The Low Low Woods (2020)
Written by Carmen Maria Machado
Art by Dani
I became familiar with author Carmen Maria Machado from her short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties. It’s a wonderful book of stories that are horror but also a commentary on being a woman. There’s some inventive work going on here, including a mind-blowing story presented as episode recaps of Law & Order: SVU episodes that become a sinister, disturbing & reality-bending tale. When I saw her name attached to a Hill House Comic title, I got pretty excited to see what she had to offer.
Shudder-To-Think, Pennsylvania, has been on fire for decades; a fissure in the ground due to coal mining has left large smoking cracks. Occasionally something emerges, a skinless demon, but they get dispatched pretty quickly. That’s just one of the strange things going on in this small town, the home to teenagers El and Octavia. We meet them when they wake up in a movie theater, experiencing lost time and not knowing why they have mud on their shoes when they had settled in to watch a flick. As the girls investigate further, they uncover dark secrets about their hometown’s history. They experience a rift in their friendship due to a new girlfriend. They also meet a witch stuck as a child who seems to have the answers to everything. And there’s the deer-like centaur that stalks the woods.
Machado delivers a very entertaining and thoughtful mini-series, probably my favorite of the Hill House imprint thus far. The characters have very distinct voices, and it’s clear the author has put a lot of thought into the backstory of this place, revealing what she needs to at the right time and keeping the rest close to the vest. It’s clear from the first chapter that Machado knows the story she is telling and can set up great mysteries. The closing of each issue perfectly baits the reader in for the next and never overpromises or underdelivers. We grow to genuinely care about El and Octavia, but the pacing is always full of momentum, so there’s never exposition bog.
There are decisions made about what to show and what to imply, and I think every one of them is spot on. The story involves sexual assault, and Machado is sensitive enough to not come anywhere close to being exploitative about that subject matter. We cut away when we should, understanding what is happening and knowing it doesn’t need to be on display. Instead, the story grounds itself in the feelings of helplessness victims can be overwhelmed. It’s that adolescent explosion of emotion paired with righteous anger but not knowing how to do anything about it, understanding you are still a child and that your attackers will likely never suffer the consequences you would if you got revenge. I appreciate that Machado left us in a hopeful but still unfulfilled place. It’s rare that anyone gets the satisfaction of seeing karma strike their enemies, and these characters learn how to move past hungering for that.
I have mixed feelings about the art by Dani. Some moments feel rushed and a little too kinetic. However, other scenes are gorgeous and spot on. Dani seems to pull out all the stops in the finale, where we have some of the best pieces in the entire mini-series. A psychedelic element is introduced into the narrative, and it’s sequences involving that where we see the artist’s real strengths. She can paint an incredibly transcendent picture of the experience the girls go through when they ingest this substance.
If all of the Hill House Comics series were as good as this one, I’d be excited for more. I think securing authors of this caliber is what the imprint needs. I’d love to see Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Friday Black) or Nathan Ballingrud (North American Lake Monsters) take a stab at one of these. Like, Machado they are excellent at balancing narrative with subtext and making horror stories that feel elevated beyond just being exploitative.