January 2008

Benjamin Jacob Hollars


Ghost Stories: Essex County Volume Two by Jeff Lemire

Jeff Lemire’s Ghost Stories -- volume two of the Essex County trilogy -- taps into the three R’s of modern literature: regret, reflection, and responsibility.

The graphic novel opens with an image of Lou Lebeuf, a deaf and elderly man, sitting outside of the Canadian farmhouse where he grew up. As his mental state deteriorates, Lou struggles to conjure key moments from his past. First, we see Lou as a young man in Toronto, playing semi-professional hockey with his brother. The story flashes to years later as he works as a street car driver. We move to his mother’s funeral, and finally, to a scene of Lou and his brother Vince living together as they grow helpless and enfeebled in old age.

Yet a plot summary does little to get at the heart of the story. The seamless transitions between Lou’s current life and his troubled past offers a juxtaposition that adds an underlying weight to the entirety of the novel. While it could easily be called a love story between two brothers, Ghost Stories is a hate story as well: the happily-ever-after turns sour after a brotherly betrayal and reconciliation that comes far too late in life.

Another source of Lemire’s power resides in the subtleties of his panels. As Lou is driven to the nursing home, Lemire gives the reader four panels of his farm house growing smaller in the distance. Later, we see a lonely Lou driving his street car in one direction and his brother Vince driving a tractor in the other -- both glimpses which show two disparate lives left unfixed, two quiet men left to brooding.

The great sadness, however, resides in the time span in which the story takes place. Lou’s life is presented in a fast-forward meshing of scenes, though each scene leads him farther into a despair he cannot shake. We view Vince and Lou as young brothers skating on a pond, and in the very next frame we witness a senile, helpless Lou standing alone on the shores of that same pond an entire lifetime later. How did he get there? we wonder. How does a life go so wrong? How does it grow so empty?

Lemire’s sparse and seemingly unforgiving Canadian landscape only intensifies the cool shivers that the reader finds throughout each page. As if the plot wasn’t chilling enough, the constant snow and ice and cold pack on an additional layer of helpless for the characters. Whether by snow, water, or his own self-loathing, Lou Lebeuf is continually buried by elements outside of his control.

Ghost Stories reads as a cautionary tale in which the only lesson offered is the one we refuse to take. Regrets, we learn, are not always so easily washed away, nor are mistakes so easily corrected; as Lemire reminds, when either is left unaddressed, they have the power to poison a life.

Ghost Stories: Essex County Volume Two by Jeff Lemire
Top Shelf Productions
ISBN: 1891830945
112 Pages