Do you still look under your bed, checking to see if the monsters are asleep? Does the wardrobe give you a sense of foreboding, harbouring, as it must all manner of things that go bump in the night? Perhaps they all come from the woods outside your home.
Canadian writer and artist Emily Carroll is that monster under your bed, the creeper in your closet, the warning voice from the woods telling you that despite everything you have been told, the monsters are real. They are also breathtakingly beautiful when lavishly illustrated by Carroll’s expert hand. Through the Woods begins with Carroll introducing and illustrating the perfectly ordinary bedroom of a young girl, who reads by the bed light. The young girl describes her fear of switching the light off, just in case there is something else with her in the darkness. As we read those final lines, before the collection begins in earnest, we wonder the same thing. Carroll leaves us on something of a cliffhanger; is there – perhaps – something under her bed?
The artwork is in deep blacks, broken only by the thin beam of the lamp, creating a contrast that covers the entirety of the collection; impenetrable darkness that is only dimly lit in the corners or centre of the panels. When we leave the young girl’s bedroom and find ourselves deep in the first tale, one that explores themes of loss and abandonment, it is almost as if we are reading along with her, feeling her fear as much as our own. If you feel manipulated, that is because you are, and expertly at that. We are fascinated, curious, and disturbed.
The first tale, “Our Neighbours house,” is a delicious reinvention of the vampire myth, yet the evil is cloaked in so much mystery, and creeping paranoia that it is difficult to gauge if it is a spin on vampirism or simply the cementation of a mental decay. The final panel gives no answers, just a simple outstretched hand that could lead to doom or salvation. There is no such ambiguity to the second tale, “A lady’s hands are cold”: the protagonist seeks to avenge a wrong, only to find that in doing so she has perpetrated far worse. The language used in the second tale complements the art, integrated into winding staircases and fervent hallucinations, while remaining beautifully poetic.
While continuing the themes of mystery and paranoia, the third offering, “His Face all red”, ramps up the ambiguity, but leaves us dissatisfied, although this may be intentional. While disturbing, this story feels incomplete; you want to know definitively what happens next, but instead are presented with a number of possibilities. In some regards, that choice of possibilities may be more terrifying than the certainty of knowledge, but in this case the ambiguity is frustrating. The fourth story “My Friend Janna,” is simply brilliant. It stands as the most complete; no ambiguity to the narrative, just a bold declaration of purpose. This is Horror, pure and hauntingly simple. On the surface it is a tale of friendship and childhood japes, but underneath is a much darker, even somewhat illicit, reality.
The fifth story, “Nesting Place”, changes gear to embrace a longer form of storytelling, which initially grates as the story strikes me as derivative and at odds with the originality shown in the previous tales. However, this impression soon shifts to admiration as the story morphs into a bold take on Lovecraftian horror, coupled with surprisingly sharp social commentary, to ask us who the monsters really are.
Carroll wraps up her collection as she began, providing a “conclusion” to her “introduction”; finally, we find out if the girl reading along with us in her bedroom, scared to switch of her light, is right to be scared. And is she?… that would be telling.