A moody Gothic horror story set in 19th century England, God of Tremors explores religious tyranny and sexual repression. It’s a compelling, character-driven piece about the lengths an epileptic teenage boy must go to escape his father’s puritanical violence, bringing him out of the Christian church and into the world of ancient pagan deities. However, despite its many strengths, the execution and its implication create friction that can be hard to overlook.
God of Tremors
Piotr Kowalski (Artist), Peter Milligan (Writer), Simon Bowland (Letters), and Brad Simpson (Colors).
August 18, 2021
SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for God of Tremors.
God of Tremors follows Aubrey Clarke, a repressed teenager who develops epilepsy after discovering masturbation while attending a boy’s boarding school. His condition shames his father Ingham, a high-ranking vicar in the Church of England, who pulls Aubrey out of school and hides him at the family’s country manor. Ingham begins terrorizing Aubrey for his “beastliness,” refusing to take him to a doctor and performing brutal daily exorcisms that only cause his seizures to worsen. Aubrey’s mother, Maud, does everything she can while living under her husband’s rule to seek medical care for her son, but she’s punished just the same.
When Aubrey flees into the forest surrounding the country house, he discovers an ancient pagan figure linked to the woods itself. Visions of a monstrous face and sensually dancing women appear in the trees, calling to Aubrey. The deity calls itself the God of Tremors, a primordial being representing everything wild, frenzied, and sexual. It haunts Aubrey, beckoning him to worship and claiming Aubrey as its own convert. In a clever use of visual rhyming, the wild-eyed and grimacing figure evokes the same frenzy Ingham expresses during his exorcisms.
Kowalski’s fine lines and delicate hatch marks create elegantly moody compositions and highly expressive characters. Aubrey’s fear and agony are expressed in visually jarring contortions as the space around him warps or disappears, his suffering practically dripping from the page. Simpson’s color work moves from the anemic beige and gray tones of Aubrey’s oppressive life in the school, home, and church to the inviting blues and greens of the forest. Washes of muted pink and orange when Aubrey dreams or has a seizure signal the shift between his world and this new primal one in a very striking way.
When his mother is institutionalized for interfering with the exorcisms, Aubrey is alone. He abandons his faith and turns to the God of Tremors for help, despite his fear of damnation. Ingham discovers the figure in the woods and decides to destroy it. Every strike of the hammer against the stone figure causes Aubrey pain, their forms now linked. The attack leaves Ingham blinded when shards of stone fly into his eyes. Stumbling deeper into the woods, Ingham sees demons emerge from the trees to tear him apart. Aubrey is now free of his father and rescues his mother from the mental institution. Together, they seek help for Aubrey’s condition, but all the while, the boy remains haunted by the pact he made.
God of Tremors is compelling in its decision to center religious tyranny and sexual repression in its effects on men and boys. Horror stories about sex frequently and prominently center on the experiences of women and girls. They are often subjects of patriarchal fear and internalized anxiety over menstruation, sex, pregnancy, and desire. The choice to root Aubrey’s illness and his abuse in shame over his burgeoning sexuality is very interesting because it isn’t a side of religious and patriarchal oppression often explored in these types of stories.
Ingham is tortured by his own desires, regularly looking at pornography and flogging himself for it. His self-loathing continues to drive his cruelty toward Aubrey. Ingham even goes so far as to use his own pornography collection to frame Maud and have her institutionalized for sexual deviance. It’s made explicit that the desperate bid to control others through these means will only end in violence for the men who try to wield such power.
In the end, Aubrey’s epilepsy is treated as an illness rather than a sin. The link between epilepsy and damnation is severed, with no mention of his sexuality again. He is freed of his father and no longer subject to punishment or shame, even as doubt over the God of Tremors still weighs on him.
Peter Milligan’s dialogue and narration are very strong throughout, providing a guiding voice that complements the strength of the visual narrative. It underlines key elements in sharp prose without simply restating what’s on the page. However, this voice does cause some conflict, especially when taken with the visual representation of the pagan deity. The narration comes from the God of Tremors, and its description of itself changes throughout the story.
First, it alludes to the fae when it appears in the woods as a smiling face among the trees and then presents itself to Aubrey as an ancient wilderness god. The markings on its chest share similarities with Celtic runes. The figure’s beard and helmet-like head evoke Celtic sculpture and figural art. Its presentation also uses elements frequently seen in Pacific Islander and African art. But when Ingham is attacked by the god, it refers to itself as Beezelbul, the Lord of Flies, and the Prince of Darkness.
While the nature of supernatural elements in horror rarely needs full explanation at risk of ruining the tension, the role of the God of Tremors as a narrator is confusing. Is it an ancient Celtic deity, grabbing from other cultures to create a generic non-Christian entity, or is it a demon – if not Satan himself? Did Aubrey create a pact with an ancient spirit or the devil his father believes possessed him?
And if Aubrey creates a pact with the devil, even one dressed in vague tribal allusions, does that not justify Ingham’s worldview to some extent? Ingham is wrong to abuse his family, but the nature of the deity muddies things a bit. Aubrey is risking his soul by choosing to worship either a Christian demon or a pagan god, so the way the God of Tremors is presented is puzzling. If the point is that even the devil himself isn’t as bad as Ingham, there must be a more straightforward way to say so than constructing a hodge-podge of “Pagan Otherness.”
Despite its flaws, God of Tremors is a compelling Gothic horror story that explores the repression of an ill young man. The artwork beautifully conveys Aubrey’s plight as he grasps for freedom from Ingham and seeks the help and compassion he needs. It’s a brutal story, but a haunting one, nonetheless.