I’m a big fan of Cullen Bunn’s horror writing from The Sixth Gun and Harrow County. So I’m surprised I overlooked this one (although not seeing Luckert’s work on Haunted may have contributed). At any rate, this is arguably Bunn’s most solidly horror-based story to date. We first encounter protagonist Adrian at a party, but he’s not having a good time. He is experiencing terrifying hallucinations: he keeps seeing people around him consumed by flies, maggots and other insects; and he has visions of some sort of diabolic rite.
A friend takes him to see a hypnotist to try past-life regression hypnotherapy. Adrian is dubious–he doesn’t believe in reincarnation, and has doubts about hypnotism–but he agrees. The brief session shows him more of the historical cult he has been seeing in his nightmares (perhaps Medieval or Renaissance era, judging by the clothing), and leaves him feeling worse than before. He is unable to contact the hypnotist when he awakens, for a good reason. The hypnotist has been ritually murdered.
Meanwhile, Adrian continues to have visions. And he seems to be taken over by his historical alter ego, indicated by a matching tone of voice and uncharacteristically reckless behavior. Some of the cult members appear to have followed him back, further muddying the question of who is responsible for the violence and murders that suddenly seem to follow Adrian wherever he goes. This arc closes with cult members in the present shooting the police detectives to whom Adrian was trying to surrender, then grabbing him and taking off in a van–despite the apparent success of another past-life regression session with a different hypnotist.
So that part is certainly not imaginary. But it’s an open question whether Adrian is going through some kind of past life echo, or simply having a mental breakdown. It will be interesting to see where the story goes next. Luckert’s style is an interesting blend of realism and cartooning: he excels at portraying facial expressions, and seems to delight in depicting all of the violence and debauchery (not to mention the bugs). Enger’s colors help with atmosphere, including the time shifts.
In an end note Bunn talks about his father’s career as a hypnotist. He performed a stage act like the one described in this comic, but also past life regression in private sessions. So all of the hypnosis experiences Bunn describes are actually based on things he observed, at least to some extent. He’s still not sure how to explain them, and that feeling comes across in the writing as well.
The second collection opens with Adrian in a cell, being interrogated by people in bizarre masks, speaking a strange language they expect him to understand. One recurring word is “Valgeroti,” which is revealed to be the name of a demon cult (not demon worshipers: actual demons). The community who have Adrian are the current Valgeroti–and they are convinced that Adrian is the reincarnation of Gregory Sutter (the man Adrian was seeing in his historical nightmares). Meanwhile, his friend Molly and Detective Anton Graymercy (one of the police targeted in the shooting at the end of the previous volume) are looking for answers about who abducted Adrian.
They go to Molly’s hypnotist friend and ask for regression therapy to discover if they have some connection to Adrian that they do not know about. What they discover is a series of past connections to the cult, vividly portrayed in flashbacks. Adrian continues to experience flashbacks as well, so we learn a lot about the cult and Sutter’s involvement in it. By now any feeling that these scenes might be imaginary is gone. Regardless of the reader’s feelings about reincarnation, suspension of disbelief is required to follow the story. Adrian’s final surrender to Sutter seals the deal, and he goes to greet his followers.
In his afterword Bunn talks about the theories of reincarnation voiced by new character Leo that are central to the series. Everyone you have ever met, or will meet, you have encountered before. Turns out the character, as well as his occult bookshop out in the middle of nowhere, are based on another real-life experience Bunn had, this time while in high school. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.
The final installment begins with time shifts which demonstrate the long history of the relationships between the major characters. And an interesting perspective on guilt: there is so much guilt, and the flock is ready for what the Valgeroti offer. No one wants absolution: they want to do whatever they like and never be blamed.
Molly finally faces Adrian/Sutter, and at first is unable to get through to her friend. Sutter confronts Carmen, but in her final breath she send him on a journey of self-discovery. This brings Adrian back to himself. From here the action gets very complicated. There are multiple time lines, and it is not clear which one is definitive. But the story ends with Adrian, Molly and Anton in the present, as we know them, hopeful that they can figure things out.
So it is an ambiguous conclusion. It is unclear whether the current actors have managed to break the cycle, or if they have just continued to perpetuate it. In this collection there are no notes from Bunn at the end explaining the inspiration for the story line, so the reader is on their own.