Inspired by the dark imagination of Edward Gorey, Envious Siblings is a twisted and hauntingly funny debut. Comics artist Landis Blair interweaves absurdist horror and humor into brief, rhyming vignettes at once transgressive and hilarious. In Blair’s surreal universe, a lost child watches as bewhiskered monsters gobble up her fellow train passengers; a band of kids merrily plays a gut-churning game with playground toys; and two sisters, grinning madly, tear each other apart. These charmingly perverse creations take ordinary settings—a living room, a subway car, a playground—and spin them in a nightmarish direction.
- Title: The Envious Siblings and Other Morbid Nursery Rhymes
- Author/Illustrator: Landis Blair
- Cover Artist: Landis Blair
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
- ISBN: 0393651622
- Publication Date: October 8, 2019
I’d like to thank W. W. Norton & Company for providing a copy via Edelweiss+ in exchange for review consideration.
Landis Blair’s The Envious Siblings and Other Morbid Nursery Rhymes is a macabre joy, a wonderfully Goreyesque look at the dangerous and terrifying experience that we call life. Edward Gorey’s influence on Blair is clear: they share a gleefully morbid sense of humor, an illustrative style that relies primarily on black and white images with moody crosshatching, and a penchant for depicting children in mortal danger. Gorey even makes a cameo appearance in one of the stories. Blair’s style is slightly more deranged and gruesome than his idol’s, though, with gut-punch endings that feel like Shirley Jackson writing an episode of The Twilight Zone.
Forgive me for repeating myself, but there really is no way to describe many of Blair’s young characters other than deranged—their unsettlingly wide smiles and feverish eyes add a layer of delirious menace to the stories “The Envious Siblings” and “The Malicious Playground.” The latter story—in which children happily maim one another on a playground—displays Blair’s talent for capturing the breathless moment right before an incident of shocking violence, which of course echoes Gorey’s legendary work The Gashlycrumb Tinies. Blair inverts this in the title story, though. Rather than showing the split second before the horror, he shows us its aftermath: two sisters hack and slash each other apart, but rather than witnessing the acts of violence, the reader sees increasingly mutilated little girls and a pile of body parts that hilariously grows from page to page. Neither story shows any fear on the children’s faces, just a lunatic enjoyment of the mayhem that they are inflicting and suffering in equal measure.
In my favorite story, “My Suspicious Sister,” Blair accomplishes one of the things I love most in horror: he makes the frame itself terrifying, suggesting that what lurks outside the panels is far more disturbing than what the reader can see within them. The story depicts a young girl playing with her “suspicious sister” as their parents (unseen except for their hands) manipulate them. By constraining our view and providing just a hint of the unseen figures shaping the little girls’ lives, Blair forces us to look at our own lives and face the fact that we are also trapped and manipulated by powerful, malevolent forces that we cannot see or comprehend.
Lingering dread and cruel irony characterize all the stories in this remarkable collection. Like “My Suspicious Sister,” the story “Grounded” uses a claustrophobic framing device to depict the fate of the world’s brattiest little boy. It’s always a joy to see an artist play with their medium like this, as Blair’s art is both dynamic and suffocating in this story. “The Refinement Tree” (which rewards repeated reading – pay close attention to the animals at the end) wryly suggests that the road to contentment is via irreparable brain damage. “The Awful Underground” shows how oblivious adults are to the doom that awaits us all, but it reminds us that being able to see the danger coming won’t protect us from it. With drily morbid verse and hilariously gruesome illustrations, The Envious Siblings evokes the oppressive inevitability of death, decay, and darkness and encourages readers to laugh at our collective plight.
This is a must-read for anyone who enjoys Gorey’s work. I give this book 4.5 out of 5 coffins.