Originally written for a live performance with projected artwork, The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains is a novella bolstered by artwork in a variety of forms, and a story fit for a stormy night around a campfire.
A stranger turns up at a man’s house and requests his services as a guide to a semi-mythical island hidden by mist and it’s cursed hidden treasure, burrowed away in a cave. A substantial amount of money is exchanged, and the two head off on their journey across Scotland, distrustful of each other and the personal secrets they keep close to their chests.
Gaiman does not waste words on overly flowery descriptions, instead posing everything down to its basest form, like the wild and bleak landscapes the two men travel through. There is a sense of inevitably about the whole affair, a fate that seems predetermined from the start, and this only builds as the two men reveal who they really are to each other. Gaiman has always had a good voice for myth making, understanding what made older tales last and worm their way into our cultural memory, and this is no exception. It feels very much like an authentic Old English story, and the dark and chunky artwork helps lend it a menacing air.
The artwork by Eddie Campbell (of From Hell fame) is unusual and gestural, utilizing different styles and mediums with quick strokes and digital manipulation. It’s not as stark as From Hell, as instead of being meticulously scribbled, it instead feels like sketches drawn on a journey in a notebook with rough colours and lines capturing the mood rather than the detail. The most effective sections of the book have the text bleed into the artwork, as the story passes from paragraph to comic strip to full-page painting in one fluid movement.
While the novella is ostensibly a tale about a journey to a cave full of gold on a mysterious island, it’s really soaked in loss, greed and revenge. It has a charming word of mouth feel to it, a story passed around the fire as the embers crackle away and the fire flickers on the faces of those around you. It’s precise, and like all good short stories, has a dark karmic punchline at the end to savour.