The Short Version: After a traumatic bullying incident takes an even more horrific turn, Sailor Rook and her family move to another town in the hopes of starting over. But Sailor continues to see and believe that something is wrong and her father can’t tell whether or not to believe her. But no matter what anyone believes, something is in the woods… and it’s coming closer…
The Review: I’m pretty glad I read this on a bright Saturday morning. I have a high tolerance for terror and for horror, but to’ve read this at night might’ve actually made me make a pot of coffee in order to stay up til dawn.
It’s that kind of scary.
A big part of that nightmare-inducing excellence, more than just about any other graphic novel / comic book I’ve ever read, is the art. The art is always important, of course – it’s half the damn book if not more; it’s the reason you aren’t reading a traditional novel – but the team of Jock and Matt Hollingsworth (plus Clem Robbins on lettering) have really done something special here. There’s a look into the process at the back of this first collection and if you make it to the end, I’d encourage you to take a look. The panels are drawn and inked in a pretty traditional manner, but then they take on a distorted and blotted covering via traditionally painted watercolor/acrylic splatters. The resulting effect is one of subtle insidiousness: the traditional structure of panels and frames is undermined throughout nearly the entire novel. It’s nothing new to have panels bleed into one another or to break the frame or have a full page image – but what feels new, or at least what works to such great effect here, is the subliminal sensation that the traditional rules do not apply here. That the structure you believe keeps you “safe” is no longer in effect. And boy oh boy does that burrow right into your brain, especially when coupled with the riff on witches that Scott Snyder has cooked up.
Forget pretty much everything you know about witches. There are some smart twists on traditional mythology (the connection to gingerbread houses was particularly inspired) but for all intents and purposes witches are not human. And they are, pardon me for being so blunt, absolutely fucking terrifying. There are some elements of the cave-creatures in The Descent, a dash of Nosferatu, maybe even a little of Christopher Nolan’s take on Two-Face… and, at the center of it all, the very real fear of the woods. Snyder writes, at the end of the first issue (collected here at the end of the volume), about his interactions with the woods as a child – the fear that shadows and the wind could create – and his realization that that fear never actually goes away and I couldn’t help but think that there’s no truer sentiment. What is fear – and we’re talking terror here – but the mind’s inability to grapple with something that it cannot quite discern. You know, rationally, that it’s probably just a tree… but what if it’s actually a giant spindly monster? You know there’s nothing in your closet or under your bed, but you sure as hell aren’t about to get out of bed in the middle of the dark night to check, you know what I mean?
And Snyder plays on these fears with a maestro’s touch.
At the core of the novel are some traditional elements: a family struggling to stick together in the face of several tragedies and near-misses, a small town that’s altogether too good to be true, the aforementioned fear of the dark and the mind’s way of putting things where perhaps (perhaps) there wasn’t anything at all. You’d know even just from reading the text (in a script format, let’s say) that things were dark and scary and wrong. The opening pages are the sort of smash-bang open that grabs you by the throat and pulls you into the book – and not necessarily in the pleasant way. I can’t reiterate enough how much per-page frights there are in this book and they don’t hold back. You’ll know within about a page and a half if this is a book you want to – or can handle – reading.
There are a couple weak points, it should be said. They largely stem from this being the first arc – there’s a hell of a lot to introduce here and you can feel the creative team trying to steer clear of info dumps and unnecessary exposition. Flashbacks are incorporated judiciously and realistically, in that they don’t happen to serve the story but rather they happen as a memory might to a person in the midst of a high-stress moment: in flashes, sometimes just text or other times just an image. But the character of Carol still feels a bit convenient, despite her obliqueness and murky creepy portents. There’s enough information to get by and keep the ball rolling – the central plot is altogether way too fast-paced to sustain any real “hmm, but what’s all this then?” reflection – but the teases are sometimes a little too teasing. The characters hurtle into darkness so quickly that I found myself longing for just a moment’s more consideration on their journey.
Of course, maybe that’s just because I needed a break and the book wasn’t giving it to me. If so, that’s on me as a reader – and it’s actually a testament to Snyder, Jock, Hollingsworth, Robins, and anybody else working on the book. They have a plan, it’s quite clear, and being able to swallow this whole book in a single go has got to be part of it.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. The denouement feels a little too creepy-small-town too quickly, if that makes sense (it will if you read the book) – but I’ve never been so genuinely frightened by a graphic novel. Jock and Matt Hollingsworth, the artist and illustrator, have produced something that’s not only outright scary but that also works on a deeper psychological level. Scott Snyder’s story is innovative in its take on witches – or, as we really ought to call them here, wytches (because the two things are, we’re told briefly, rather different indeed) – and he manages to deliver emotional family stuff in the midst of filling your head with nightmares. Lots of people can’t pull off even one of those two things and he does both.
I can’t wait to see where volume 2 takes Sailor – but no matter what, I know for sure that I’m only going to read it by the light of the morning.