Black Stars Above and the Refuge of Cosmic Horror

Harry Kassen writes about an incredible offering of the scares by Vault Comics!

I never thought I’d be into horror. As a kid, I was easily scared by books and movies and because of that I’d avoid them like the plague. The first part of that is still true, but now I can’t stop reading and watching horror.  I don’t know exactly what changed, but I do know it was comics that did it. I started by following creators I liked into their horror work, but now I just grab as much horror stuff as I can get my hands on.

Credit: Lonnie Nadler/Jenna Cha/Brad Simpson/Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou

One recent favorite, and a book I can’t stop thinking about and recommending to people, is Black Stars Above by Lonnie Nadler and Jenna Cha, with colors by Brad Simpson and letters by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. The second book in Vault’s Nightfall line, it got a little lost in the fanfare for the launch title, The Plot (also great). For me, while I knew I would be into both, it was Black Stars Above that really caught my interest.

The reason for this is my hard to explain love for cosmic horror. Black Stars Above was probably my first strict cosmic horror book, but for years I’ve been fascinated with stories about a hidden machinery behind the world you know, and in particular a hostile machine. This probably started with The Black Monday Murders, but it’s spiraled out into something of an obsession. Something about these stories just pulls me in every time.

Black Stars Above itself isn’t exactly the same sort of thing, but at the same time, it taps into that pervasive dread. The idea that the world is either hostile or indifferent is baked into the book and the cosmic horror that influenced it. The premise is relatively straightforward: a young First Nations woman named Eulalie is tasked with delivering a parcel to a mysterious town miles away. It’s obviously more complex than that, as Eulalie faces difficulties in her hometown and obstacles, both natural and unnatural, on her journey, but the plot isn’t really the star of the show here.

Credit: Lonnie Nadler/Jenna Cha/Brad Simpson/Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou

What the comic really nails is the atmosphere. You can feel the snow falling as Eulalie begins her trek and the miles begin to wear on you as the book goes on, but more than any of that it’s the tension. It’s palpable all the way through the series, building in your chest as you read, filling you up with dread until you think you’ll burst. There isn’t even anything decidedly scary going on most of the time; there’s just a profound sense that something is wrong and that at some point it’s all going to come crashing down.

Enhancing this feeling is the soundtrack, composed by Nestor Estrada. I want to call this out specifically because it’s the first time I can think of a comic having a score. A lot of creators will put out a playlist to accompany a series or create original music inspired by a book, but this is the first time I can think of an original composition specifically intended to accompany the reading experience. Like any great horror score, Estrada’s piece (it’s just one song) gets under the skin and just hangs there, building suspense and just keeping you like that, unable to let go and unable to get past it. It’s timed to line up with the first issue but you can just throw it on loop as you read. I won’t say it’s the only way to read Black Stars Above, but I will say you should give it a shot.

Credit: Lonnie Nadler/Jenna Cha/Brad Simpson/Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou

Anyway, with that sort of roundabout explanation, I can really dig into what about this book was so appealing to me. It caught me at a particular time in my life; a time when I was struggling with school and my place in the world. It was dark outside, and cold, the ground covered in snow. And reading a story like this one did a lot to set my mind at ease, or something close to it. Sitting in my dorm room, reading the second issue under a blanket with the soundtrack on, heart pounding in my chest as a snowstorm blew in outside my window, I felt a certain kind of peace I hadn’t felt in a long time.

As I’m writing this, I’m trying to figure out exactly why that happened. Part of me thinks that horror helps me deal with my depression by alleviating the burden of everything going wrong in my life. If the world is hostile and wants me to fail, can I really be blamed when I do? But that’s too easy. It both gives me too much credit and not enough. I don’t want to feel like my life is out of my hands. That’s honestly worse. So it’s a good thing that’s not what Black Stars Above is about. I don’t want to explain too much of the plot here, but it’s about a young woman whose life is controlled in every way taking the opportunity to decide for herself, and even then she has to fight every step of the way. Seeing the brutal machinery of the universe gives her a chance to see the rails she was on and take her own path. And that’s a tremendously rewarding story to see. I’m obviously not in Eulalie’s situation at all, but I understand the feeling of pushing back against a pervasive feeling of worthlessness and dread to define my own life. So as tense and scary as this book can get, it all builds that profound feeling of centeredness that you get when you’re done.

So that’s my recommendation. This month or next, as the days get shorter, the nights get colder, and you feel more alone: grab Black Stars Above, curl up under a blanket, put the soundtrack on loop, and let yourself feel alone, cold, and scared, with the knowledge that it’s just the first step on the journey to warmth, community, and the place you belong. This coming winter, when you’re feeling lost, let the Black Stars guide your way.

Credit: Lonnie Nadler/Jenna Cha/Brad Simpson/Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou

By Harry Kassen

Harry Kassen is a writer and comics critic, currently working as the Features Editor at Comics Bookcase, where he created the recurring ‘Comics Anatomy’ feature. You can find him on Twitter at @leekassen, where he shares his thoughts on comics, food, and everything else.

Leave a Reply