Through the Woods: Macabre Beauty by Emily Carroll

July 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

carroll_woodscoverEmily Carroll’s Through the Woods comes out next week from Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster), and I am certain about one thing: you, yes you, will love it.

Author/illustrator Carroll is best known for her grim, campfire-story webcomics, which, like the web hit “His Face All Red,” have been virally disseminated online in a manner not unlike urban legends. Now her first print collection of graphic stories,Through the Woods, delivers more original tales about the things that go bump in the night.

“His Face All Red” is joined with four new stories, all richly macabre homages to scary fairy tales, Lovecraftian horror, and the gristly darkness in between. In one, a trio of sisters are led away, one by one, from their dreary home by an unseen smiling man. In another, a lonely woman tells of her best friend’s possession by a strangely veiny spirit. Perhaps most chilling is “The Nesting Place,” in which a teenaged girl who has recently lost her mother moves in with her brother and sister-in-law, but finds that the couple’s perfect demeanor disguises, quite literally, an indescribable horror.

The collection is framed by two mirrored scenes: in the first, the author as a young girl is reading in bed, too afraid of the dark beyond the headboard to reach out and click off her reading lamp. In the last, Little Red Riding Hood (or a nameless but recognizable stand-in) hurries through the woods and arrives safe at home, only to be haunted by the spectre of the wolf as she falls asleep.

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By calling back to childhood fears at either end of the collection, Carroll lends a timelessness to her original stories, contextualizing them in the canon of well-known fairy tales. However, Carroll’s stories rarely close with “happily ever after.” She prefers lingering dread over resolution, ending her most powerful tales at the unsettling precipice of more terror. With perfectly-timed restraint, she can accomplish incredibly satisfying twists with one phrase or image, leaving the reader curious, unnerved, and eager for the next tale.

In the past, Carroll’s used the tools of the web—scrolling and hyperlinks, for example—to maximum effect. But anyone who may have feared that print would distill what power Carroll’s been able to harness online will be pleased by the lush design of the book. Unbound by borders or margins, Carroll’s dark, color-saturated images occupy the entirety of each page, drawing the reader fully in to her world. “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold,” especially, is made up of light, almost luminescent figures on a dark, inky background, reminiscent of stained glass or lacquer folk art. The richness of Carroll’s illustrations serves to make the unsettling nature of each of her stories all the more tangible, imbuing horror with beauty, and vice-versa.

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Gorgeously illustrated and printed, and deftly written, Through the Woods is a chilling and beautiful read from a storyteller who, we can hope, is only just getting started. This book would make a beautiful gift, though you’ll definitely want a copy for yourself, to pore through on dark, gloomy nights.

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