Hairshirt – dark, enthralling and absolutely unputdownable
By Patrick McEown
“Hairshirt: A garment of rough cloth made from animal hair and worn in the form of a shirt, by way of mortification and penance.”
And that, more than anything I could write here, coupled with McEown’s great cover, full of promises of dark, labyrinthine dreamlike emotional landscapes, sums up the mood of Hairshirt.
It’s about memories and the trauma they can cause. It’s about raking over a troubled past and letting it colour everything you do in the now. It covers all the dark places the mind can sometimes take you to. Dark places you can find it too difficult to escape from. That’s where you’ll find yourself in the pages of Hairshirt. It’s a brilliant, but emotionally draining book, presented quite beautifully in a full colour hardback.
The story in Hairshirt takes place in a nowhere town, one of those dismal, depressing places without centre, without a heart, somewhere to leave rather than somewhere to live.
John has recently returned, emotionally drained and fragile following a nasty break up of a relationship that promised to take him away from this dismal place he grew up in. But he’s back now and meandering his way through a directionless and disappointing life.
A chance meeting with childhood friend and almost sweetheart Naomi seems to be something that may drag him out of his ennui. John and Naomi have a long history, dating all the way back to childhood, where John was best friends with Naomi’s older brother Chris. But the memories of this time are strong and raw and painful.
(Out of the blue, a romance long past is rekindled. But both John and Naomi are casualties and the emotional fallout will inflict a heavy toll. From Hairshirt by Patrick McEown, published by SelfMadeHero)
Memories are key in Hairshirt, real and imagined, and McEown makes extensive use of flashbacks to tell his story across the years. And he does it so well, it flows so easily, that there’s little need for signposting, no captions to point our way. Everything in Hairshirt is masterfully guiding us through the story.
So alongside watching John and Naomi in the now, we look back at their childhood and adolescence – John grew into an introspective, isolated loner, whilst Chris turned into an arrogant, brash and cruel bully. Turning away from Chris, John quickly discovered he had far more in common with Naomi and a tentative, youthful relationship developed.
(John, Chris and Naomi. The three main protagonists of Hairshirt.)
Sadly, before Naomi and John have a chance to explore their burgeoning relationship, Chris dies in a car accident and Naomi and her mother take their chance to move away. Things are never completely clarified, but John makes it quite clear that Naomi and her mom were escaping something terrible in their house, and the dark undercurrent to Hairshirt all stems from this perpetual, barely spoken feeling of threat, of veiled violence, of abuse in the household:
“accusations of weird shit that had gone down in Naomi’s family over the years”
“… now that I think of it, he (Chris) always seemed to know a lot about “dirty stuff” … probably more than he should’ve at that age”
(McEown’s art captures the turmoil and the darkness of memories and dreams in Hairshirt.)
John’s life goes on, a monotonous, meandering, drifting sort of life, but now it’s also troubled by darker thoughts, as he retreats further into himself, tormented by memories, of things done wrong, of possibilities not taken. Until we rejoin the now, with love sparking between John and the returning Naomi.
As the relationship develops, it’s painfully obvious that Naomi didn’t escape unscathed from her childhood. She’s a mess, and incapable of accepting anything good into her life. She lashes out, uncontrollably, at anyone getting too close and to those around her it seems as though she takes a perverse, masochistic delight in wrecking everything she can.
It’s uncomfortable and painful to see someone punishing themselves for damage done at a young age, but guided by McEown’s expert hand, it’s difficult to turn away.
And then there’s John’s own insecurities and emotional scars. He’s haunted by too many dark thoughts, his dark dreams are unsettling places, and his continual imagining of Chris returning to haunt him as a leering, stalking dog thing just illustrates the fragile mental state he finds himself in. Between the pair, there’s too much darkness to overcome, and their eventual descent into the emotional maelstrom is painful to behold.
(John’s dreams – not pleasant places to be. From Hairshirt by Patrick McEown)
It’s almost impossible to like the characters in Hairshirt. There’s a terrible neediness to them, and every single character has some serious emotional baggage. It’s not just John who’s knitting a hairshirt here.
And that lack of emotional connection with the characters should have made it difficult to really engage with the story. Which is why, when I tell you that it’s an excellent, page turner of a read, you should realise how well McEown tells his tale. To make the lives of such unlikeable characters so enthralling is a real achievement. And McEown does it. I genuinely couldn’t put Hairshirt down.
McEwown’s been out of comics for a while since his breakthrough on Matt Wagner’s Grendel: Warchild in 1993, working on various projects, most prominently doing storyboards on the Batman: Beyond animated series. But this return to comics is a real unexpected delight. Here we see an artist finding his voice – embracing his love for the medium and allowing a European influence to enthuse his work. His art flows so well across the pages, fluid yet expressive, horrifying and strangely beautiful.
McEown could easily have delivered a happy ending, but the tale would be lessened by it, and his refusal to take the easy route makes Hairshirt an uncomfortable, but very satisfying and engrossing read.
It’s not easy, it’s not comfortable. But Hairshirt is impressive work, with McEwown managing toi tell a story you’ll find hard to put down, no matter how painful it gets.