Tales of Woe

Reviewed By

Tales of Woe descends from one circle of hell to the next, an act of sabotage against the Hollywood narrative of sin, suffering, and redemption.

Twenty-five true stories of unimaginable suffering, cruelty, and depravity, gleaned from the Internet, from international and local news outlets, and through the author’s original reporting: John Reed’s Tales of Woe is not an easy book to stomach. Written in a dispassionate, almost quiet voice, and interspersed with splashes of garish color and highly stylized, violent imagery, it is a startling and unforgettably painful read that teeters along the boundaries separating pulp and noir, real life and the macabre.

Tales of Woe is no mere illustrated book. Instead, it is a work of art in its own right, an elegant synthesis of text and image featuring original art by an ensemble cast of illustrators, including Michele Witchipoo, with whom Reed also collaborates on an ongoing Web comic called “Shitty Mickey.” In selecting the stories, Reed ran the gamut from the piteous to the bizarre. One particularly harrowing account in this panopticon of human tribulation is “Momma’s Little Angel,” in which a single mother lives alone with her not-quite-two-year-old boy. Just before Christmas, she dies suddenly, of apparently natural causes. The child is left to scavenge what he can from the bottommost cabinets of the apartment; no one notices their absence until the tragedy is complete. It is the list Reed compiles of what a toddler can do at 21 months—“walks and runs; speaks in short sentences; squats and climbs; dances; shows affection to stuffed animals or dolls; waves bye-bye; requests help by pointing; climbs onto chairs, tables, and windowsills; clings to his mother; looks out the window”—that conjures the chilling image of a small child slowly dying of hypohydration as his mother’s body decomposes on the couch. When the apartment management finally breaks in, the television is still running, the presents lying unopened beneath the tree.

In a shift from lamentable accident to deliberate corporate negligence, “The Purple Ooze” is set in a Boston suburb where children play in a pond contaminated by chemicals and heavy metals from the nearby Nyanza textile dye plant. “Memories were made in the marshes: a caught blue newt; a leap over a peacock puddle; a waterlogged maroon baseball; a winter skating pond, lollipop-swirled.” The Nyanza grounds made the top-ten list of the EPA’s worst toxic sites in the country; sludge containing dangerous quantities of mercury, chromium, lead, and cadmium leaked into the wetlands, changing the colors of streams on a daily basis. The nearby residents would joke that “their shoes were one color and they’d come back another color… the snow was blue—everybody laughed about the blue snow—and the dogs would go down brown, they’d come back purple.” Eventually, the local children began to develop rare forms of cancer of the liver and kidneys, angiosarcoma, and other soft-tissue sarcoma. It took years to establish the link to toxic waste, and the Nyanza company was never held liable.

“Father Knows Death” is a deeply disturbing account of a killer prostitution ring run rampant in the Russian industrial city of Nizhny Tagil. Encircled by maximum-security federal prisons, released convicts and their families constitute a large portion of the city’s population. Sexual services are openly advertised in newspapers; the police and local authorities are either uninterested or implicated. Girls are abducted and held prisoner in brothels in crumbling Soviet-era housing towers where they are gang-raped and beaten; those who refuse to work as prostitutes are tortured, murdered, and their bodies dumped in the woods nearby. Eduard Chudinov, who was eventually convicted of sexually abusing and murdering several young women, including his own daughter, was happy to explain: “The other girls took a long time to die. We broke their legs and arms before finishing them off.”

What is the point of compiling stories like these? And why should we read them? At first glance, Tales of Woe can seem like a vehicle for sensationalism and voyeurism, a descent from one circle of hell to the next. Upon closer reflection, however, the book reveals itself to be an act of sabotage against the narrative of sin, suffering, and salvation favored by popular culture and religion. Reed tries to replace this commercialized brand of catharsis with glimpses of undeserved misery and misfortune as it occurs in real life: with no silver lining and no resolution or redemption to lend it greater meaning. The battle that rages at the heart of Tales of Woe is between things as they are and things as we’re taught they should be, between literature as protest and literature as propaganda.

“This is not Hollywood catharsis (someone overcomes something and the viewer is uplifted),” Reed writes, “this is Greek Catharsis: you watch people suffer horribly, and then feel better about your own life.” First used in this sense by Aristotle, the Greek word catharsis means “cleansing” or “purging,” an emotional renewal achieved through the staging of dramatic situations that suddenly undergo extreme shifts in emotion, releasing an intensity of pent-up feeling. In classical Greek theater, this purging was seen as a corrective; catharsis was regarded as pleasurable to audiences because they were able to experience an ecstasy of relief and gratitude at a spectacle of suffering far greater than their own.

But the stakes here are high, and Reed is playing with loaded dice. Few readers of Tales of Woe will report feeling better after absorbing this book. If anything, our willingness to be horrified is proved endless, while our capacity for empathy is knocked off-kilter. Reed is the author of four previous books including Snowball’s Chance, a biting, brilliant parody of George Orwell’s Animal Farm; and All the World’s a Grave, a tragedy in five acts comprised of individual lines taken from Shakespeare’s tragedies. In other words, he is a subtle, highly complex writer who operates on a multitude of intertextual levels. In this context, Tales of Woe resembles a laboratory experiment designed to gauge precisely when and how the compassionate mind shuts down before the daily onslaught of horrific news.

Modern dramatists such as Bertolt Brecht rejected catharsis, arguing that the audience should leave the theater with its emotions embroiled rather than purged, so that they would then apply their unresolved energies to political action in the real world. While Reed is unlikely to subscribe to Brecht’s agenda, his approach to catharsis is just as subversive—in reading Tales of Woe, one feels sullied, implicated in some larger crime. Reed turns the interrogation lamp on the interrogator, reminding us of something we strive not to see: a prevailing indifference to the suffering of others and complacency in our own relative good fortune.

Andrea Scrima is the author of the novel “A Lesser Day” (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2010), literary critic for The Brooklyn Rail and The Rumpus, and co-editor of Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics. She lives in Berlin. More from this author →