Every day, tragic things are reported. Those that do get coverage are only a small percentage of the daily heartbreak suffered throughout the lands that comprise our planet. Sometimes, though, the unfairness and unexpectedness of an event will strike a particularly responsive chord in the reader, and it provokes serious, profound sadness upon reflection.
Tales of Woe, a new book from author John Reed, is a collection of true stories about people who became victims for one reason only: they were at the wrong place at an incredibly wrong time. There is no good reason for their suffering or deaths, unless the randomness of the universe is considered.
Americans are accustomed to “American Tragedy”—we are weaned on stories of hope, stories in which there is a resolution; although not always a happy ending, justice is served, sinners are punished. Tales of Woe borrows from Greek tragedy: “… you watch people suffer horribly, and then feel better about your own life. Tales of Woe tells stories of murder, accident, depravity, cruelty, and senseless unhappiness…”
Each of the twenty-five stories is bleak and hopeless. They go to the frustration of fate, the annihilation of the spirit, and the incredibly darkest aspects of human nature. White print on black pages emphasizes the despair conveyed in words.
Reed reports each story in a passionless voice, letting the intensity of the circumstances and situation influence the reader. It is a brilliant approach to the subject matter, all of which is tinged with melancholia and irony.
Illustrating Tales of Woe are the works of eleven artists. Reed searched through the works of over 3,000 artists to find the exact look he wanted for his book. He wanted illustrations “that were reminiscent of the pre-comic code art of the 1930s, the real stuff that told a story of woe in of itself.” Using garish color and explicit images, these illustrations spotlight the violence and tragedy so common to many lives.
A woman dies in her sleep and her toddler son dies of starvation and dehydration within days because no one knew he was alone in an apartment with the dead body of his mother. A PVC art installation levitates and collapses, killing and injuring the people viewing it. A young woman leaves secretarial school, is spirited away by a gang that prostitutes her and then kills her. Homeland Security delays result in the death of an infant. Witches are rounded up and exterminated in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Children play in streams polluted with toxic waste and suffer cancer. What makes so many of these stories unbearably sorrow-filled is the everyday-ness of the activities that tragically devolve .
Reed’s dispassionate reportage combines with illustrations that nearly leap off the page, and grabs the reader by the throat, screaming “Unfair? Unfair doesn’t begin to define life!” For Reed, objective as he seems, betrays outrage by the stories he chooses to tell.
Tales of Woe is not a book to be ignored. It is startling, scary, and relevant. It chills because the reader knows this is the world in which we live.
Bottom Line: Would I buy Tales of Woe? Undoubtedly. Although not particularly pleasant, it is electric, at times poignant, and deeply affecting.