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Black Hole by Charles Burns

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Hardcover: 368 pages Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd (6 Oct 2005) Language English ISBN-10: 0224077783 ISBN-13: 978-0224077781

Ian's Rating:

If you like the films of David Lynch...

Black Hole is a kind of gothic teen horror story. It is about a disease, known as "the bug" which, once caught by sexual contact with an infected person, causes strange things to happen to the afflicted body. One boy develops an extra mouth on his chest, complete with tiny tongue, a girl periodically sheds her skin, another grows a tail, some are horribly disfigured facially by tumours or warty growths. The stigmata of the disease may be impossible to conceal, facial deformity for example, but some sufferers choose to try and "pass" as normal amongst the unafflicted, although risk of discovery and outing is always present. Those stigmatised take to the woods and live on junk food and sweets in a makeshift camp, periodically venturing into town for buckets of kentucky fried chicken and running the gauntlet of abuse from the "clean" youngsters there.
The two main characters, Chris (f) and Keith are infected. Chris caught the bug unknowingly from her lover (the one with the extra mouth) who is later killed. Keith is in love with Chris and wants to protect and look after her. He seemingly gets himself infected deliberately by Liz (the girl with a sexy tail), presumably to follow Chris into exile, and starts to grow tenticles from the sides of his torso. Events are complicated by a series of murders of the outcasts.
This book raises many issues of interest for possible discussion, most notably the iconography of disease. Whether concealed or not, the bug causes bodily deformity, often grotesque, that marks the victim as "the other", abnormal and dangerous to society, in the way that the external signs of leprosy or syphillis or, latterly, Kaposi's sarcoma might.
There is no obvious physical suffering, only stigmatization and social exclusion. A preoccupation with bodily deformity is only one of the similarities to David Lynch's work. The nature of the disease or the motives of the protagonists are not made explicit and there is no resolution to the story. All of these points are of credit to the author, and help create the dysphoric atmoshere, as does Burns' exquisite monochrome brushwork. The pages are very dark, with spooky dream sequences and flashbacks (indicated by a wavy panel border) woven into the narrative, which alternates between the viewpoints of Chris and Keith.

key themes: stigmatization deformity isolation sex adolescence STD

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