If you can put your five fingers through it it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see. — Ulysses, III, 8 – 9
Sure, mama and papa Carroll played some role, but ask what wonder would come from the union of Edgar A. Poe and Edward St. John Gorey and the answer has to be: Emily Carroll.
Carroll possess Poe’s poetic philosophy and exhibits the understanding that “brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect,” in other words, when it’s time to cut, cut deep, make it quick and make it stick. Gorey’s influence is easier to (ahem) illustrate. Carroll’s haunted heroes and heroines are as bold as brass, but would all fit in a neat row of plain pine boxes beside Gorey’s distinctive black and white unfortunates like Una, Olive and, of course, poor Neville. What Carroll inherits from Poe and Gorey is the essence of terror. After all, when it comes to terror and horror, spirit (possession) is nine-tenths of the law.
Through the Woods tells five tales of timeless horror. From wary charlatans and motherless children to jealous brothers and skeptical sisters, their clothes and the manor houses to which they’re borne look at home in an era when calling cards and whale bone corsets were de rigueur. Like fairytales or folklore, horror, good horror, translates well and has a timeless quality. Waistcoats, cravats and bustles are but sheep’s clothing. What Emily Carroll wants is to let loose the wolf.
Carroll’s web comics have long established her prowess for design. Paper and pages, instead of pixels and clicks, make Through the Woods a different beast; however, her instinct for pacing and the structure of the page remains intact. For Carroll, it’s composition all the way down. Every page of Through the Woods is laid out like trail of breadcrumbs for the reader’s eyes to follow. Carroll’s colors and cartooning share equal space with her lettering. Her desiccated letters stand in contrast to the vibrancy of sumptuous reds, midnight blues and her always smothering blacks. Carroll treats each graphic element (pencils, inks, colors and letters) as a component of the page. Each bit fits its composition and, oh by the way, serves the story. As obvious as that observation may be, how often do cartoonists use the page to tell their story? How often does Winsor McCay walk through that door?
Too often, horror comics suffer premature reveals and muted scares due to procrustean storytellers who put the ‘comics’ before the ‘horror.’ The smart kids, like Carroll, use the form (comics) to fit the function (horror). She knows not to give anything away until its time. Why should she? Horror in all its devilish delivery systems must push and pull, disturb and defer in equal measure as it slips into the liminal space between here and what’s … out there.
Like those New England homebodies King, Lovecraft, Hawthorne and their step sister Shirley Jackson, Carroll knows in order to go big horror writer stays small. A region, a town or even a few rooms provide more than enough space to raise hell. Horror craves form. Like almost all of its greatest ghouls and well-worn haunts, horror insists on place, host or hostesses, resident or tenant aside, horror needs a place to rest its head. From snug spots like the grave to tougher spaces with less wiggle room, like family, when it comes to horror, tighter is always better. What permits escape and keeps these horrors in place (what turns the screws) is tension. The more the storyteller can slowly work that terrible lubricant under the skin, the greater and greater the terror. Through the Woods proves Carroll to be a hell of a masseuse.
What puts Carroll at the wedding table with the masters of horror – picture a prancing Poe holding out the loving cup for Carroll while King, Jackson and the rest cry out, “We accept her, we accept her! One of us, one of us! Gooba-gobble, gooba-gobble!” – is the word ‘through.’ Alongside place, nothing allows for more creeps than dumb foolish resolve and the fortitude to see a thing through. Courage is for lions. What separates an Ash, a Ripley or all those nameless narrators from Poe and Lovecraft from the rest of the pack comes down to tenacity and the instinct to survive, to go through. Freaks, all of them. Gooba-gobble, gooba-gobble.
It’s in the introduction and the conclusion when Carroll is at her most wolfish; in the latter her love for fairytales, especially Little Red Riding Hood, is almost too obvious to note. In a sly way, Carroll’s introduction serves as a thesis and plays with what King writes about in Danse Macabre as “the underlying theme of all of good horror: But not yet. Not this time.” Carroll imagines a young first-person narrator, reading in bed by the light of a lamp clipped to the headboard. She says, “what if I reached out … just past the edge of the bed and something, waiting there, grabbed me and pulled me down, into the dark.” What if? The dark makes for a worthy and tricky interlocutor because it represents a known unknown. But it’s not the darkness that frightens the narrator, the dark is circumstantial, the real fear lies in what waits ‘just past the edge of the bed.’ Carroll leaves the light on in the final page of the story, but the choice is clear, either stay put or push through. What if. What if?
If Carroll lets the reader dangle at the edge of the bed in the introduction, her conclusion shows what happens when borders get crossed and characters choose to venture through the woods. Spoiler: nothing happens. Carroll plays with the reader’s experience having read Through the Woods and manages to pull the wool over the wolf, if only for a moment.
The same nameless narrator, from the introduction, leaves her father’s house on her way to visit her mother. He warns her: “Don’t linger in the woods. Travel swift and safe There are wolves circling in the dark.” Oh, we know papa, we know, we’ve been reading Through the Woods. Instead of some charnel place filled with malevolent monsters what the girl finds behind the tree line is paradise. She hops “moonlit streams,” smells “the scent of pale night flowers” and her path is lit by fireflies. Carroll evokes a Looney Tunes cartoon as she draws a dotted serpentine line across two beautiful black and blue pages. When the girl gets to her mother’s house, there are kisses, books and a reading light clipped to the headboard. With the introduction’s darkness having alighted, the reader is now able to see past the edges of the bed. Carroll winks at Clement Hurd and chooses to color the bedroom walls a ‘goodnight green’ and accent the windows with striped curtains. And then the wolf comes out.
Carroll leaves both narrator and reader, snug in bed and smothered by the knowledge that ‘not yet, not this time’ only works for so long and the wolf is always at the door (or window) even when the only choice is to go through.