Fear Itself: The Axe-Man Of New Orleans

Posted by on September 22nd, 2010 at 5:11 AM

Rob reviews the new volume of Rick Geary’s Treasury of XXth Century Murder series, The Axe-Man of New Orleans (NBM).

There’s a sense in which Rick Geary is the most accomplished horror artist working today.  It’s just that the horrors he chooses to delve into are real and all the more terrifying for it.  His  Murder Treasury series fascinates because of the way Geary is able to get at the heart of a particular time and place and figure out why a particular killing or killings so disturbed the equilibrium of a community.  Geary, in a style that is at once both restrained and visceral, creates a narrative that is genuinely disturbing in its lack of resolution.  The “Axe-Man” killings struck a nerve not just because of their seeming randomness, but because of the weird, lingering details of the crimes.

The setting for this story is New Orleans in 1918, at the birth of the jazz era.  In the span of just ten pages, Geary recounts the history of the city, giving a reader a sense of its joyous nature.  After swiftly moving through history, Geary slows down the narrative to an excruciating pace in the way he provides times, dates, names and places involving a series of axe murders.  It was the weird details that frightened so many: the murderer broke into each house in the dead of night using a wood chisel to pry out the panels of a back door.  He then found an axe in the house and proceeded to bash everyone in the household to bits with it.  That particular detail–that the murder weapon was a utilitarian object used by the murder victim–added a level of panic to the accounts of the murder.  The killer did not rob the house or commit any other crime but brutal murder.

After another, similar murder strikes a similar set of victims (immigrant grocers), the press and the populace began cranking up the rumor machine.  From there, another murder occurs with some slight differences, bringing up the possibility of either copycat murders or someone using the murders as a cover for their own crime.  The murders then stop for months and the resume again the next year without warning, and with police no closer to finding a culprit.  The popular legend of the Jack the Ripper crimes informed some of the hysteria surrounding the Axe-Man, down to someone writing into the local paper claiming to be “from hell”, a demon who can never be caught.  This being New Orleans, the twist behind that note involved the killer promising to kill again on a certain date but vowing to not attack any house where jazz was being played, because of how much he loved it.

Geary gets at the heart of why this string of murders was so disturbing: cognitive dissonance.  Some aspects of the killing didn’t fit with others: if these were mob hits, then why were folks outside of their purview included?  If it was anti-immigrant, why were natives killed?  If this was a lunatic, how could he be so patient and meticulous?  How did a figure described as being bulky slip through a single wooden panel?  How did he know where to find an axe in the dark?  None of it added up, and the intricacy of Geary’s line art (with lots of dense hatching) added a nervous, almost vibratory quality to the events depicted.  The juxtaposition between the party atmosphere of New Orleans and the creeping paranoia that the murders engendered was the initial pull of the story, but it was Geary’s focus on mundane details that ultimately contributed to The Axe-Man of New Orleans lingering uneasily in the imagination long after reading it.

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One Response to “Fear Itself: The Axe-Man Of New Orleans

  1. […] bit of writing.” Outhousers For the Axe-Man of New Orleans by Rick Geary, Rob Clough at the The Comics Journal: “There’s a sense in which Rick Geary is the most accomplished horror artist working […]