Not all books with disturbing content merit up-front content warnings; From the Red Fog is not one of them. Before you embark on this book, it’s worth knowing that it features a slew of troubling material, most notably a mostly off-the-page rape of a child; Torture and violence make up the rest of the book’s plot. And I’m not just saying that to be flippant – the plot here basically is all torture and violence, and if there’s a thematic point to that, it’s not developed enough to make it obvious yet.
The story follows a twelve-year-old boy named Ruwanda in mid-19th century England. (The text says late 19th century, but the clothing is much more in line with the 1850s or 60s.) Ruwanda’s mother is a murderer, using her beauty and isolated home to seduce men before killing them. She keeps her son locked in the cellar, forcing him to dismember her victims for disposal, and while she is “kind” enough to secure him governesses and nurses, her less-than-good example and his overwhelming emotional imbalance means that murder is the only way he knows how to entertain himself. At first it doesn’t look like he really understands what he’s doing, but as the book goes on, it becomes clear that he does – and that he genuinely enjoys doing it, with his mother’s approbation a mere bonus. Eventually the law does catch up with Ruwanda’s mother, and at that point he escapes the basement and flees to the nearest large city.
Lest you think this is going to take an Oliver Twist turn or become a heartwarming tale of how he redeems himself with the love and kindness of strangers, his first adventure in the city involves getting picked up and usurped by a wealthy man, whom he then kills. This sets the tone for Ruwanda’s further exploits in the volume as he kills his way through several locations. While none of the violence is too terribly graphic on the page, the implications are very strong and gruesome, and Ruwanda doesn’t just limit himself to killing bad people or those who have wronged him. Some of his victims are absolutely horrible people (like that wealthy man), but others are just in the wrong place at the wrong time, making the narrative feel as unbalanced as Ruwanda’s mental health.
None of this means that creator Mosae Nohara doesn’t have a point that will later come clear. There’s clearly a bit of the same sensibility here that we see in Moriarty the Patriot (minus the Sherlockian themes), and it’s also hard to read this without thinking about Jack the Ripper and Mary Ann Cotton, two of 19th-century London’s most notorious killers. (In fact, I’d say there’s a good chance that, despite different killing methods, Ruwanda’s mother was inspired by Cotton.) While Ruwanda’s killing spree at the orphanage that takes him in definitely feels beyond the pale, it’s arguably meant to show how twisted he has become, and when he’s scouted by a man who heads up a London assassination agency, it seems to be indicating that he’s going to be targeting people who deserve what they get. Interestingly enough, his first assignment for the assassins is to take out two people who may have been in the process of doing to their daughter what was done to him, or at least were at risk of doing so. They’re also wealthy, so the assassination group may be doing something similar to what Moriarty is up to in Moriarty the Patriot – taking out bad people who are too powerful to be removed by legal means.
This is an interesting thought, but the near-total lack of nuance in this volume hamstrings the story. While we can see to a degree why Ruwanda does what he does, his utter lack of remorse can make him very hard to stomach, and the glimpses of vulnerability we get are lost in his bloodlust. This may be entirely intentional, but most of the time it simply feels like Nohara is reveling in the gruesomeness of the storyline, delighting in getting away with drawing a story that’s so *edgy*. There’s a decent story to be told about someone like Ruwanda, and yes, both Mary Ann Cotton and Jack the Ripper are great fodder for a dark Victorian tale. Unfortunately this volume isn’t up to either task, instead wallowing in its own depravity until some sections are skin-crawlingly uncomfortable.
That, in a nutshell, is what makes From the Red Fog a difficult book. It seems to want to set up a plot about Ruwanda being twisted by necessity, but it spends too much time enjoying its own grim schtick to really pull it off. Its weird naming sensibility don’t help – along with “Ruwanda,” there’s also a girl named “Makarau” (in all fairness, this might simply be a case of the creator liking the names of foreign places like Makarau, New Zealand and Rwanda ) – but most of the problem is in the way the story is presented. Twisted, dark stories about murderers can work and be good, but they have to offer us something more than just psychotic glee, and From the Red Fog‘s first volume doesn’t appear to have figured that out.