Reflections on Horror Literature: 30 Days of Night

The idea of vampires taking advantage of the month-long darkness of Alaska seems like such a good idea. I wonder why it took writers so long to come up with the idea, so natural does the concept seem in Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith’s graphic novel 30 Days of Night. Unfortunately, this is a great idea executed poorly, even though I’m a fan of graphic novels.

My problems with 30 Days of Night are essentially twofold: first, despite this great idea, neither the humans nor the vampires are very well developed, at least in this first volume which collects together the original 2002 miniseries. We see the relatively adorable interplay between married sheriffs Eben and Stella Olemaun, but their relationship is not as fraught with sorrow and terror as it could be, even given Eben’s bad end. There’s an interesting subplot about vampire hunters that gets completely dropped. And the vampires themselves, even their ringleaders, are mere hints of villains with motivations rather than fully fleshed-out baddies with plans and backstories. Again, I suspect much of what is lacking in this first collection gets expanded upon as the series progresses, but I’m not sure if I’m hooked and intrigued enough to continue reading.

My second problem is the artwork. Templesmith’s illustration style is praised by many, but it simply didn’t work for me. I’m not a comics traditionalist and do, in fact, appreciate experimental style. I think Templesmith’s artwork would have worked for me quite well in a different medium. But far too many times the action confused me, mostly due to the lack of clarity of the art. This is some beautiful and subtle work that, quite frankly, seems inappropriate to the subject matter and merely serves to obfuscate things. Furthermore, I wonder if perhaps my issue with the characterization wasn’t in some part due to the lack of clarity of the artwork. In a visual medium, characterization is conveyed not merely through narrative but through the illustration, and in this case both felt so sketchy to me as to be ultimately ephemeral and lacking substance.

As monsters, similarly, the 30 Days of Night vampires were little more than hints. I felt no particular fear, though their appearance—what we can glean of it, at least—is eerie. These vampires are one step above the zombie-like creatures of I Am Legend, but they’re hardly the elegant, closer-to-their-humanity planners and plotters of Bram Stoker or Anne Rice. These vampires are creepy yet practical, concerning themselves with staying cloaked in darkness (hence their Alaskan vacation) and making sure the evidence of their extended buffet is shrouded from public view, by burning the dead townsfolk in their homes and calling blaming the resulting disaster on a gas explosion. Quite clever, really, except for their failure to take into account Eben’s destroy-from-within plan. Despite all the carnage, I just couldn’t manage to feel any sort of palpability of threat.

Again, I put some of the blame of that sense of disconnection on the characterization. We need to feel close to characters to care about their fate. I found Eben and Stella’s last sunrise to be sweet and sorrowful, but the foreshadowing of it was a bit heavy-handed. Though I haven’t seen the film adaptation, I suspect this entire concept works better as a film, where the very thing lacking in the graphic novel—nuance of non-verbal cues, facial expressions, and clarity of imagery—can convey much more.

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10 Comments

Filed under blog, horror, pop culture

10 responses to “Reflections on Horror Literature: 30 Days of Night

  1. I definitely agree with your issues with characterization. We weren’t attached to any of the characters. And what was with that vampire hunter plot. I was left wanting to know so much. However, I found the artwork worked well for me. The sketchy aspect and confusion gave me the confusion they would be feeling. It also made me think of the snow that would be flying around and the low visibility of being in darkness and flying snow. I don’t think it would have worked for me with crisp clean pictures.

  2. I think Templesmith does a wonderful job conveying expression–look at the survivors on the bottom of page 49. I think the murkiness and the feeling that we can *almost* see what’s happening are prefect for the story. It’s night. There’s no electricity. Other than the moon, there is no light. Not only do the characters have to peer through the dark, we do to. [And yes, I admit. Bonus points were award for the Ralph Steadman influence. Even the lettering (although I think it’s a typeface rather than hand lettering) for the vampire speech is Steadman-esque.]

  3. Margaret Ayala

    I wish more had been done with Eben an Stella’s relationship. I thought the ending was touching, but more could have been done to build up the horror of the loss of a loved one.

  4. I think Eben was pretty much a throwaway character, mainly as fuel for Stella to step out on her own and confront the vamps, which it looks like she does in the later installments. Pretty typical authority figure sacrifices himself for the greater good. It would have been more interesting if Eban had actually chosen to live as a vamp. I wonder how that would have affected the later stories.

  5. I’m with you on the artwork – it was a stumbling block for me. Less so on subsequent readings of the work (I keep flipping back through it as I read these blogs and comments), but particularly on the first go around I was confused about what was happening and thought some of the panels looked unfinished.

  6. Michelle R. Lane

    30 Days may have been a bit better if it were a longer piece of fiction. However, what I love most about it is the ambiguity of the images. They help to create a feeling of unease and distortion, which is what you might experience if you were running from blood lusty vampires chasing your through the frozen darkness. I think it works just fine.

  7. I loved the feeling the art conveyed, but it did make clarity suffer a little. There were a few panels where I couldn’t tell Stella from Eben.

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