(Featured image: Samantha Hautea)
A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins.
– William Shakespeare, A Winter’s Tale
Telling ghost stories around the fire, a winter tradition that comes hand in hand with sumptuous dinners and families coming together, has largely gone out of fashion. After all, why settle for the cheap thrills of your own imagination when advances in technology have vividly brought to life the ways human beings scare ourselves and each other? But even the most realistic CGI can’t replicate the hush of falling snow, the contentment of a full belly warring with the trepidation of waiting to hear what comes next and the delicious shiver licking down your spine that could be a draft — or something more.
For those of us who never grew up listening to ghost stories on Christmas Eve, or those looking for a Christmas gift for the horror buff in their lives, Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods might well be the next best thing. Bookended by a short introduction and conclusion which are as unsettling as the tales themselves, the stories in Through the Woods don’t seek to frighten their readers so much as haunt them, lingering at the back of the mind long after the last page has turned.
Our Neighbor’s House is the story of three sisters left in their home while their father goes hunting. “If I’m not back by sunset on the third day,” he says, “pack up some food, dress up warm, and travel to our neighbor’s house.” As lovers of fairy tales know, three is a magic number. When their father doesn’t return on the first day, the girls have a terrible choice to make.
A Lady’s Hands Are Cold is the most archetypical of the stories, where a girl forced to marry a wealthy and neglectful husband soon starts to hear singing from the walls of her new home. What makes this story so captivating is the contrast between the vitality of the living and the slow decay of the dead.
The only story not created for the anthology, His Face All Red, was originally published online in 2010. There are interesting differences in the way it is presented online and in the pages of a book, but the story of a man convinced that his brother has been replaced by something other than human will keep you guessing at the truth of it even after the story’s end.
At the core of My Friend Janna is a joke gone sour, and a situation anyone could relate to: How do you tell a friend you think there’s something wrong with him or her? The girls’ fracturing relationship and the shadow that looms over it are gripping and real.
While the previous stories in the collection move from the indeterminate setting of fantasy and through distant history, The Nesting Place takes place in a more recognizably modern era. As the longest of the stories, it is also the most involved, with more than one story told within it: The story of Mabel’s relationship with her mother, with stories, and her fears all tie together for a satisfying (but still far from tidy) denouement.
If one had to find a common thread between the stories in Through the Woods, it might be relationships. Plays on human fears about what underlies our connections with one another are what drive the element of horror in each of these tales. With the flush high on their cheeks and expressions that convey the starkness of their struggles both inside and out, the characters in each story are vivid and real, speaking to common human experiences like the fear of being left alone, helplessness in the face of the unknown and the slow-dawning horror of an unpleasant revelation being discovered piece by piece.
Although Through the Woods is her first print anthology, Carroll is a prolific artist whose work has also been featured in indie video games such as The Yawhg and Gone Home. More of her work, including standalone art and unpublished comics, can be found on her website. Many of her comics experiment with features not possible with traditional printed media, such as infinite scrolling, animation and interactive panels. Reading through the site gives a reasonable feel for her storytelling style, which blends Gothic horror and the the comforting simplicity of folktales to create unique worlds that take familiar tropes and make them feel new.
Though Carroll tends to leave her readers with more questions than answers, there are few better ways to spend an evening than letting yourself be lured into the woods.
Just remember to stay on the path.