Sunday, 24 May 2015

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll Review

I’m looking through a window at some trees in the early evening, the trees becoming darker and darker, and I feel something despite myself - the DNA starts moving, remembering a time when the darkness of the trees meant danger. Emily Carroll plays off of those primal fears in the folkish horror stories of Through the Woods, which also warns “It came from the woods. Most strange things do.”

The first story, Our Neighbor’s House, loosely riffs on Red Riding Hood as a trio of sisters are left by their father in their house in the middle of the snow-laden woods. If he doesn’t return in three days, they’re to grab some food and head to their neighbor. He doesn’t return. And a terrifying figure who wears a wide brimmed hat and never stops smiling is waiting outside for the girls…

It’s a helluva start to the book which sets a standard that the other stories unfortunately don’t match with each one becoming slightly less inspired than the last. They’re all good stories but none measure up to the chilling brilliance of Our Neighbor’s House. 

Carroll riffs on the classic fairy tale, Bluebeard, in A Lady’s Hands are Cold, as the new bride of a nobleman hears the haunting cries of a woman throughout the castle at night. The horror is built up really well to a point that feels a bit like the ending of The Shining. 

His Face All Red begins a theme that’ll last for the next three tales, namely the idea of someone - or something - possessing your body, wearing it like a meat puppet and undergoing a complete personality change (maybe she’s so fearful of this because someone in Carroll’s family had Alzheimer’s?). Two brothers, one a hero, one forgotten, go into the woods to kill the monster terrorising the village - not realising the monsters were never on the outside. 

My Friend Janna is about two girls who decide to exploit the superstitions of others by pretending to speak to the dead. The Nesting Place is about a girl who goes to her brother’s house in the country and discovers his wife has a terrible secret. It’s MR James crossed with HP Lovecraft! 

Comics are a unique medium where words and pictures play off each other to tell a story; the great ones have a perfect balance between the two. If I have one criticism of Carroll’s comics - and it really is just one - it’s that the stories feel underwritten with Carroll leaning a bit too much on the imagery to tell the story. Ironically, it ends up making some of the characters feel like the puppets they fear they’ll become rather than rounded, believable characters. 

Saying that the art is too much of a towering presence in comparison to the writing is a minor critique though that won’t bother many people. That’s because the art is so gorgeous! The final story I haven’t mentioned, In Conclusion, is straight up Red Riding Hood and has some stunning splash pages that look like concept art for the movie Avatar’s alien planet Pandora - using purple to colour trees and rocks at night? What a choice and it really pays off! 

The blues and yellows of A Lady’s Hands are Cold are made all the more powerful for not being colours you’d associate with a horror story, and the spare use of red against the black and white of Our Neighbor’s House is brilliant. The lines are very confident and the layouts are very imaginative, alternating between panels of varying sizes to free-flowing imagery. 

The more successful stories - Our Neighbor’s House and His Face All Red - are effective because the horror is less explicit/understandable. It’s almost more threatening to the reader that if you don’t know what the danger is by story’s end, it could happen to you. The less scary stories are conversely the ones that show you the horror straight up which I always find unsatisfying, and that’s the case here. 

Through the Woods is an excellent collection of fantastical horror stories with a strong fairy-tale theme, almost like a comics adaptation of some of Angela Carter’s stories from The Bloody Chamber. Delightfully creepy reading guaranteed - read them at night in a room with no curtains where the tree branches can cast some interesting shadows in the moonlight… mwahahahaha!

Through the Woods

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