Delusion is the grey area between fantasy and reality. We seldom explore this realm for a number of reasons: the dark shadows that lurk in its corners and the unseen things that might leap out at us should we venture within, or the social taboos that seem to hover over the topic of mental illness; but I think the most poignant reason is because how familiar it might seem to us … and that is a truly scary prospect.
So it is with Underworld, the latest release from Renegade Arts Entertainment. A collaboration between writer Lovern Kindzierski and GMB Chomichuk, Underworld is the tale of a local politician, fallen from grace into a fugue of delusion and psychosis. Emerging from the local hospital (St. Boniface in Winnipeg, Manitoba) and into the Red River, he begins to make his way home to the family he abandoned. His addled mind interprets the journey as the Odyssey and the various obstacles Odysseus encountered on his return to Ithaca are what Hector Ashton sees on the streets of Winnipeg.
More than a tale of mental health – though those themes are present – Kindzierksi shows us a broken man. Overshadowed by the influence of his father, the combination of the stresses of his work and the guilt of leaving his family for his work have all contributed to making him see the world as mythological Greece.
The twinned perspective of delusion and guilt frame the story in a truly unique way. Readers can understand Hector’s delusions for what they really are, but they also pity Hector for them. When Hector falls in the Red River and declares that “this gloomy river can only be the Styx,” readers can sense Odysseus’s desperation in Ashton’s words and as he makes his way off the Red River’s gravelly shores, we see a man driven to return to not only his home but his chance at redemption.
As much as this is a journey home, this is also Ashton’s exploration of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a process that one undertakes alone. Helping others to alleviate their issues is a way of alleviating one’s own. As he rationalizes his encounters through the eyes of Odysseus, he also meets and perceives people as mythological heroes. Talking with them in prosaic language, they merely believe him to be addled, yet they accept his gifts as well as his words and they comprehend their situations more clearly. As Ashton helps them through their own issues, he takes one step closer to home.
There is a strong theme of paternal overshadowing in this story as well. Even though Ashton adopts the persona of Odysseus, we see facets of his real identity slip through. His imagined conversation with his dead mother shows us the effect of his father’s influence on his life as it twisted him into a political lackey of his ambitions, supplanting Ashton’s own. As his mother forgives him, she makes Ashton realize that he needs to return to his own family to atone for the isolation he placed them in.
These are fearful themes. The truth is a harsh scary fellow to encounter and often he tells us the things that we don’t want to hear. Ashton has no such recourse. He needs to encounter the truth to bring him peace and redemption, in order to make those series of steps that will eventually bring him home.
Kindzierski has constructed a story of several different layers. Fear, self-incrimination, guilt, redemption and eventually forgiveness all make up this poignantly explorative story. Eventually his fear degrades as he makes peace with the demons of his past. He assigns blame where it is rightly due but is also able to accept responsibility for his own misgivings against his family. Ashton’s delusion breaks down around the midpoint of the tale and the realization of his true self begins to break through these layers, ending with a peaceful resolve to make things right for him and his wife and son again.
The art in this book is truthful. It shrouds Ashton’s delusions and his departure from reality but it also reveals his return to his former life. It honestly paints a picture of a troubled soul struggling his way through the depressing mire of the underworld, fending off delusion and recovering his sanity and identity.
Chomichuk’s shadowy artwork is a perfect companion for Kindzierski’s story. As Ashton makes his way through the various alleyways and backstreets of Winnipeg’s shadier side, Chomichuk creates misty backdrops and outlines for the ephemeral phantasms that Ashton superimposes upon reality. On this journey, grey is the perfect shade of delusion but black and white are the colours of discovery.
Secrets are uncovered, truths are revealed and what is fearful is faced – and overcome in this story. It is heart-wrenching but satisfying to see Ashton, like Odysseus, emerge victorious from these shadows.
Underworld is at first disturbing – at first – but then this discomfort gives way to vicarious triumph. The delusion is dispelled and our Odysseus is reunited with his Penolope and young Telemachus. A man is made whole once more – as is the fractured voyager upon his return home to the warmth and welcome of his loving family. It makes us wonder what we would pay for our sanity and the well-being of our loved ones. We must ask: is that not worth the fearful trip through the shadowy realm of delusion?