Heralding Halloween, plastic ghosts and ghouls materialized on some front porches back in September. This horde will rapidly increase–adding movie monsters, comic book creatures, and graveyard trappings—as October 31 approaches. Yet the truly terrifying may not be what we see but what we can only imagine and dreadfully anticipate. This psychological truth is the reason that one graphic novel has haunted me for several years, since I first read it. Today I want to spotlight the chills found in Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods (2014), an eerie masterpiece with a profound understanding of mayhem and mystery, far beyond the jolly trick-or-treating or “haunted houses” of Halloween. Readers tween on up with a taste for the macabre will greatly appreciate this multiple-award winning work.
This collection of five stories—one first created as a web comic by Canadian author/illustrator Carroll—is effectively bracketed by an introduction and a conclusion that are themselves scary tales. The introduction addresses a child’s fear of what monsters might lurk in the dark, while the conclusion reminds us that, even if Red Riding Hood escapes a wolf many times, the hungry wolf still only needs “enough luck” to find her “ONCE.” Here Carroll explicitly addresses the darkness underpinning many fairy-tale happy endings. Her story “A Lady’s Hands are Cold” is also a variant of a familiar tale, that of Bluebeard, the husband who marries woman after woman only to murder them. The other stories depict human or supernatural evils linked to everyday rather than fairy-tale events.
In “Our Neighbor’s House,” three children left alone by their father follow his admonishment to go to their neighbor for help. The suggested outcome is dire. In “His Face All Red,” a jealous man kills his brother, but the slain man mysteriously reappears. (This is the only story with a male protagonist.) “My Friend Janna” shows what happens when the accomplice of a fake medium truly sees—or thinks she sees—real ghosts. “The Nesting Place,” the longest piece here, follows a young, recently-orphaned girl who goes to visit her adult brother and his fiancée. Beginning with the words “Belle’s mother had told her about monsters,” this story shows the horrifying, surprising ways the girl discovers some truths underlying that message. Yet these thumbnail plot sketches do not convey how and why this book is so powerful. It is Carroll’s visual artistry, an integral element in her storytelling choices, that makes Through the Woods such a memorable work.
Her bold, consistent use of color unites and highlights these stories. Red and orange add dramatic punch, often against stark white or forboding black backgrounds. Some of these single and double spread pages are tellingly silent, permitting suspense to build in the ominous absence of any words. At other times, garish incidents are recounted on pages inked in shades of grey. Often, Carroll dramatically positions any words and just one image in the center of a page, as a result making the surrounding, extensive black or white background another significant factor in the story’s emotional tone. This may be seen in the opening images, where a small blue figure is centered in a looming black forest, with a disproportionately large, blood-red sun dominating the stark white sky. The technique of creating a suspenseful, ominous tone is also evident in “His Face All Red,” as the bewildered killer travels deep underground to see what if anything has happened to his brother’s body.
Carroll also uses lettering and distinctively-shaped word balloons to great effect. Hand-drawn letters vary in size and capitalization in ways that enhance the action on the page, while word balloons trail like smoke or a mysterious, ghostly melody across pages and through scenes. At several points in this volume, notably in ”A Lady’s Hands Are Cold” and “In Conclusion,” word balloons have appropriately startling, blood-red backgrounds instead of the more typical white or black. In an interview, Carroll has described the influences on her strongly-lined drawing style for this book, where she typically used hand-held pen and brush to create images on pasteboard but created the rich colors digitally, after uploading her work to the computer.
Carroll also explains in another interview her long-held interest in horror stories, along with her belief that “You have to have ambiguity in horror, otherwise it’s really boring.” Through the Woods’ tales end on a note of terror, with unexplained and horrible events intimated or sometimes partially revealed, but the final horror never fully displayed, just suggested. For instance, we learn on the last page of “Our Neighbor’s House” that the neighbor “IS NO MAN,” but we are not shown or told what kind of creature he is. Similarly, on the final pages of “In Conclusion,” we see only the wolf’s frightening eyes and teeth, not his full face or figure. What we imagine here, what is unknown, looms larger in the imagination just because of what we do not see. In the same way, the final terrifying page of “The Nesting Place” is especially horrible because we see only an ambiguous bit of what is now monstrous in young Belle’s life.
For those who savor Through the Woods—or for those shy of horror or readers a bit too young for Carroll’s full-on macabre ambiguity—Baba Yaga’s Assistant (2015), written by Marika McCoola and illustrated Emily Carroll will be a lower-stress treat. Carroll had fun, as she notes on the book’s flyleaf, drawing that Russian folk tale’s “old crone full of riddles, rocks, and countless pointy teeth,” but the novel itself is about conquering one’s fears and resentments. Specifically, this fantasy graphic novel deals in an upbeat way with a young teen’s learning how to be part of a blended family with a stepmother and stepsister.
I myself am eagerly awaiting a library copy of the recent graphic version of Laurie Halse Anderson’s award-winning novel, Speak (1999). That powerful work about rape and recovering from rape has been reissued with illustrations by Emily Carroll as Speak: The Graphic Novel (2018). Author Anderson wrote the script for this release, coordinating with Carroll through their editors, and praises the illustrations. Anderson notes that Carroll’s “ability to create tension is masterful.” The author adds that Carroll’s art gives readers “more perspective on the intensity of the emotion” the main character experiences. Anderson pays tribute to Carroll, eloquently summing up her contribution her by saying, “The addition of the art turns a haunting melody into a resonating chord.”
As more people these days speak out about their varied experiences of sexual violence, and we come to understand that its perpetrators include people from all walks of life, readers young and old will find new relevance in works such as Speak and Speak: The Graphic Novel. We need to continue to try to understand how and why these criminal acts occur and what their aftermath involves. Real life horrors extend beyond Halloween.