The Spectral Engine, the new graphic novel by Constantine and Justice League Dark scribe Ray Fawkes, is a haunting – if you’ll forgive the pun – ghost story. The central conceit of this episodic narrative involves a ghost train (the “spectral engine” of the book’s title), which catapults through history much like Walter Benjamin’s angels, appearing at intervals throughout history, sometimes seen, sometimes felt, but always heralding a tragedy of some sort.
The spectral image represents history, fate, the inevitable trajectory of all living things toward death. Fawkes utilizes this somewhat overwrought metaphor as a means of detailing a panoply of interesting episodes from Canadian history. (I did not have time to research which of the stories has a basis in historical fact and which stem entirely from Fawkes’ imagination). As such, the book does have some educational value; I can easily see it used as a means of teaching young readers about Canadian history, for example. The stories are often violent and disturbing (as much of history is), yet Fawkes’ expressionistic style – reminiscent somewhat of Ted McKeever or Dave McKean, yet lacking their distinctiveness of polish; Fawkes is a somewhat mediocre illustrator, his capacity for drawing human figures not much more skillful than your average amateur cartoonist – here in black and white, prevents the book from becoming too bogged down in gore, though there is certainly ample opportunity for it to do so.
Oddly, the spectral engine is the least interesting aspect of the book and, unless you require a central conceit beyond the tonal and thematic consistencies of the various episodes, largely unnecessary. It’s a kind of shaggy dog among shaggy dogs, as if Fawkes did not trust his own material and needed a ghostly frame with which to keep these disparate stories from falling apart.
Taken on their own, there are several fascinating episodes: 1813 and 1914 shipwrecks (“The Young Teazer,” “The Empress of Ireland”), a meditation on the violence of 19th century frontier life (“The Phantom Trapper of Labrador”), tribal warfare in 17th century Rupert’s Land (“The White Horse”), possession (“The Curse of the Wendigo”), ghostly encounters (“The Phantom of Highway 1” and “The Headless Ghost of Water Street”), and frontier justice (“The Legacy of the Hanging Judge”). There are also some not-so-fascinating ones: the transitional “The Millertown Sighting” and “The Saskatchewan Sighting” consisting of not much more than a sighting of the ghostly train, the somewhat marginally successful stories “The Boy Beneath the Stairs” or “The Nun of Dunvegan.” The volume would have been greatly helped by an addition of a table of contents, conspicuously absent, and a notes section explaining the historical origins of some of Fawkes’ tales, if indeed they do have a basis in historical fact. The gimmicky glow-in-the dark cover is kind of cool, though.