Prepare yourself for a time travel journey back to a time that never was: the 1867 English countryside and the resident beasts that terrorize (loosely) the communities, bringing excitement and, of course, tourism dollars in return. Well, almost every community. Stoker-on-Avon’s monster is rather lame. Not physically, but metaphorically. This monster, Rayburn, is filled with low self-esteem and, instead of doing his proper job of terrorizing the community, he lays around moaning and bemoaning his situation. This situation must change. The town council, all bearing names of authors renowned in the horror genre, call upon one of their most infamous (for the wrong reasons) creator-residents to correct the situation. Dr. Charles Wilke who is inadvertently accompanied by a young sidekick, Timothy, ventures to Rayburn’s cave to commence a voyage filled with whimsy, humour, friendship, and battles; with so many monsters in the countryside, there must be battles!
The main characters are all droll and effectively individualized, even as they are easily recognizable as tropes: the eccentric scientist, the courageous and clever young champion, the bashful reluctant hero, the highly successful but fully supportive friend, and, of course, the ferocious and evil villain. Rob Harrell, known for his two successful syndicated cartoon strips, Adam@Home and Big Top, has created a tale that is reminiscent of fantastical steam punk (without the steam). His colour-drenched cartoony characters and panels are, for the most part, relentlessly cheerful, even when our three heroes, joined now by one of the area’s most famous monsters, Tentaculor (Rayburn’s former school mate affectionately known as Noodles), defend Stoker-on-Avon from the worst monster ever, the dark Murk. The non-stop action is fueled by friendships, both longstanding and developing, and, even more so, by group hugs. Outrageous side adventures, transformations, and insights accompany our main characters on their full circle venture. The final battle scenes are also powered by ingenuity, pluck, and exuberant merriment and, of course, advantageous tourism potential.
While the narrative and characters are whimsical and charming, there is also a serious underpinning to Rayburn’s story of depression. Support, friendship, and patience, all are realistically presented in Harrell’s tale, first and foremost for Rayburn to move forward from his own pit of despair and secondly for him, with the help of his friends and their relentless support, to defeat the concrete despondency of the monster Murk. The book is truly a group hug and highly recommended, not only by your reviewer, but by Neil Gaiman, Jeff Smith (Bone), and Richard Thompson (Cul de Sac), which is very high praise indeed.