an oversized hardcover book, and it is easy to feel just like a child with this book in your hands, the aesthetic enhanced by pages big enough to make you feel small again. Which is just what you want when you’re reading something where doom and dread permeate every page.
Despite their appearance, the little folks are as real as their world. They swell up when they’re stung and bleed when ruptured. The body decomposes, becomes a field of maggots, a cavernous husk where gooey tissue once was. Entropy rules. The book is like some kind of warped concoction made from Tove Jansson’s Moomin, Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and Clive Barker’s Books of Blood.
As an allegory for what could happen when things go wrong and care is gone, Beautiful Darkness is empathy’s call to action. Zelie ruins everything Aurora tried to save, and in doing so, ruins Aurora. You want Aurora to bring it back on Zelie. It shouldn’t satisfy, but it does. Page after page after page of murder forgotten, I am wishing for an ending where two wrongs make a right. I truly want for things to get worse, to answer violence with violence, to contradict everything I’ve ever felt about right and wrong. Beautiful Darkness left me breathless, enlightened and eviscerated.