Sadly, I am reviewing Through the Woods, stories by Emily Carroll a month too late. I bought this book back in July and Adam Gidwitz's review in the New York Times (in which he reminds us that children like to be scared) should have been another nudge to me. But, creepy ghost stories, especially the graphic novel kind, are good all year round and not just in October, right? With my students clamoring for scary stories, I spent most of October trying to find something good to read to them and failed. The kids and I agreed (despite repeated check outs of these books) that Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy - the first of which I read as a kid - just isn't that scary, although Stephen Gammell's illustrations are timelessly chilling. I ended up playing some audio short stories (Neil Gaiman's Click-Clack the Rattlebag and R.L. Stine's Can You Keep a Secret) that were mostly satisfying. However, I have no doubt that Carroll's Through the Woods would have fit the bill perfectly - for the older kids.
While her fantastic illustrations have some truly hair-raising, almost-grisly moments, it is the themes of Carroll's stories that make them appropriate for older readers. I let my ten-year-old son (and fan of Gidwitz's A Tale Dark and Grimm trilogy) read Through the Woods. While he read the graphic novel avidly, he wasn't phased by the disturbing and frightening nature of the stories and I know this is because he couldn't comprehend the gravity of the themes. As Gidwitz says in his review, "Carroll knows how to capture uncomfortable emotions - guilt, regret, possessiveness, envy - and transform them into hair-raising narativess." For me, it is this combination of the (more mature) emotional experiences and their accompanying psychic reverberations that gets my heart beating and goosebumps rising.
Carroll is a wonderful storyteller, leaving just the right amount of things unsaid and unseen. Her illustrations are haunting and beautiful and wonderfully creepy. The stories are set in various time periods and the clothing of the characters grounds each story perfectly, the one constant of the woods a thread running through every tale. As one character says in the story, "His Face All Red," most strange things come from the woods. To give you a taste of Through the Woods, I'll share a bit from the five stories, the introduction and the conclusion.
In "A Lady's Hands Are Cold," which Gidwitz notes is a retelling of Charles Perrault's "Bluebeard," a new bride is treated to a lavish but lonely life by her new husband and slowly driven mad by a sorrowful singing coming from the walls around her.
When the young bride finally takes matters into her own hands, she lives (or does she?) to regret it. . .
"My Friend Janna" calls to mind a ghost story Jane Austen might have written. Seemingly harmless fun is had by two girls who trick their neighbors into believing that Janna can talk to the dead.
The story takes a chilling turn when Yvonne reveals that she can, in fact see at least one ghost, and this ghost is haunting Janna. As Yvonne struggles with guilt over the lies told to neighbors and what to do for Janna, Janna loses her mind, the ghost consuming her.
The conclusion to Through the Woods is a retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood," or, more accurately the suggestion of "Little Red Riding Hood," that is far more frightening than the original for what it implies, rather than what actually happens. And, I especially love the visual reference to the childhood bedtime classic, Goodnight Moon, in the colors of the girl's bedroom. This concluding story is also the perfect ending to Through the Woods because it exemplifies what Carroll shows us over and over throughout the book - a really good ghost story is as much about what it implies as what it tells.