The Squirrel Machine by Hans Rickheit

The Squirrel Machine
by Hans Rickheit
Fantagraphics Books, 2009

Blimey, this is a weird one. Imagine a steampunk version of the last ten minutes of Eraserhead. Rickheit presents the tale of a conflicted pair of genius brothers in 19th century New England who manufacture unpleasant musical instruments from animal carcasses while holed up in their baffling mansion.

Its design and tone is indebted to Little Nemo in Slumberland, although far more disturbing. There’s a particularly striking ten-page sequence where one of the brothers wakes outside after sleepwalking, follows the faint sound of music down a well, and discovers a labyrinth of abandoned rooms, riddled with pickled fetuses, dead animals, pneumatic tubes, random objects hung from ceilings or draped across beams, and ominous machinery. And there’s a hatch which leads straight back to his bedroom.

The book is full of strange scenes which accurately convey the claustrophobic atmosphere and slight off-ness of a powerful dream. In no way is it fluffy around the edges. The detail is unflinching, with a refreshing lack of explanation – one panel depicts a massive pile of discarded eggbeaters, another a bizarre sex toy, part music box and part mannequin. Is it all a dream? Who can tell?

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