Apologies for the missed week last week; things got much more hectic than I'd expected. (And here's the obligatory plug for my novel.) This newsletter will be back next week at the usual time, with thoughts on a book that featured one of the most memorable cities I've seen in comics. And now, for some thoughts on a book that features one of the most memorable towns I've seen in comics...
Given that it’s written by someone who once wrote a compelling short story structured as a series of Law & Order: SVU episode summaries, it shouldn’t have been all that surprising that The Low, Low Woods did interesting things with structure. And yet it took a little while for me to see just where its storyline was going. Once I did — and once I’d gone through multiple readings of the book — its full shape presented itself. And, from a gripping opening to a stunning final image, that shape proved especially unnerving.
Alternately: this is a book that rewards patience. It also abounds with visceral imagery. Not bad multitasking there, I must say.
And about that opening: two high school students, El and Octavia, wake up in a movie theater in their Pennsylvania hometown. Soon enough, it becomes clear that they didn’t simply sleep for the duration of the film: Octavia’s sneakers have mud on them that wasn’t there before, and their memory of the previous few hours seems more absent than present. Their encounter with the sole employee working — a guy named Josh — finds him going from nervous to sinister in the span of a few panels. And he makes it clear that he knows something about what happened to them; the situation quickly ugly in the blink of an eye.
This is a story in which people do terrible things to one another, but it doesn’t veer in predictable directions. El and Octavia leave the theater and bicycle home; on their way, they see a creature half in shadow, half woman and half deer. El’s reaction — “Maybe someone fucked up a spell. Or maybe it came out of that crevice in the park.” — indicates that we’re in a place where the paranormal is more quotidian than its residents would like.
About that place: the town is called Shudder-to-Think, and there are some points of comparison to the town of Centralia, including a history of mining and periodic emanations from underground. In The Low, Low Woods, though, those are joined by a coterie of skinless men — who are perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the town, but which are from its only uncanny feature.
This is — to the best of my knowledge — Carmen Maria Machado’s first foray into comics as a writer, and she and artist Dani have a good rapport throughout the book. There are a number of different sources of narration, and it gives this town a sense of history and gravity, despite its more surreal aspects. Think of, I don’t know, Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren — that sense of both hallucinatory and lived-in. That’s what you get here.
That the reader’s guides to this town and its mysteries are two queer women of color also gives a good sense of various dynamics at work within the town — gender, sexuality, and class all play a part, and the fact that the characters come from an array of disparate backgrounds helps inform their interactions and conflicts.
Gradually, Octavia and El’s search for an answer to what happened to them leads them to a much larger mystery, spanning years and incorporating a host of other characters in its wake. The way that one mystery gives way to the next — and the way that the haunted mythology of Shudder-to-Think ties in to some other cosmologies is one of the narrative’s most interesting twists.
This is a densely arranged comic, with characters’ stories intersecting and time periods overlapping in unexpected ways. I’m genuinely curious about what the experience of reading it in single issues was like — though there’s one especially harrowing chapter break, with Machado’s dialogue ending on a terrifying ellipsis and Dani’s close-up of one character’s face speaking volumes.
That density of ideas did leave me wondering if Machado and Dani ever planned to revisit this setting. While The Low, Low Woods ends on a relatively conclusive note, the setting certainly seems like it’s one that the creators could return to to tell other stories if they so choose. The woods Machado and Dani have created here may be dark and deep, but they seem less lonely now.