Tales of Woe
by John Reed
Reviewed by Jesse Tangen-Mills
An unwinnable war, an economic recession, and an ecological disaster make it a good time to reconsider that beloved medieval genre, the grotesque. From the Garbage Pail Kids to the sanguine Saw series, the grotesque is alive and well despite its advanced age, and continues to find a warm place in the hearts of many -- a place where Tales of Woe begins.
John Reed, author of Snowball's Chance and All the World's a Grave, now turns his attention to nonfiction, principally that of the tabloid kind. Tales of Woe is a collection of creepy vignettes matched with color comic portraits. Nearly every black page in the book features drawings that depict the horror, oh the horror, of our times: the morbid Mexican cult figure Santa Muerte imagined topless, a pasty Sarah Palin in a pin-up with a sea lion, a snapshot of a car crash as a "crime scene centerfold." The artwork falls somewhere between funny and just gross, an apt pairing for Reed's tongue-in-cheek news.
The stories themselves -- twenty-five in total -- work on a "strange but true" level, written in the sort of cocksure voice that one finds on World's Wildest Police Videos -- a dash of Rod Sterling with a touch of Alfred E. Neuman. Through gang rapes, mutilation, bestiality, necrophilia, devil worshipping, and more, the voice continues, unfazed by the horrors it describes.
Perhaps it's best to start with the worst, most grueling anecdote in the book, a rundown of crime from Central Russia called "Father Knows Death," in which teenage girls keep disappearing. "They met some boys, who raped them. The boys beat them all night, raped them, tied them to a radiator, humiliated them in different ways," explains one of the girl's mothers. When the girls refuse to become prostitutes they are killed. This case, however, is one of thousands per year.
But there are other, more light-hearted tales, like "Mrs. Honeycutt." Mrs. Honeycutt -- her real name -- seduces one of her son's friends at a sleepover. After sharing libations with a few bottles of bacchanalia, she convinces the boy to hop in the shower with her. The incident makes its way to the court, where the boy's testimony sounds like he was raped (though he later admits off the record that it was "awesome"). In the end, Mrs. Honeycutt has to do a year in jail. Whether she was innocent of her love crime or not we will never know. So goes the stuff of soap operas, pornography, and tabloid news.
Then there are the sideshows of sociology like the Mzungo, as albinos are called in Tanzania. Some magic cults regard body parts from the 300,000 Mzungo in the country as extremely powerful, even better are genitals of a virgin, and better yet those of an infant. Aside from grave robbery, the Mzungo are subject to great prejudice, and in fact are the racial substratum in an already impoverished country. In Tanzania an albino is much more likely to die young than a non-albino.
In "A Trunk of Vengence," an abusive elephant trainer is murdered by his two-ton victim, Tyke -- a crushing (bad pun intended) act of poetic justice. After getting her revenge, Tyke wanders off to settle the score with nearly even human around her. She stampedes through rush hour in downtown Honolulu, until the cops find her and shoot her eighty-seven times. Tyke dies of a brain hemorrhage, still wearing head tassels.
The last tale, "Lair of the Bair Faced Liar," describes the life of Timothy Treadwell, also the subject of Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man -- a film that, like this book, walks the tightrope between being tragic or ridiculous. Perhaps the only thing tragic about Timothy Treadwill -- whose delusions would eventually lead him to be eaten by the very bears he "protected" -- is that Treadwill's death although incredulous was real, as was that of his girlfriend, who he dragged along with him to Alaska. Surprisingly there is no mention of the documentary that made this story famous; in fact, a bibliography might have served this collection well overall.
Despite the gloomy title and its rather morbid contents, Tales of Woe is more kitsch, than grotesque. Indeed, I somewhat painstakingly admit to enjoying it. However, the reader should be warned that one needs a strong stomach and tough nerves to get through Reed's macabre peep show. There are plenty of readers who will have preferred never to have opened the cover of this Pandora's book, and others who will question Reed's motivation in depicting the pain of others. With its sophomoric gross-out humor and its gory drawings, I'll keep this one under my bed.