Sitting in a cinema together, teenage friends El and Vee realise that neither of them has any memory of the film that has just ended. They soon find that Vee has unexplained mud on her shoes, no-one else went to see the film, and the sole staff member present is behaving oddly. Clearly, something has happened – something stranger than two girls falling asleep in a cinema – and so El and Vee must find out what happened during the missing slice of time.
The Low, Low Woods
Tamra Bonvillain (Colourist), Sam Wolfe Connelly (Cover artist), Dani (Artist), Carmen Maria Machado (Writer), Steve Wands (Letterer)
September 29, 2020
This, at least, is the easily-summarised hook to The Low, Low Woods; the sort of thing that makes a good, catchy back-of-the-book synopsis. In practice, however, the mystery of the cinema turns out to be a MacGuffin that tugs El and Vee along as they, in turn, pull us through their surroundings. The small Pennsylvania town of Shudder-to-Think turns out to have a lot more strangeness to it than a few lost memories, as this story by writer Carmen Maria Machado and artist Dani soon makes clear.
When the two girls catch sight of a bizarre creature, half-deer and half-human, El offers some matter-of-fact speculations: “Maybe someone fucked up a spell, or maybe it came out of the crevice in the park.” Skinless men periodically appear near a stretch of woodland, but the locals have learnt to take this in their stride: indeed, a flashback reveals that the two protagonists first met when El casually saved Vee from one of these flayed figures.
One of the most memorable moments in the comic comes at the end of the first chapter, when Vee looks down at her sleeping girlfriend Jessica; the latter has a gaping hole in her abdomen, looking less like a wound, more like a hole in a rock, seemingly leading straight through the girl’s body and into the bed below. The hallucinatory nature of the scene is heightened by the fact that it is never mentioned again until halfway through chapter three.
Writing a story in which weird things happen is not in itself particularly hard; the trick is in providing enough substance behind the strangeness to keep the reader engaged. In The Low, Low Woods this is achieved through characterisation.
A lot of the protagonists’ development is conveyed through narrative captions in which El and Vee share anecdotes about past incidents in their lives: an interpretation of a novel read in English class; lingering disturbance at seeing a dead animal in a zoo as a child; perspectives on the town and its troubled history; general musings about life, friendship and love. We learn about them growing up as childhood friends, see them falling out over the course of the story, and watch as they get back together. They become grounded, believable characters, offsetting the weird fantasy of the landscape around them.
The illustrations by artist Dani and colourist Tamra Bonvillain are appropriately impressionistic, portraying a landscape of loose sketches and blotches that swirl around a well-defined set of characters. The balance is just right: the poses and expressions of the figures are convincing enough to add a touch of naturalism; yet we are always aware that the comic depicts a hazy dream-world, and so can readily accept the sudden arrival of a skinless man or a woman with an earthy chasm in her stomach.
The story takes place in the nineties, a setting that adds a veneer of nostalgia. Save for a slightly forced quip about Xena: Warrior Princess, this never feels like a conscious attempt to tick off a Stranger Things-style checklist of fondly-remembered pop culture; instead, the near-past backdrop complements the themes of memories and reminiscence, the fantasy elements blurring into the milieu of X-Files and cassette tapes like images from a half-recalled dream.
The comic’s penultimate chapter details the origin of the town’s strangeness – a story involving a sanatorium, an abused child and a transgender witch – and the conclusion ties together all of the various weird images, but what lingers is the atmosphere rather than the details of the plot.
Only on its most superficial level is The Low, Low Woods a story about twist revelations. Its true strength is that, as well as introducing a pair of well-realised protagonists in El and Vee, it successfully implants their anxieties, recollections, dreams and nightmares into the head of the reader. Once the story is over, we ourselves go away with strange memories of Shudder-to-Think.