Through the Woods – Emily Carroll

Those of you who have been visiting this blog for some time will know that I am a huge fan of the fairy tale and have been since I was a youngster, so much so that I named my first pet, a duck, Rapunzel. Imagine my delight then when Faber emailed me and asked me if I would like to read a copy of Emily Carroll’s graphic/comic short stories, Through the Woods, a collection of creepy fairy tales and urban legend like tales. Of course I practically bit their hands off through the medium of email and what arrived in the post a few days later was a thing of beauty, though as we know even the most beautiful of things can have a dark heart…

Faber & Faber, hardback, 2014, graphic short story collection, 208 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Through the Woods is a collection of five very eerie, gothic and deliciously chilling tales. Each tale manages to do that wonderfully uneasy thing of somehow allaying themselves to your childhood, and indeed grown up, fear.  First there is Our Neighbours House which tells of three sisters who are told by their father, before he goes off hunting in the snow, that if he does not return they must head to their neighbours house, of course he disappears and so the sisters must decide what to do alone with only each other and the mysterious neighbour through the snow and woods. Second up is A Lady’s Hands Are Cold about a second wife who moves into her new home where something isn’t happy about her arrival.

Next up His Face All Red looks at how dangerous jealousy can be even between siblings, though admittedly this is the one that worked the least for me. Penultimate tale My Friend Janna is a tale of a medium which has a very, very clever twist as it goes on which I admired very much. Then finally we have The Nesting Place which is all about a young girl who visits her brother and his wife and soon wishes she had never made the journey and superbly describes one of the most sinister written noises, skreaaak skriiiick, which has just made me shiver thinking about it. I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who has the joy, or terror, of this collection to come so I will say no more on how the tales twist and turn out.

Carroll does some very clever things with this collection. The first of which is that, as I mentioned before, she marvellously plays with fears we have as children such as isolation or being lost, be it in a wood or the middle of a snowy wasteland. She also plays on more adult fears like the loss of teeth, which is something I have nightmares about now and comes up in one of the tales. She also plays with things that bother us, even if we don’t admit it, as adults and children the noises that you hear in the middle of the night and tell yourself that the house is either warming up or cooling down for the night for example. We all do this even as adults don’t we? No, just me? Oh, let us move swiftly on…

She also delightfully, be it for the blatant inner fairy tale geek in you or the nostalgic one in your subconscious, brings back and plays homage to the fairy tales of your childhood. Notably it is the darker  well know ones like Red Riding Hood (come on, who wasn’t petrified of meeting a wolf in a wood that would eat your Granny?) and the lesser known but very, very dark tale of Bluebeard. She also does it with some of the more modern gothic tales, with I thought a nod to Rebecca in one, but I would think that wouldn’t I? She also plays with the tropes that we know so well, for example swapping the wicked step mother figure in one tale to being a different new member of the family. These nods and winks add to the delight of the collection.

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She also plays with emotions we all know all too well and have done all our lives; jealousy, rage and most importantly fear. At the start of Through the Woods there is a brilliant introduction in the form of a tiny piece of memoir which explains how as a child Emily would read long into the night herself and be scared to turn the light out just in case something was outside waiting at the window or ready to grab her from under the bed.

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In channelling that into these five tales along with the incredibly atmospheric and (cliché alert) haunting illustrations Emily Carroll genuinely creates a book that will properly creep you out, not just give you the odd chill or two. The Nesting Place, which was my favourite tale, is one that actually wormed (once you have read it you will see what I did there) itself into my brain and stayed in there bothering me, especially at night when I dreamt about it – and I know about three other people this has happened to with one or two of these stories.

Through the Woods is an incredible achievement and a cracking collection.  Somehow in using just the right words and just the right images Carroll creates a piece of work that genuinely gets into your head and plays with your fears in both a good shivery way and a really uncomfortable one. You will be reading it well into the early hours and left wondering just what on earth could be lurking outside your window on one of these cold dark nights before you turn the light off.

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Who else has read Through the Woods and what did you make of it? Will anyone else admit to be genuinely bothered by it? Which other collections of spooky stories or fairy tales, be they retellings or originals, would you recommend?

6 Comments

Filed under Books of 2014, Faber & Faber, Graphic Novels, Review, Short Stories

6 responses to “Through the Woods – Emily Carroll

  1. Nick H.

    Good review, made me want to go back and read my copy of the book again with some of the observations in mind.

    I wonder if part of the reason that HIS FACE ALL RED works the least is that it was originally made to be read on-line, and when read in the book it ends up not making as good use of the page as the other stories do. It can be read here – http://emcarroll.com/comics/faceallred/01.html – and page 7 in particular works on screen in a way it doesn’t on page, I think. I wonder, if you read it that way, would you reevaluate it any?

  2. I’ve read it and I absolutely loved it but it also scared the shit out of me. Still thinking about the thing in the last story weeks later. Ugh! That drawing of the face. *shudder*

  3. Got to add this one to my own fairy tale collection. Looks brilliant.

  4. I found this book delightfully creepy and I enjoyed revisiting it via your review. A similar creepiness (and great art) can be found in the more bawdy and satirical Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge, as well as the more grotesque and demented Highly Inappropriate Tales for Young People by Douglas Coupland.

  5. Oh, I just read this! I agree about the childhood fears carried into adulthood, and that she’s transformed them such that they give adults scary dreams! I had scary dreams, yes, and had to stop reading it at night. It’s not a long book but I wanted to read it in small chunks because I could tell right away it was delectable, and I didn’t want to gorge myself. I really loved the illustrations, especially the limited use of color, which made the few colors she did use really pop. The style reminded me a bit of Edward Gorey, which maybe contributed to them feeling both old-timey and modern at the same time.

  6. Pingback: Why I Still Turn to Fairytales… | Savidge Reads

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