As has become our habit, we're taking a quick break from the Halloween mixtape tonight to review a Halloweenie funnybook. And this week, it's finally time to review something I've been saving for the Halloween season:
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
This book actually came out last fall, but I didn't stumble across it til the summer. I almost wrote about it then, but decided that, since it's been out so long anyway, it could wait til now. Carroll's been doing great spooky web comics for several years (available for your perusal at www.emcarroll.com), and though Through the Woods is mostly new material, the stories collected in it are most definitely in the same vein. Her work often has the tone of folk tales, scary stories from a past when the woods were a thing to fear, and the nature of the things that lurked in them was mysterious at best. Tom Waits hits on a similar vibe in his more supernatural work. The Black Rider album is a good example.
(So... Hell. Here's a link to a playlist for the entire album: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xC821Yvh8go&list=PLKWOL425tqJpHF6dbYJphl86HMgwhTi6y. Just, you know, to give you something to listen to while you read...)
That's what I like best about this book, I think: the mystery of it. Too often, horror fiction's ghosts and monsters operate under familiar rules, and that robs them, I think, of their ability to terrify. Carroll's gift here is to keep her stories operating only under whatever rules frightened people might imagine when faced with things they can't explain. That gives these stories a queasy, uncertain edge that I like quite a lot.
Also, it doesn't hurt that the artwork is so damn pretty.
Mostly, though, what draws me to the book is its strangeness. The story “My Friend Janna,” for instance, is the story of a mischievous young woman who falsely claims to speak to the dead, and is then actually haunted by a spirit. Kind of standard gothic horror stuff on the surface. But what the hell is going on here?
There is some explanation as to what that pulsing thing might be, but as for what it's doing to the girl... Carroll chooses not to say, exactly. You can infer some things, certainly. But the exact nature of the haunting is left to your imagination. And that is great.
Another favorite of mine is one you can still read for free on Carroll's website: “His Face All Red.” It's a tale of sibling rivalry and murder...
...and I won't say anything else about it other than that. It's good stuff, though, and you should totally go read it for free. If you like that one, you'll like the rest.
And also? If you read that one on-line, I think you'll be getting the superior reading experience. I don't say that lightly, either. Regular readers may remember that I've been generally unimpressed with attempts to “improve” the comics reading experience in digital format. The “Guided View” reading experience you get on Comixology, for instance, feels more like a gimmick than an innovation. Too often, each turn of the page just layers word balloons, sound effects, and explosions over the same drawing. Or a little more of a larger image is revealed as you go, reducing the impact of the art and putting the reading experience on rails. It all just feels cheap and intrusive to me, and lacking in craft.
To be sure, part of writing is controlling the speed of your audience's exposure to information. That's especially crucial in horror fiction, where a scare is always better when it's been given the proper build up and reveal. Timing is everything. But the real trick there is in manipulating the reading experience without your reader realizing you've done it. Or, at the very least, doing it in such a way that it flows naturally with their normal reading pattern. Most digital comics storytelling experiments have failed that test very badly.
Emily Carroll, however, has gotten it right. She treats the digital page... each individual web page... just as she would a paper page. There's no fancy overlays or attempts to show you only part of a drawing. Each page turn takes you to something new. How she controls your reading speed is by controlling how much is on each of those pages. There's no set size to a web page, after all. You can put as much or as little on there as you want. When it suits story flow, you can put everything up on a single screen. Or you can send the reader scrolling up, down, and sideways pretty much infinitely. And if you lay that page out right, it's an easy, natural thing to do. You start reading at the top and scroll, “turning the page” only when you hit bottom and click the “NEXT” link. And the wait, however slight it might be, for that next page to load, allows Carroll to ratchet up the tension whenever she wants. It's a rather elegant innovation, and one that makes the digital “His Face All Red” a more enjoyable experience than the print version.
It's still good in print, mind you. The pages have been well-designed, and some of the same tension-building tricks come into play. But it's better on the web. And that's not something you'll hear me say very often.
Alright. I've done my best to get across why this book's so damn cool without spoiling anything. But if you're not convinced... If you don't mind a spoiler... Or if you just want to see one of the weirdest damn funnybook images I've had the pleasure of looking at in recent memory... Hit the jump link below.
First, though, my grade for Through the Woods is an A. Better Halloweenie fun you'll be hard-pressed to find.
Alright. Off you go now...
Hee. Pretty great, huh? Hope you enjoyed it. Good night.