Review: Refrigerator Full of Heads hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Rio Youers and Tom Fowler’s Refrigerator Full of Heads takes Joe Hill’s original Basketful of Heads and, well, turns it on its head.

What had previously been the mostly realistic story (except for the animate severed heads) of a woman stalked by criminals across an island becomes now something (even) more supernatural, as the story of the magic axe deepends and its utility expands. Even more blood-soaked but also more zany, Refrigerator doesn’t quite capture Basktful’s perfection, but neither is it necessarily trying to.

If we end up with a trilogy, I’d as soon something that hearkens more to the first than the second. But, Refrigerator is fine as a sequel and an expression of a different author’s vision, a satisfyingly madcap entry in the (otherwise ended?) Hill House line.

[Review contains spoilers]

In Basketful of Heads, the heads remained mostly in the basket. Indeed, that was something of the horror of it all, that upon being severed from their bodies, the heads lost all autonomy, subject to the whims of whomever might pick them up. A particularly chilling prospect was the head threatened with being dumped in the sea, to drown endlessly or feel himself eaten by sea life with no escape.

Youers, then, breaks new ground in a number of ways. One of these is to have a severed head with agency, a particularly ornery biker whose boss is seeking the axe and who rolls himself a variety of places (even catches a ride on a stag) to accomplish the mission. No more does having your head lopped off take you out of the plot; in Youers' take, the severed heads do not (only) fade out into an exsanguinating chorus, but instead become all the more dangerous sans body.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

The expanding role of the severed heads is also demonstrated, with no small wink and nod, when in the first chapter our protagonists chop the head off an exceptionally large shark, leaving them with one third of an undead maneater (lettered with continuous “chomp, chomp, chomp” sound effects). No reason to have ever thought the axe wouldn’t work the same on humans as non-, but here we go. Also, the ridiculous horror of the axe is made all the more tangible when the shark has no throat to speak of and can be seen clear through from back to front; the same is true of the human casualties, though anatomy makes it harder to discern.

And so it is that if Basketful of Heads was Halloween, Refrigerator Full of Heads is Army of Darkness — horrific, sure, but also joyfully over the top. To save Basketful’s kidnapped June Branch, government agent Arlene Fields chains the shark head to her truck and rides off to the bloody, “chomp, chomp, chomp” rescue. The story’s ultimate villain, Basketful’s returning Wade Clausen, uses a different Norse weapon to turn himself into a giant slithering man-snake, a moment that cements Refrigerator’s absurd, fantastical tone well beyond Basketful’s scary magical realism (and that’s even before the beheaded shark-snake hybrid creature!).

The original Hill House line largely featured female protagonists and many could be read as feminist texts — Basketful, as a start, turning on June’s growing understanding of the women of Brody Island that the men valued, ignored, and cast aside. While I appreciate that Refrigerator’s “final girl” is a capable, independent federal agent, there is not the same pointed commentary in Refrigerator as in the rest. Turning the cold, sadistic Wade Clausen into a cackling snake monster feels like it undercuts some of the seriousness of the original, making the characters parodies of themselves.

All of that aside, I enjoyed Refrigerator. It’s an impressive twist on Youers' part that what seems like a somewhat traditional story of a vacationing couple running afoul of horrors switches halfway through to reveal officers on the hunt. That’s a fine change from the original, with the characters more intentionally seeking out Brody Island’s horrors than June did. Tom Fowler offers great semi-serious designs for the characters, and one wonders if colorist Bill Crabtree had any red left between the book’s buckets of blood and red-tinged scenes of the mystic artifacts. If you like your horror gross but not terrifying, this’ll probably be to your liking.



If the “of Heads” series continues (and I hope it does), I'd prefer that the end of Refrigerator Full of Heads does not suggest we’re headed for a story more about the Office of Irrational Metallurgy than Brody Island’s weirdness — that this doesn’t become another horror police procedural in the vein of Chew or Mind MGMT (not that there’s anything wrong with either of those). Me, I’ll settle for another rain-soaked chase across the island, though Rio Youers and Tom Fowler do a nice job expanding the mythology, and I’m glad to see Hill House continue, even if nothing else seems on the horizon.

[Includes original and variant covers, designs sketchbook]


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