Beautiful Horror: Emily Carroll’s ‘Through The Woods’ Is A Comics Masterwork [Review]
Emily Carroll’s collection of horror comics, Through the Woods, operates largely on the alienation of the inexplicable experience. More specifically, with one exception, it explores that alienation in women, particularly young women. The struggle for many of these characters is the insidious horror of trauma, and all of the ways that trauma pulls you apart, both from yourself and your community, and leaves you susceptible to further terrors.
This trauma that suddenly makes you unreliable to the world around you, and indeed unreliable to yourself, provides much of the claustrophobia that characterizes the slowly closing trap of Carroll’s flashlight-whispered tales. These are spellbound stories through which every strength of the comics medium is put into employ. There are frankly very few writers in comics who can go toe-to-toe with Emily Carroll in this regard. The totality of these comics is a testament to the largely untapped potentials inherent in this medium.
One of the aspects of the whole that powers Through The Woods is its lettering. Carroll’s lettering has a handwritten character of its own, and oftentimes the twisting bending nature of the letters and words drive the composition of the pages as a whole, which allows Carroll to move effortlessly through sometimes complex layered montage pages.
A good example of the role her lettering can play is in the story ‘A Lady’s Hands Are Cold’, where we see the titular woman’s bloody song reed its way through the chambers of the blue mansion. Here, the words and their presence have more meaning and shape for much of the story than any character besides our protagonist.
Carroll’s color palette also demonstrates command of the medium. Oranges and reds bleed out of bright whites, themselves dusted across dark mysterious black shadows. Her color choices function both in spooky service to the atmospheric mood and narration, and also in aid of the stories’ larger thematic threads.
In ‘A Lady’s Hands Are Cold,’ the color blue is matched with the caption, “And there was a man,” introducing the reader simultaneously to the color and to the man our heroine is forced to marry. The next two pages reveal a blue mansion at the end of a blue path, and leaves subtly tinged in red — the color associated with the woman. Or, more accurately, women.
Because of how color functions in this story, even though the husband is away for most of it, neither we nor our heroine can ever escape his presence. This is his house, and within its blue walls our heroine is trapped. When we finally encounter the other woman, the one referred to in the title of the story, we see that her body is blue — both from the coldness of death and because of the role the man played in her life. Not only is blue used to convey a general dark creepiness, but we also now see that it is being used to tell us about a character’s history in shorthand, and to fulfill a functionary role; to show simply that she is cold. These dual levels imbue Carroll’s colors with a thematic and atmospheric complexity that few colorists today can match.
From a purely aesthetic level, there are uses of black and grey in Through The Woods that are truly magical. In one of the best stories of the book, ‘The Nesting Place’, Carroll executes a nighttime hallway sequence in grey and black that is every bit the candle lit beauty of Deborah Kerr in The Innocents.
‘The Nesting Place’ may in fact be the pinnacle of Through The Woods. The way that it juggles an early 20th century countryside story of familial displacement and distrust with monsters that evoke Alberto Breccia’s Lovecraft illustrations and are on par with any of the best things that have come out of Guy Davis’ head is fairly marvelous.
‘The Nesting Place’ falls into the wonderful dramatic comfort zone that you might expect in a Val Lewton film before whipping back around through monstrous terror, and in doing so gives us one of the truly great jump scare pages in recent comics memory. There’s shades of Junji Ito laced in here too, and one can also make fair comparison to Ito’s work both in terms of how Carroll operates and in the larger sensations of anxiety that occur when reading some of these stories.
‘The Nesting Place’ works as both a wonderful climax to Through The Woods and as a promise of the potential that Carroll’s storytelling holds. Reading it, you could easily see the potential for longer work from her, built more upon her dramatic storytelling chops than her straight horror game. Even though most of the characters are isolated, the interplay between the characters and the communities around them is always really powerfully felt.
There is also a poetry to Carroll’s written word that you rarely get in western comics. One has the sense in reading her work that no word has been misplaced, and the result is a very literary vibe. To pick one stellar example; “That evening, the sun set bloodred in a white sky. And when I saw it… I knew our father was dead.”
There are so many cleverly constructed turns of phrase here that through all of the horror, sometimes you have to also stifle a grin at the sheer joy of one word next to another next to an image. Through The Woods is, without question, one of the singular experiences in comics this year.
Through The Woods is on sale now in finer comic book shops and bookstores from Margaret K. McElderry Books.