The back cover of Through the Woods claims that it contains five mysterious, spine-tingling stories. Sure, I thought, but really it’s not going to be that scary, right? I expected to feel the small frisson that comes with reading ghost stories and the visual delight of paging through some cool looking art. Pleasant, simple, fun. A nice summer read.
So I put it in my bag and took it to Vermont.
Vermont, in case you were wondering, is full of woods.
Let me properly set the scene here: we’d gone for a weekend to get away from all the hustle and bustle of work and city life. We had not packed our laptops, we did not bring our phone chargers, and each of us brought exactly one book to read (Moss’ was the excellent Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, which I had already read). During the day, we stopped to meet friends for lunch in New Hampshire, and then hiked for four and a half hours in the green mountains, getting back to our car right as the sun was beginning to set. We checked into our hotel, The Vermont Inn, which was lovely and remote, and the sort of independent old inn that has lots of creaky charm in the stairs and floorboards. We ate a lovely dinner in the inn’s restaurant, followed by a delicious dessert cocktail — which tasted like a maple milkshake — in the inn’s bar. We soaked in the inn’s hot tub under the stars. And then we went upstairs, and read our books. Before bed.
The inn was very quiet. Most people had gone to sleep, and I don’t know that it was totally full to begin with. I do know that at least one other group of adults had done a very long bike ride that day and retired for the night before we’d even finished dinner.
I read the stories, one by one. I admired the gorgeous art work, and I felt the expected, small frissons. I thought about how I would talk about Emily Carroll’s knack for seeming like a mix of Kate Beaton and Neil Gaiman, but through some creative alchemy, not at all like a copy of either of those two. I thought about how I would mention the multiple women with agency in these stories, and the way that the lettering seemed as much a part of the artwork as the pictures (you can sample some of the pages here).
Then I got to “The Nesting Place”. This is the last story in the collection, and also the most horrifying of the five. As I began to read it, I could hear the sounds downstairs of the kitchen and bar staff locking up and going home. Then those stopped, and I couldn’t hear any more human sounds outside of our room at all. Somewhere in the course of this, I may have started to hold my breath. My eyes may have grown very round. I may have gone pale. I am not sure exactly what change in my demeanor that caused Moss to look over at me, but when he did, he asked if I was okay; clearly, something seemed off. Then he glanced down at the pages I was reading, and said, “That looks terrifying.”
“It is,” I said. I shuddered, but did not explain the nature of the story to him. Once you know about it, you can’t un-know it, and I thought he might like to be able to sleep in peace. I sat, silent and engrossed, for a few more minutes until I had reached the end of the book. Then I closed it, put it into the bottom of my bag where I wouldn’t be able to see it, and said, “So, since your phone still has some charge left, let’s watch some totally non-scary videos on YouTube.”
Moss, bless him, is very good and patient. He put down his book and took out his phone, and we watched some videos of people walking across Northern England (which we’ll be doing next month). It was all very light and bright and reassuring. But eventually, we had to stop.
We turned out the lights and slipped under the covers. Soon enough Moss was fast asleep. The inn was very quiet. Very, very quiet. I told myself to think about kittens, and not about how the book said that most strange things came from the woods and the inn was right next to the woods. Not about how I could hear every tiny snick and tick and creak of the building — I told myself it was the building, anyway. I told myself these things, and I almost succeeded in believing them. But every time I’d start to drift off, I would snap back into wakefulness, having heard a series of shcks and tlks in the hallway. At one point, I even heard footsteps that paused outside our door, waiting. But whatever it was must have known I was awake, because a moment later the steps retreated, and didn’t come back again. Or maybe that whole interlude was just in my imagination. Yes. That’s probably it.
Because monsters aren’t real. Are they?
And so it was that I did not sleep at all for an entire night, and somehow managed to return from a restorative weekend away even more exhausted than I had been before we left. If you like Kate Beaton and Neil Gaiman, beautiful art, stories that are both dark and humorous, and, most of all, if you like feeling shivery and scared just before bedtime, Through the Woods is for you. Just, maybe don’t take it to a remote country house at the edge of a forest…