I can remember vividly the first time I played Myst, the ground-breaking video game by Broderbund. I had purchased it earlier in the day and sat down at my PC with the whole evening spread out before me. I was alone in an empty apartment, and was settling in for a much anticipated night of gaming. I had only been playing for a matter of minutes, however, when I suddenly had to stop. I found it impossible to continue, in fact. For those of you familiar with the game, I can assure you that this decision was not the result of having no idea how to proceed.
I found myself, instead, being all at once ill at ease.
That was more than two decades ago and was, I thought, an isolated incident. I was alone in my apartment, in the twilight of the early evening, and the eeriness of the game had simply gotten the better of me.
But the other night as I sat down to read Justin Randall’s Changing Ways, again in the still quiet of my house, something happened. I’ve read graphic novels that are admittedly more frightening, others that parcel out greater amounts of gratuitous horror, but I was only a few pages into Changing Ways when that same feeling came over me once again.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” I said to myself, and quickly closed my laptop.
The connection between these two experiences, I’m convinced, is the product of confronting not simply a world that is realistically rendered, but one that is entirely immersive. In Myst, I felt that I was all alone in a place I was unfamiliar with and that was far too eerily quiet apart from the comings and goings of its unsettling score. In Changing Ways, I knew that something terrible was beginning to unfold, and that I’d soon be unable to extricate myself from writer / artist Justin Randall’s narrative if I went any further.
Not surprisingly, when I could bring myself to read it the following day, I did so in one sitting and without interruption.
Changing Ways tells the story of David Barrot and his family, who live on the outskirts of the sleepy town of Grey Oaks and would seem to be, under normal circumstances, generally unremarkable. We learn that this is not the case, however, and that the darkness in their past includes the death of their son, Cale. Attempting to find a new life and some measure of normalcy in Grey Oaks, the Barrots now find themselves in anything but normal circumstances. The story is only a few pages old when David discovers a terrifying insignia on the abdomen of his pregnant wife, and then reveals a similarly gruesome incision carved into his own chest. As this is happening, enemies—both human and bestial—descend on the Barrot residence, and in short order the novel turns into a harrowing story of a hunted family.
Everything about Changing Ways is unsettling. Just a handful of pages into the book, I spent five minutes staring at the whiteness of the dialogue balloons, thinking that they somehow looked out of place, only to realize to my horror that I was becoming so immersed in the panel that the balloons seemed strange to me. This is where, as mentioned above, I closed the book. When I returned to it the following day, I tried to ignore the balloons altogether.
Stories that involve the separation of a family can be exceptionally compelling, especially a family being hunted, but the separation that takes place in Changing Ways was unnerving. I was immersed in the narrative when it split, and found it difficult to figure out where exactly I was.
Hitchcock famously observed that terror is not in the “bang” but in the anticipation of it, and his adage is true of Changing Ways. The pace of the narrative, the deft storytelling, and the hyperrealistic visual canvas create a reading experience that is both uncannily anticipatory and psychologically exhausting. Even the story’s climax leaves us no room to pause and reflect—who lives and dies is, in the space of a single image, brought into sharp relief.
Randall’s achievement here is noteworthy, not simply because he tells a story that one grown man can feel uncomfortable reading alone at twilight. His achievement is the ability to create a narrative where nightmarish hyperrealism gives readers a psychological entry into the story that can leave them genuinely unnerved.
You should read Changing Ways. You should, rather, experience it.
(For more information, check out the book’s page at Gestalt Comics.)