REVIEW: Gazing into the Shadows from The Crossroads at Midnight

A woman with black hair looks down while in a wheat field, saying "Clara...?" in a speech bubble.

The Crossroads at Midnight collects five short stories by Abby Howard, whose previous publications were educational science comics and the young adult dark fantasy adventure The Last Halloween. None of the stories in Howard’s newest collection is suitable for children, and the gory tone is reminiscent of twentieth-century pulp horror comic magazines. Each piece is uniquely disturbing, and all manner of grotesque images come to life between the fine lines of Howard’s terrifyingly detailed art. Through the darkness of its shadows, Howard’s work shines an unflinching light on the anxieties of growing up and growing older in the company of monsters.

The Crossroads at Midnight

Abby Howard
Iron Circus Comics
November 3, 2020

“The Girl in the Fields” opens the collection with a chilling story of rural isolation. Attempting to distance herself from her homophobic parents, a teenager named Frankie begins to spend time next to the fence at the border of her family’s property. She meets an unexpected friend who talks to her through a hole in the fence, a girl her own age who claims that she can’t leave the fields. Frankie’s parents have warned her to stay away from the man who owns the neighboring farm, and it’s clear that there’s something strange about the girl who holds whispered conversations with Frankie from his side of the fence. Nevertheless, in an environment that sees the queer and questioning as less than human, it’s up to monsters to protect one another.

Mutual support is a surprisingly strong theme in a collection that doesn’t pull any punches in its depictions of awful and seemingly hopeless situations. The longest of the stories, “The Boy from the Sea,” is a fairy tale gone horribly wrong. When Ayanna’s little sister Nia becomes the target of a charming but malevolent water spirit during their family’s annual vacation to the beach, she has no one to turn to and must protect her sister on her own. Ayanna’s love for her sister is powerful, but it remains to be seen whether love is strong enough to combat the malice of the watery depths.

The final story, “Kindred Spirits,” provides a fitting conclusion to the collection. After retiring from her career as a postal worker, Norah moves to the edge of a peat bog with the rationale that “property was cheap and nobody would come bother me.” Disturbed by a knock at her door one night, Norah answers to find the animated corpse of a woman preserved in the bog staring at her from across the threshold. What seems to be a murder mystery regarding the fate of the dead woman gradually shifts to a much more disturbing tale about the fate of Norah, who has more in common with the corpse in the peat bog than she’d like to admit.

Howard’s dramatic close-up of the corpse’s desiccated face is startling, yet Norah is a practical woman and invites her in for tea. Norah is also lonely, as no one in town has any use for an older woman unattached to a job or a family. The treatment of Norah as a nonperson is even more disturbing than the bog ghosts, and the artist deftly portrays the wariness and disgust on the faces of the people who have no time for a woman whom they consider to be old, unattractive, and unproductive. Howard’s art does justice to the explicitly gory elements of her stories, but the primal horror represented in this collection is the creeping fear of being treated as a monster if you don’t fit in.

Howard’s treatment of difference is powerful yet nuanced, exposing anxieties such as isolation, alienation, and a sense of powerlessness in an aggressively hostile world. It is no accident that the protagonist of each story in The Crossroads at Midnight is female, as well as explicitly or subtextually identified as queer. The horrors that these characters must confront are profoundly upsetting, whether they take the form of external threats or internal degradation. Even when Howard’s art is at its most vivid and grotesque, however, her protagonists retain their warmth and humanity. If terrible things can happen to these characters, they could happen to anyone, and no one will understand this better than readers who are able to relate to monstrous viewpoints.

Howard’s distinct brand of horror tackles grim and serious questions concerning individual agency in the face of impossible situations, but her stories are never mean-spirited or pointlessly gruesome. The Crossroads at Midnight assures readers that there’s still hope and friendship to be found, but only if we’re willing to peer into the shadows and embrace the monsters lurking in the darkness.

 

Kathryn Hemmann

Kathryn Hemmann

Kathryn is a Lecturer of East Asian Studies at University of Pennsylvania. They live at the center of a maze of bookshelves in Philadelphia.

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