As you may have noticed from my last couple of book reviews, I was starting to get a bit cocky about the frequency with which I was starting to post them. I mean two in two weeks. Who would have thought it? Especially when a matter of weeks ago I was experiencing a devastating reading slump that saw me slog through Frankenstein in Baghdad for over two months! But, I admit, I was starting to get a bit too big for my boots. Something which promptly stopped the minute I realised I’d not read a damn thing for most of last week. I’m currently reading White Houses by Amy Bloom but I’ve not been feeling it this week. Nope, what I’ve been feeling is Project Runway and whatever other shit I could find on Netflix. So, when I wrote my Sunday Rundown this week I started panicking that I wouldn’t have anything to review tonight. So I did what any other good book blogger did and bought a book that I not only wanted to read but, more importantly, could finish in one night! Really the only reaction. So, yet again, I’m keeping up my streak. With a little sneakiness.
I’ve heard a lot of praise for Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods for years but it’s taken me a good few years to get around to it. It’s the kind of book that people claim is super scary. In fact, someone on Goodreads claimed to have read before bed and then woken up screaming. I mean that’s quite a statement to make. I’ve heard Carroll’s graphic novel be compared to the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Neil Gaiman so I was already going in expecting to be scared shitless. And it’s a blood gorgeous book. What could go wrong?
Well, a lot really. Carroll’s book is made up of 5 individual stories linked by the central theme of the dark, dark woods. The first tells the story of three sisters waiting for their father to return; the second is the tale of the second wife of a widower; the third revolves around brotherly jealousy; the fourth about two friends sharing a deep secret; and the last about a young girl grieving for her mother. Out of all of these stories it is the final one that is the most interesting but that really isn’t saying very much. I have to say, as much as I liked the illustrations and the general vibe of the whole book, I wasn’t exactly blown away by any of the stories. It felt like Carroll had taken a small idea and padded it out long enough to make a short story. The best way I can think to describe it is that she had taken old wives tales and then edited them badly for her own use. This book is just a pale imitation of better story collections.
But, that isn’t to say its horrible. It’s just that if you want truly scary or weird stories then there are better ones out there. More detailed and original. The tales in Through the Woods feel massively clichéd and kind of shallow. As if someone had said, “write us 5 stories like the Brothers Grimm and then draw some creepy pictures to go with them”. There are some really interesting ideas at play here but they are never really developed in an interesting or exciting way. It’s not even as if I can about the stories ending abruptly. I fucking love it when a story ends in the middle of the narrative. My problem is that the rest of the story just isn’t very good. It skirted around creepy without pushing it far enough. Everything felt as though it was holding back. As someone who has background in traditional gothic fiction it does take a lot to excitement and this just didn’t cut the mustard.
Although, this is a graphic novel and I do sometimes fear with graphic novels that it’s mostly all about the illustrations. I love a graphic novel, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think they all compare to non-graphic novels. There are some absolute masterpieces out there but, for the most part, it’s hardly great literary worth. (An argument I don’t want to get into here but nearly saw me majorly fall out with one of my university flatmates.) Most graphic novels do centre on the graphics themselves and Through the Woods is no different. The illustrations are the one thing that brings this book up from being dreadful. There are some truly wonderful and chilling graphics accompanying the stories. Yes, a lot of the time they’re quite childish but it is intended for a younger audience. However, there are a lot of great subtle moments to pick up on.
But I don’t think it’s enough to make this a compelling read. On a positive note it only took me 45 minutes to read but, on a negative note, it only took me 45 minutes to read. There is nothing to really engage with outside of the pictures which means, for me, this is a glorified picture book. And, as a 30-year-old, I expect more from my literature. Of course, it doesn’t seem fair to review this from my perspective and, though I could see the appeal for a younger audience, I still think this is far too restrained. Why give this to a young person to read when they could real genuine brilliance and creepiness in traditional German fairy tales? Heck, even Greek mythology is weirder than this book.