Bedtime Stories That Keep You Awake: On Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

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Welcome to October here at Deja.Revue. If you have not noticed already, I tend to be a fan of the creepy, the weird, and the left-field in comics. So I though October would be a perfect time to indulge those predilections even more than I already have. Horror, as a genre in comics, has always been just off to the side. Less flashy than superheroes, and something of a mutant child of crime comics, the genre has a breadth and depth which is, in my opinion, almost unmatched. I do not hope to cover the whole diverse range of the genre in the coming month, but I do hope to give you a survey of some of my favorite works on page and screen. If you would like to read further, Paste has an excellent list of horror comics you should read. For further reading on the history of horror comics, check out Mike Howlett’s essay in the back of this excellent horror anthology that I will not have the time or space to write about this month. If all goes according to plan, I will have a column each Monday for you, culminating, fittingly, with Halloween at the end of the month. Don’t forget to turn off the lights.

At one point or another in your life it is likely that you have crawled into your bed, or crawled out of it, and thought you heard something. Maybe it was down the hall. Maybe it was on the roof. Or maybe, just maybe, it was under your bed. Your ears begin to ring. Your pupils dilate. You concentrate on the darkness and the silence. Your feet stiffen on the cold floor or your body tightens under the warm covers. You recede into the blankets, blocking out the world – a cotton fortress of your own making. It is absurd. Whatever that something is, it can get through. It will not be fooled by your disguise. It knows you are awake. In fact, it prefers you to be awake. It prefers that you wait in the silence, in the stillness, contemplating your immanent fate.

But there is not anything there. Not really. This absence is the source of terror, for it creates a gaping vacuum which our minds set quickly to populating with all sorts of morbid, grotesque, and devilish boogeymen. For some, this wild speculation, this endless suspension in the realm of horror, can create a kind of high – one you keep chasing. This helps explains the popularity of horror films, but more elementally it explains the enduring tradition of the campfire story, the legend, the myth, of which film is merely one of the most recent modes of delivery.

Enter Emily Carroll’s beguiling graphic novel Through the Woods. Each of its brief, gothic-inflected tales is meant to put you right back in bed, under the covers, afraid to peak over the edge and see the hand reaching out from underneath. It begins much the same way I have begun this article. By remembering the bed, the darkness, and the hand creeping out, Carroll prepares the reader for what is to come and also reminds us why we get into this stuff in the first place: we are all just chasing after that same, perfect moment of childhood fear over and over.

Carroll’s tales are, I think purposefully, transitional ones. They float in that space between childhood and adulthood (the library from which I checked out the book had it filed in the Teen section): evoking nursery rhymes even as they delve into more sinister territory. Because of this, she introduces some twists and turns which, for more seasoned readers, will feel less surprising. However, the collection also drifts towards a more uncertain, unsteady version of horror. The best of the stories (“Our Neighbor’s House,” “His Face All Red”) provide no answers, and in fact, no conclusions at all. The resulting effect runs much closer to one’s core than stories that end on dramatic revelations or twists (I can almost hear the violins exploding at the end of “My Friend Janna”). None of these stories overstays their welcome. They are gothic folktales, moving at a quick clip, lingering just long enough to send a chill down your spine, or to make the hairs on your neck stand at attention.

Though these nightmares are brief, that does not mean they are unmemorable. Carroll’s art is mostly to thank for that. It is bright and blocky. It channels folk art even as it disintegrates its own borders, dripping over the edges of the loosely defined frames. It is much less a traditional comic book than it is a series of narrative paintings whose accompanying text is incorporated as completely and artfully as the characters and settings. Reds and blues are cut through with inky black and shocks of white. Everything is angled like the set of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Imagine that film bursting in mad Technicolor and you will have an idea of what Carroll’s book looks like.

Like that film, Through the Woods suggests that monsters are real, but that they are often found just behind the eyes of the person sitting across from you, or just beneath the surface of the mirror you are staring into. This is how the monsters hide. And this is why we must, in the dark, when we are alone and we hear that sound again, fill the world with ugly daemons waiting just around the corner: because it keeps us from seeing the real and mundane ones.

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