We’ve seen a few graphic short story collections in recent years – William Goldsmith’s Vignettes of Ystov, Rutu Modan’s Jamilti & Other Stories, and Jason’s Low Moon to name but three. As with their prose equivalents, short story collections offer writers opportunities to try things out, whilst at the same time providing readers with a broad idea of what the writer in question can do. Festooned in praise from the likes of Michel Faber and Craig Thompson, you’d be right in expecting a lot from Emily Carroll’s debut Through the Woods and (for the most part) the book delivers.
What we have here are five stories (plus an introduction and a conclusion) served up like a full-blooded, Technicolor reworking of Edward Gorey’s darkest musings. The first, ‘Our Neighbour’s House’, is one of the best – three daughters abandoned by their father with strict instructions. An almost musical pattern (Carroll is thrillingly good at establishing patterns), redolent of every fairytale you’ve ever read, sees each of the girls spirited away in the night by a man in a wide-brimmed hat. The last line of the story shrieks with horror. It’s also worth adding, by way of introducing the way in which Carroll sets the table, as it were, that her use of red, white and black is as delicious as her choice of words. This is followed by ‘A Lady’s Hands Are Cold’, a Grand Guignol Rebecca, with just a smattering of Poe thrown in for good measure: a young woman, our narrator, weds and is taken (along ‘a low, lonely road’) to her husband’s large home – where she is plagued in the night by the voice of – well, there’s no polite way to put this – her husband’s first wife who was, it seems, chopped to pieces, the various body parts hidden all over the house. You think we’re being set up for a Bluebeard-y revenge drama – but oh no. Carroll is much more mischievous than that. ‘A Lady’s Hands Are Cold’ is much darker fare than that. Ditto the mighty ‘The Resting Place’. Following a bereavement, a young girl goes to live with her older brother and his fiancé. Unfortunately it seems the fiancé is a shell for a sort of red spaghetti monster who is looking for additional skins her own children can wear. Ferociously horrible is all we’ll say on the subject. The kind of story you can’t unsee once you’ve seen it. You’ll want to look – and then you won’t.
Two other stories in the book betray to a greater (‘My Friend Janna’) or lesser (‘His Face is All Red’) extent a need to just take a moment or two more to make the point. ‘His Face is All Red’ is largely great, a pastoral Cain and Abel shot through with beasts and witchcraft and revenge from beyond the grave. The climax of the story shows rather than tells (which is always preferable) but we are left rather too high and dry as to what it is we’ve seen. Another frame? Another sentence? It might have packed the punch of the three stories discussed above. ‘My Friend Janna’ suffers even more in this regard. The set-up is terrific: two friends, Janna and Yvonne, one of whom pretends to be a medium and one of whom provides the noises in the wall, whose friendship comes unstuck when a third party, a ghost that only the noisemaker Yvonne can see, starts to pay them undue attention. The ghost in question – which has a fleshy red spine – is a devilishly good concoction, another image you’ll want to unsee. The introduction of the narrator’s sister, the appearance of Janna at the narrator’s window, the wordless interlude in which we see Janna’s fate – the speed with which things start to unravel – leaves the reader wondering what it is they are seeing.
This is a debut, though, so it’s easy to forgive the moments where you sense Carroll has been excited, caught up in the tale she’s telling. Success will give her the space she needs to allow her stories to breathe – and we know, Through the Woods shows us, the one thing we can be sure of is that Carroll will be a success.
Any Cop?: A dark, devilish treat, Through the Woods gives us an important new graphic artist to keep an eye on.