Emily Carroll is a 31-year-old graphic artist based in Ontario. Within a year of drawing her first comic strip, in 2010, she had caused an online stir with her story His Face All Red – a nasty little tale of fraternal envy and fratricide – as well as establishing herself as a prolific producer of fan art, video-game illustrations, and horror and fantasy yarns. (Recent works rejoice under titles such as Grave of the Lizard Queen.)
Through the Woods is her first published book, a five-story sequence of Gothic fairy tales and fireside spooky stories. All but one of these feature female protagonists stranded in the twilight zone between puberty and womanhood, that shadowy realm of poltergeists and body horror and blood. In Carroll's world, responsible adults are absent, malign or, in the case of The Nesting Place, hosts to hideous parasites.
She lays bare her obsessions in the autobiographical introduction to this book: “When I was little I used to read before I slept at night. And I read by the light of a lamp clipped to my headboard. Stark white, and bright, against the darkness of my room. I dreaded turning it off. What if I reached out . . . Just past the edge of the bed and SOMETHING waited there, GRABBED ME and pulled me down into the DARK . . .”
A fear as old as the campfire.
Carroll's tales have many fathers – the Brothers Grimm (she recast The Hare's Bride for an online strip), Edgar Allan Poe, Edward Gorey, Neil Gaiman, maybe even Nick Cave's Murder Ballads – but perhaps their closest relative is Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, itself the template for Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves. (One wonders what a cinematic stylist such as Jordan, or Guillermo del Toro, might do with these stories.)
Carroll specialises in elemental, archetypal symbols: woods, snow, blood, axes, wolves, ghosts. The opening story in the collection, Our Neighbor's House, is a chilly beauty pitched somewhere between Little Red Riding Hood and The Amityville Horror.
A Lady's Hands Are Cold is a lovingly restored version of the Bluebeard fable, charting a young girl's transformation from unwitting victim to sentient adult by way of a traumatic discovery that saves her life. And My Friend Janna, the tale of a teenage girl who feigns a medium's powers and is besieged by townsfolk hoping to commune with their departed, carries a karmic kickback worthy of Saki.
Crudely put, Through the Woods is Freudian folklore, the kind of book the mythographer Marina Warner might have had in mind when she wrote No Go the Bogeyman. Its five stories can be read in an afternoon: the word count barely touches the thousands. But they're the right words.
Carroll has a mainline to the reader’s psychic pressure points, the kinds of fears and phobias that go all the way back to the cave. She also has the confidence to let her images (rendered in ink and graphite on Bristol board and then digitally coloured) do the work when it best serves the story.
In certain cases – the last act of His Face All Red, for instance – it's the illustrations rather than the hand-lettered words that convey the final, fiendish twist.
Emily Carroll might have made her name online (she won the Joe Shuster Award for Outstanding Web Comics Creator three years ago), but Through the Woods is a powerful argument for the physical book as fetish object. It's a beautiful artefact, confidently written and lavishly designed. Just don't bring it to bed.