The Squirrel Machine
written by Hans Rickheit
Occasionally, there are works of art or literature that defy simple classification. The brain breaks upon them like waves and they give up different secrets with each tide but never all the secrets and never all at once. These creations challenge as much as they entertain and ask for obsession as toll on the road to understanding.
The Squirrel Machine by Hans Rickheit is just such an enigma. At face value, it is the tale of two brothers, Edmund, the elder, and William. They live in a small New England town at approximately the turn of the 20th century, and the village’s desperate normalcy acts as backdrop for the boys’ increasingly strange explorations. The Torpor brothers are creators, Edmund an inventor and William a musician who plays bizarre instruments of his brother’s design. There are organs created from organs, music that emanates from pigs’ heads and cow carcasses, and an attempt at a recital on the “Bovine Resonator” results in a riot. Misunderstood by the town’s inhabitants and desperate to escape the attentions of their widowed mother (whose principle hobby seems to be painting stylized pornography), the two brothers eventually discover and retreat to a labyrinthine complex hidden beneath their home.
Plot is a nebulous concept here. How much of the story is metaphor, how much literal, and what part hallucination, all remain unclear and seem to shift during and between readings. The tale here lies in the telling. It is the characters’ journeys, the enigmas that they encounter and create, that ultimately compel the reader onward to the unknown, the uncomfortable, and the unclear.
The art is fantastic in many senses of the word. It is clean yet complex, always intricate but never overwhelming. Mechanical and organic forms are interwoven in complex creations. Rickheit’s vision is consistently compelling. Strange clockwork creations are fused with biology and windup toys are wedded to dissection samples. This is biotech steampunk where forms seem to whirr, click, and ooze right off the page.
The Squirrel Machine is ultimately an exploration of the mind. It delves into the imagination, unearthing fear, sex, repression, and finally, if not redemption, then reconstitution. Surreal, gorgeous, and both satisfying and confounding, The Squirrel Machine is a hypnotic, occasionally repulsive, always entertaining, and wildly creative graphic novel. It does not invite rereading so much as demands it, and each encounter reveals new and different details and interpretations. This book is a wonderful mystery, a basket of questions, a wealth of enigmas, and it looks utterly arresting every step of the way.