If you've ever cruised the scrapbooking/collage/altered book craft scene you'll immediately recognize where this book is coming from. Like those websites it's filled with tastefully arranged collage pages set down by a suburban mom. All the tropes of that subculture are here- re-purposed vintage ephemera, artfully cute tributes to precious family moments, warm and wonderful color treatments, and a veritable tidal wave of happy memories.
And under that is a horrific story of lust, betrayal, and madness.
I'll be upfront and admit that this book isn't going to appeal to everyone. Hell, it didn't even appeal to me when my Significant Other bought it. She's heavily into the scrapbooking thing and thought it looked like an interesting attempt at narrative fiction via collage. On that count it succeeds, but I have a feeling it went in a direction that the target audience really, really didn't like. I, on the other hand, couldn't believe a book that goes to such dark places, albeit with some very subtle touches, was packaged up with a veneer of pink ribbons and Grandma's doilies. It's as if David Lynch hijacked a Martha Stewart project, and the results are glorious.
Again, you're either going to love this book or hate it. That said, there are a bunch of used copies available for a penny, so you can take it for a spin without breaking the bank.
Finally, we come what's probably the highest achievement of the high touch approach, as well as an example of how it can go wrong. I'm talking about Personal Effects: Dark Art by J. C. Hutchins and Jordan Weisman.
Here's how Hutchins' website describes the book:
Dark Art follows the extensive notes of art therapist Zach Taylor’s investigation into the life and madness of Martin Grace, an accused serial killer who claims to have foreseen, but not caused, his victims’ deaths. The items among Grace’s personal effects are the keys to understanding his haunted past ... and finding the terrifying truth the patient hoped to keep buried.
The narrative is tightly tied into the included "personal effects", and the producers didn't skimp on either quality or quantity. There are so many inserts and documents, ranging from business cards and Polaroids to police reports and official paper, that it can be difficult to actually lay the book out flat for reading. The effort that went into the art direction for the project really hits home when you actually lay out the dozens of items on a tabletop. Each bit is unique, with a fantastic mix of graphic styles and varying paper stocks on display. It's prop document heaven.
The close integration of all these delightful props with the story is the highlight of the book. Unfortunately, it's also one of the biggest flaws. As part of the "transmedia" approach the book makes multiple references to online assets that the reader can explore to get more information. Unfortunately, most of them have simply vanished since the book's original publication in 2009.
That's a jarring oversight that immediately breaks the immersion the authors have spent so much time and effort developing. What makes it particularly odd is that phone numbers and automated voice mail systems connected to the story are still active. I can understand that the publisher wasn't planning on converting "Dark Arts" into a long-term backlist title, but establishing an archival copy of the assets seems like a no brainer. This is, after all, a project that touts it's technological savvy and multi-media approach as a major selling point.
Beyond it's innate entertainment value I think "Personal Effects: Dark Art" is a good example of how to use both physical and virtual accessories to move a story along, with the obvious caveat about having the online portion actually available. Even with it's flaws it provides a tantalizing hint of the possibilities of the high touch approach to storytelling.