It can be terrifying to be a woman. Don’t get me wrong — there are so many great things about it, too. It’s not like all women live every moment in fear.
But there is an underlying current of danger for so many women. Is this street safe? Should I ride in the elevator with this man or wait for the next one? Is this person my friend or just waiting for an opportunity to take advantage of me?
Nevermind that women live in bodies that are often confusing. We ache, we hurt, we feel emotions we don’t always understand. We bleed and want. But women just live with these things for the most part. I know I don’t give them too much thought. It’s just part of my daily life.
I thought about these things while reading the gorgeous collection of Emily Carroll’s stories, Through the Woods (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2014). It’s not that all of these stories are about these specific issues, but even in the more horrific stories, there’s an undercurrent of this just being what life is like.
The five stories here (plus an introduction and a conclusion) take us deep into the world Carroll has created. It’s one part Shirley Jackson, one part Grimm’s fairy tales, one part Junji Ito, but so much more. Part of Carroll’s gift is how she transforms her influences into something completely new. In Carroll’s world, everywhere is haunted; everything means you harm.
Much of Carroll’s power is in what goes unseen. In the first story, “Our Neighbor’s House,” the protagonist narrates her sisters seeing a mysterious stranger before they each disappear, leaving her alone to face what’s to come. There’s no overt horror in this tale, but the tension is in the waiting, in the inevitable fate of our narrator. Carroll does creeping dread like no one else working in comics.
But when Carroll wants to show us actual horror, she’s unafraid, and her visions are as beautiful as they are terrifying.
In the elegantly paced “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold,” her twisting page layouts, poetic language and art saturated with bright blues and crimson reds lead the reader down a frightening path that turns in unexpected places. In the book’s final story, “The Nesting Place,” the quiet distress builds to outright horror. While Mabel’s distrust of her brother’s fiancée never feels out of place, the reveal feels both shocking and earned.
Carroll never feels like she’s pushing her metaphors about women’s bodies and lives being in control of forces outside themselves. The subtly of how she conveys her themes is skillful and lovely. Bottom line, these are all just wonderfully scary horror stories. That there is some subtext just feels like a bonus.
If you’ve read Carroll’s work online, you know she enjoys playing with form and format. Her layout switch wildly to suit her stories — unconstrained and open one moment, quiet and formal the next. Her unique style seems to be influenced by everything — children’s books illustrations, manga, indie and European comics, animation, video game artwork — but she filters it into a singular vision. It feels hauntingly familiar but also foreign, much like a nightmare.
The design of Through the Woods is also incredible. The full-bleed pages are engrossing and the glossy paper shows off the pure black and rich, vivid colors. It translates the power of Carroll’s online work into book format perfectly.
Emily Carroll is a comics creator people are going to study generations from now. She’s that good. Through the Woods is a masterpiece collection of comics. And I hope it’s only the first one of many.
Copy of Through the Woods provided by Big Planet Comics. Carroll is also one of Small Press Expo‘s special guests, so come tell her how awesome she is Sept. 13-14.