In Underwinter: The Queen of Spirits, Ray Fawkes Resurrects the Ghost Story with Postmodern Dread

| By Tobias Carroll

Ray Fawkes returns to his haunting Underwinter cosmos with The Queen of Spirits, the tale of two lost souls seeking out a witch who can return them to the land of the living.

“I’ve always held a fascination for ghost stories, and I still enjoy them now,” Ray Fawkes says of his lifelong obsession with paranormal fiction’s arch genre, which also fuels the most recent entry in the Toronto cartoonist’s haunting horror series. Underwinter: The Queen of Spirits follows two earlier volumes of Underwinter stories, although the focus in this original graphic novel doesn’t fall on doomed orchestras or victims transformed into flocks of birds. Instead, The Queen of Spirits addresses the hazy line between life and death. “With Underwinter: The Queen of Spirits,” Fawkes says, “it’s belief in the afterlife itself that I wanted to examine.”

The narrative revolves around a pair of stranded souls. Both are recently deceased: one through an accident, the other via murder. “They hear of a legend told among ghosts—the tale of a living witch who can shield spirits from their fate and return them to the world of life… if she thinks they’re worthy. They search for her while the pull of their final resting place in the afterlife gets stronger and stronger,” Fawkes explains. A parallel story plays out as two paramedics traverse the city saving lives. Throughout the graphic novel, these two narratives accentuate each other; at their most unsettling, they converge in the worst ways possible.

Underwinter: The Queen of Spirits Cover

“I’ve always been a bit morbid, and thoughts of mortality were never far from my mind, especially when my pen hit paper,” Fawkes explains. “Confronted with the notion of not-being, which can be one of the toughest things to wrap your mind around, just about every variation of a ghost story is, if not comforting, at least interesting.”

Just as earlier Underwinter volumes created their own cosmology from both the familiar and the obscure, Fawkes reimagines uncanny traditions into something sordid, serving left hooks from the constructs of genre fiction. “Readers of my books know I love to subvert a genre, and this one’s ripe for that game,” he says. “The characters in this story are handed a mythical promise, and it’s up to them to strike out and seek its fulfillment.”

For The Queen of Spirits, Fawkes establishes a particular set of ground rules that govern the behavior of the deceased, creating an unbreakable groundwork around the ethereal. The process involved forays into histories of the supernatural for research. “I drew on a number of 19th- and 20th-century spiritualist and occult texts to build a kind of picture of the ‘natural rules’ that ghosts might operate under, and am using that as my springboard,” Fawkes says. “Since I want The Queen of Spirits to be [a narrative] where the readers learn along with the ghosts, I didn’t want to take from any folklore that might be too familiar to many.”

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These rules offer the most dizzying aspects of the narrative–sometimes literally. “The ghosts aren’t capable of controlling which direction they move in for more than a few minutes at a time,” Fawkes says. “The emotional forces that gave rise to their existence are very strong, and every attempt to break away from revisiting the focus of those emotions is a step towards vanishing in a puff of ether.”

This tension plays out in disorienting fashion within the book itself, as seemingly solid figures suddenly slip into more liquid configurations–manifested through another permutation of Fawkes’s distinct watercolors. “The dead are restricted to a very limited color palette,” Fawkes explains, “They are able to clearly see the difference between things that live and things that do not. Some of what they see is surprising.”

For Fawkes, these guidelines weren’t simply about creating alluring fiction–they’re about creating a thematically resonant place for this story of aching loss and distant salvation to unfold. “Like any story, you want the rules that the characters are subject to [serve as] as a reflection of the greater story itself,” he says. “So it’s not just about constructing a neat what-if afterlife and giving readers a tour of it—it’s also making the whole way the afterlife works into a living (?), breathing (?) part of the story.”

“Every restriction our ghosts knock their heads against, every power they have and feature of their landscape needs to inform the full, final shape of the story,” he adds.

When discussing his story’s blend of plot and setting, Fawkes discusses another work of his: the phantasmagorical bodies and landscapes of Intersect, an abstract body-horror opus released in 2015.

“Readers of Intersect will be familiar with my philosophy – while the characters were experiencing their personal metamorphoses, the whole city around them became malleable, and the rules of existence seemed to encourage losing one’s shape and one’s mind. The afterlife in Underwinter: The Queen of Spirits is all about being set into a track and forced to move along, and about the struggle to define yourself while experiencing that push.”

Readers of the two earlier Underwinter volumes (Symphony and A Field of Feathers) will also find plenty to connect within this new entry. “Each volume of Underwinter is a stand-alone story, but readers who read the entire series will be able to see the connections between them,” Fawkes says. “All of them are very much in the same world, and there is a larger story unfolding throughout—one that industrious readers may enjoy piecing together. I hope they do!”

Underwinter: The Queen of Spirits is available now.

The afterlife in Underwinter: The Queen of Spirits is all about being set into a track and forced to move along, and about the struggle to define yourself while experiencing that push.