The biblio-files: Whimsy meets the macabre in ‘Beautiful Darkness’

A girl covered in maggots peers through an opening to see a shadow of a girl.
(Clare Martin • The Student Life)

Imagine this. You open a beautiful, picturesque graphic novel; the cover details a small, pensive girl looking with wonder into the big, open, green world. Even the title is written in a delightful loopy font, instilling a sense of whimsy. You begin reading. 

The premise seems simple: A girl lives among her people in what appears to be some kind of palace complete with tea parties and princes. However, the palace quickly starts to fall apart. With the pink ceilings melting and falling onto the floor, hysteria follows as our newly introduced characters try to find their way out. It is here that the graphic novel delivers its first turn. The palace that these characters live in is a young girl’s dead body, and it is starting to decompose. 

This is how “Beautiful Darkness,” a graphic novel by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët begins. We are presented with a group of tiny people who’ve lost their home, the decaying corpse, and must now learn to survive in the big open forest. Without any previous experience in foraging for food or dealing with poisonous berries or insects, the story follows this population as we are taken through the simultaneously lush and dangerous landscape. Although the forest presents many challenges, the novel dares to question whether the greatest horrors are to be found within human nature itself. 

Nature provides a perfect backdrop for this deadly beauty. This association of beauty with terror has long been echoed in literature as far back as the Romantics who often spoke of the sublime in nature as something to be both feared and revered. We continue to see this rhetoric: that beauty in its purest form is uncanny, unnerving and ultimately unnatural.

These are the feelings that “Beautiful Darkness” evokes by mixing such playful and quaint illustrations with a progressively darkening plotline. After every big reveal that is made, the authors refuse to linger on it for long. It is as though they are conveying that is simply the way things go in the big forest. We are left with many questions: Who are these tiny people? Who is the little girl in the forest and how did she die? However, the story refuses to give us any clear answers.

The dissonance between the art style and the plot also left me with an inability to decide just how I felt about the novel once I was done. The story ends on a dark note, yet it is difficult to comprehend that, as our main character sits by the fire, toasty and warm in a woodsy cabin. It is difficult to consider that the story I’ve just completed has not been a cozy one at all but rather one that peers into the darkest recesses of our society. It is what made me recommend this tale to others because the emotional dissonance is something worth exploring: the ability for us to feel multiple things at once — to feel safe and cozy but also aware that something sinister lurks at the edges of our consciousness. It is something that I find perplexing and curious and ultimately is what lies at the base of all complex emotions. 

Just like the mysteries of the small people, the girl’s corpse and her killer, the book lets us linger with this question of emotional incongruity as well. The open-endedness of it all is the true crowning achievement of “Beautiful Darkness”. 

While I may have begun this novel in search of a fanciful and amusing story of little people exploring the wonders of the forest, I left with conflicting impressions of darkness and beauty. These twin flames reminded me of a quote from one of my favorite novels, “The Secret History:” “Beauty is terror. Whatever we find beautiful, we quiver before it.”

Tomi Oyedeji-Olaniyan CM ’23 is a dual neuroscience and literature major. If you need her, say her name in the mirror three times, and legend says she will appear to give you the perfect book recommendation.

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