“Through The Woods” by Emily Carroll – review

Through the Woods' stories by Emily Carroll

© 2014 by Emily Carroll

I’m a bit of a late starter when it comes to graphic novels.

When I was at school, more than twenty years ago now, some of my more sophisticated classmates tried to introduce me to books like The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, or Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum. I read them but they didn’t make much of an impact (though I did enjoy Morrison’s take on the Joker, simultaneously camp and terrifying) – they seemed overlong and over-serious, lacking in the concise, snappy storylines of the comics I read when I was a kid, like the short-lived Scream!, or Tiger, both of which were absorbed by the re-launched Eagle in the mid-Eighties. By 1984 I was at boarding school, and often pretty miserable, and the A4-sized brown envelope my dad sent me every week with those precious comics inside was always welcome, and meant I could escape for a while into the world of Doomlord (evil shape-shifting aliens!), Billy’s Boots (kid finds magic football boots!), and The Thirteenth Floor (psychotic computer kills people!). Many of these stories, though I didn’t know it at the time, were written by such luminaries as Alan Moore, Alan Grant, and John Wagner, who also wrote for 2000 AD (which I was a bit young for).

But the way that “graphic novels” (that’s a bit of rebranding, by the way, that I find both clever and annoying – what’s wrong with just calling them “comics”?) have developed over the last few decades, the rise of “geek culture” (another ugly term, but it’s Sunday afternoon and I’m too tired to think of a better one), and the consequent seriousness with which literary critics now take the form, means that even the most comic-averse reader should be able to find something on the shelves that interests and engages them. A succession of writers and artists have really pushed the boundaries of what the medium can do, and the best graphic novels these days can be every bit as ground-breaking and brilliant as the best of “traditional” fiction (more so, perhaps).

Which brings me to Through The Woods.

Emily Carroll is a Canadian writer in her thirties, and the five short stories that make up this book are, as the title suggests, thematically linked by the woods, as a liminal place, both physically and metaphorically, where nasty, terrifying things can – and do – happen. “[It] came from the woods (most strange things do)” she writes in His Face All Red, when the impulsive actions of a jealous brother lead to something that really ought to be dead returning to haunt the living. In Our Neighbor’s House, three young girls in a remote cottage disappear one by one; in My Friend Janna, two friends hold pretend séances – and live to regret it. The longest of the stories, The Nesting Place, was perhaps a little grand guignol for my taste, but still creepily effective, and fans of HP Lovecraft will not be disappointed. The world these characters live in is often dark – illumined only occasionally, usually by blood-red flashes – and they are frequently seen to be dwarfed by their surroundings: snow-covered forests, large houses. Carroll’s pacing is carefully controlled, and I found myself half-closing my eyes every time I turned the page.

Like all the best horror writers – and the writer she reminded me of most was Robert Aickman, whose stories have a similarly queasy feel – Carroll manages the delicate balance between leaving the reader satisfied, whilst simultaneously providing no easy answers. Death is never the end in Through The Woods, though the afterlife of its characters is the stuff of nightmares rather than consolatory faith – change and decay are everywhere, and you really don’t want what these spirits are offering. Perhaps that is why – judging by the settings and costumes – these tales are set in the past, safely removed from our contemporary, urban world. Carroll expertly finds the pressure points of our atavistic fear of the unknown – as manifested in the trees from which our ancestors once descended – and gives them a good solid pinch. The effect is akin to touching an unearthed light switch – shocking, but you won’t forget it.

Through The Woods Emily Carroll 1

© 2014 by Emily Carroll

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6 thoughts on ““Through The Woods” by Emily Carroll – review

  1. I believe “graphic novel” used to refer to a stand-alone story, as in a novel that is graphic in nature, while “comics” referred to ongoing issue-based serials. It’s just blended together over time. (The categories as well as the terms!)

    • Thanks for putting me straight on that one, Hannah! That does make sense now you put it like that. I always thought the term “graphic novel” had been invented by an enterprising PR man trying to sell these stories to people who might otherwise be “comic-averse”. Also I would reluctantly concede that “graphic novel” sounds more grown-up than “comic” 🙂

      • Heh, it does sound more grown-up… But that may because of the confusion around the word “graphic.” For a long time I thought the “graphic novel” section was “novels with graphic violence”!

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