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The Crossroads at Midnight

The Crossroads at Midnight is a collection of five creepy short stories written and illustrated by Abby Howard. It is a good introduction for an older YA audience looking for horror graphic novels, who are ready for some gore, but not too much.

The Girl in the Fields

A queer teen is outed when her private online correspondence is read by her conservative parents.  They threaten that their pastor will cure her, and living out in the country, Frankie has nowhere to escape to.  But she seems to strike up a friendship with a neighboring girl who she can’t see because of the tall fence. Determined to meet in person, she climbs over but can’t find her, but unfortunately runs across a farmer who is a religious zealot and who plans to kill her with his tractor. This was a heavy story to start off with, but it had an interesting blend of reality with the unexpected.

Mattress, Used

Christina, a frazzled college student who is crashing in a friend’s apartment snags a used mattress from a city street. Her roommate is rightfully disgusted, as stains are evident. But Christina’s nights become filled with nightmares with a large creature says he wants her flesh. Upon waking she is exhausted, feverish and develops a bad rash. After a horrific long hospital stay in which she loses a lot of skin, she is visited by the creature once she returns home. Is she doomed to lose the rest of her skin? The last panel shows the mattress out on the road again- who’s next???

The Boy From The Sea

Two sisters vacation with their father at a beach, when a strange boy befriends the younger sister. The older sister clues in that the boy means her harm and is on guard to keep her sister safe. But the older sister needs to make a heartbreaking decision when he comes to drag her sister into the ocean. Thirty years pass and another agonizing scene occurs with no recourse.

Our Lake Monster

The naivete of youth! A young teen reminisces about the days in which her family traveled with a lake creature, before a tragedy occurred, putting an end to their side-show income. She believes the lake monster is still kind as it was when it was young and much smaller, and waxes poetic to her little brother about it. She then makes a decision that has terrible consequences for the entire family.

Kindred Spirits

This melancholy story was strangely sweet, although it was the only story that did not include a young character. An older woman Norah who has never married or had children lives out in the country, which is adjacent to a bog. A bog woman mysteriously shows up at her doorstep and believe it or not, the two women strike up a friendship of sorts. Two other voiceless bog women join them, and Norah researches who they might have been in the past and the circumstances of their death. Later, after rejection after rejection by the townspeople during her time of need, she makes a decision that brings her peace.

Howard’s black and white art was powerful. Her crosshatching of shadows and effective use of white vs black gutters to hint at the changing tone was spot-on. Her art reminded me of Junito Ito’s work- both in style and substance. Body horror was forefront in most of the narratives, and you need to have a strong suspension of disbelief. These bittersweet tales are a perfect slice-of-life horror.

Thanks to NetGalley for an early online copy. As a teen librarian, I will definitely be buying a copy for my library’s collection!

-Nancy

Rogue Planet

Eight crew on the salvage vessel Cortes track a rogue planet because they believe it to have a large payload. But things don’t go as planned!

The crew members are introduced to the readers as they land on this unknown planet, with five crew venturing out to discover the never named payload. They immediately discover a graveyard of space ships that crash-landed, but that does not detour them, nor the large blobby creature that had multiple lungs, mouth and teeth that looms above them. Strangely, they keep sauntering along looking for their mythical payload. But soon enough this creature attacks them, picking them off one by one and incorporating them into their mass. When they are down to only three crew of the original eight, they try to leave the planet, but soon join the other crashed ships. An alien race who live on this planet are shown worshipping another life-form, with some sort of Genesis plot and sacrifice rituals. The last survivor finds a remaining humanoid from another ship and his hallucinations seem to tie into what is going on, but then the narrative is bookended by the aliens and their rituals that didn’t make sense to me. 

The art was solid with a good variety of layouts, and it definitely aimed to have an Alien movie vibe. Saying strange creatures are Lovecraftian is an easy way to describe a certain style of art, and it leaned that way but wasn’t quite there. The crew members had a nice diversity to them, and the colors really popped. In fact, my pdf version of this graphic novel was the easiest to read online yet and the colors were vivid, which I so appreciated, as online reading is not my preferred method. 

Cullen Bunn is an established horror writer, with his Harrow County and Bone Parish being among my favorite graphic novel series. However, this stand-alone scifi story didn’t bring it home for me. While it wasn’t bad, it was cliched and somewhat bland. Not a single character stood out, and the ending confused me. However, Bunn is a favored author of mine, and I was glad to get an early look at this book through NetGalley.

-Nancy

Daphne Byrne

This Gothic story is an interesting mix of Rosemary’s Baby meets The Omen!

Set in New York City in 1886, fourteen-year-old Daphne has just lost her father, and her mother is being bamboozled by a spiritualist who has a sinister plan in store for her. A ghostly young man appears to Daphne- and we are never sure of his intents or origins, but his shadowy specter convinces her to explore her inner darkness. Are some of her underworld experiences real or the delusions of a grieving daughter? But she takes her new-found power to help her mother when she is kidnapped by a nefarious cult-like group who wishes her to bear them a child of the Devil. 

The art is a mixed bag. Drawn in a pulp-fiction style, the art veers between cartoony and realistic. There can be detailed panels with cool imagery (look for creepy surprises drawn into some of the backgrounds), but then the faces can be distorted and shown incorrectly. Despite Daphne and some classmates being teens, some shadowing and lines were added to make them look old and haggard. Closeups were nobody’s friend in this book. A late scene of nudity made me chuckle, as I enjoyed seeing how they would draw the bodies to have something always blocking their private parts. The chapter breaks included cover art drawn in a different style that was striking- with the one of Daphne sitting at a graveside being my absolute favorite. 

This story appealed to me more than I thought it would- in one way it was campy, yet I liked the way Daphne gave into her inner demons to utilize them to her benefit. Thank you to NetGalley for giving me an advance online copy of this fourth entry in the Hill House label!

-Nancy

The Dollhouse Family

A dollhouse lures generations of people into its clutches, but why?

In 1979 Britain, Alice mysteriously receives an elaborate old-fashioned dollhouse from a great-aunt that she was unaware of. She loves to play with it and the dollhouse family to escape the abuse that her father is inflicting on her family. With a child’s innocence, she accepts it when the dolls talk to her and is thrilled to use the chant they teach her so she can become small and join them. There is an unusual balance in the house, the dolls seem content yet they are aware there is an evil entity in the house that soon draws Alice in and tries to make a Faustian bargain with her. This is where the plot goes sideways to me- a tragedy befalls Alice and she spends years in a foster home. But as Alice grows up and has a daughter herself, we get odd flashbacks to Ireland in the late 1800s and how a surveyor’s exploration of a cave and his meeting with a succubus lead to the dollhouse. We get the expected fight of good vs evil at the end, but only after the narratives of past and present are confusingly knit together.

The art was good, and I actually found the illustrations portraying the past to be evocatively authentic and more to my liking than the modern-day depictions. I enjoyed the chapter openings that showed creepy dolls that gave a hint of what was to come. Some of the lettering in my online copy was off, such as additional details to the side of the illustrations were covered by the art or so faint as to be unreadable. I would hope in a print edition this would be corrected. 

Despite the strong start with the Hill House label, this third graphic novel isn’t up to snuff. It felt like a mix of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline plus a weak Locke and Key, which Joe Hill wrote.  In fact, Hill’s single-issue Small World was all about a dollhouse, so this felt like a convoluted British knockoff of it. But I still look forward to the last two titles in this label and am glad I was able to read an early copy through NetGalley. 

-Nancy

The Low, Low Woods

The Low, Low Woods is an atmospheric and surreal horror story set in the dying coal town of Shudder-To-Think, Pennsylvania.

Elements of feminism and malevolence come into play, as two young women El and Vee realize something is terribly wrong in their town. Years ago a fire moved underground into the coal mines, forcing their closures and gutting an already fragile economy. In addition, women began to exhibit strange episodes in which they were losing large portions of their memory. When this seems to happen to the two friends on an evening at the movies, they want answers. Readers then discover there is already a layer of magic, as a strange deer/human hybrid is sighted, skinned men are hiding in the woods, and there are rabbits everywhere with human eyes. There is somewhat of a Paper Girls vibe in this story, further supported that El and Vee ride their bikes everywhere, but late in the story the narrative takes a sharp and confusing turn. A witch who is trying to combat the cruelty of the men in the region, as previous sexual assaults are implied in the story but not seen, but her spells don’t always work the way she intended. The remainder of the story is the young women trying to give agency back to the women affected by the dark magic.

The illustrations by artist Dani are dark with a color palette using a lot of black and red. The panels are varied, often with a large picture with smaller ones layered on top with black gutters. But the lines can be imprecise and lacking details. For example, El who is a larger woman is often drawn blocky. But I did appreciate that the various characters were given a diverse look. There was a lot of dialogue and information given in text boxes, with a small font that made reading challenging.

I have read a previous short story, Blur,  by the author Carmen Maria Machado through LeVar Burton Reads, and she is known for her LGTBQ+ storylines in the horror genre. While this story wasn’t exactly to my liking, I like how Hill House Comics is using a variety of authors to reach different audiences. I was pleased to receive an advance copy through NetGalley and I plan on reading more of this label’s graphic novels!

-Nancy

Basketful of Heads

Joe Hill is having a moment. With his Locke & Key series now on Netflix, and his novels and short-story collections in high demand, DC has given him a prestige project, his own label- Hill House Comics. While not all of the graphic novels under this label will be penned by him, this first story is.

Set in September 1983, on Brody Island in Maine, the story establishes an 80s horror flick vibe. June is visiting her boyfriend Liam who is wrapping up his summer job as a deputy before going back to college in the fall. But a prison break (with a homage to Hill’s father Stephen King) puts their reunion in jeopardy. The two head to the police chief’s palatial estate during a growing storm and are amazed by the chief’s Viking artifacts collection. A battle-ax comes in very handy when the convicts land on their doorstep…

There are some twists and turns as to who the convicts are and who they are connected to on the island. As June fights for her life, grabbing the first weapon in sight, the ax’s power manifests in that the decapitated head is still alive and can continue talking. But heads begin to roll (!!) as June tries to find Liam and has to fight off several more criminals. Many secrets of corruption on the island are revealed by these talking heads. A final show-down discloses some heartbreaking truths and June obtains justice for a young woman who had been used and abused that summer.

Artists Leomacs and Riccardo La Bella really captured the era and northeast region well. There were crude jokes with some characters getting an almost Mad magazine type of caricature treatment, especially three times when a character is drawn with two heads as they are reacting to news. I loved the chapter breaks, as June’s basket fills and how the chapter numbers are symbolized. These sight gags, plus others, matched the tone of the narrative and made me laugh.

I enjoyed the dark humor as the horror-aspect of it all was played fast and loose. Thanks to NetGalley for this advance copy, for with this graphic novel as the first in the collection, I am looking forward to the others coming out in the months ahead. Joe Hill, both in graphic novels and books, is now definitely a favored author of mine.

-Nancy

Everything is an Emergency

Everything is an Emergency is a heartfelt graphic novel by Jason Adam Katzenstein that details his life with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Katzenstein’s first memories revolve around some common childhood fears, that his parents were able to manage with typical strategies, but these fears became deeper phobias that took more and more managing to control. At first Katzenstein’s phobias could be explained away, but they soon started taking control of his life and his childhood and teenage years were challenging because of his extreme anxiety. He developed OCD tendencies to cope but then became a slave to them. Eventually, he moved to NYC to work as an artist, but his phobias held him back professionally, romantically and affected his relationships with his family members.

Katzenstein defined himself as a tortured artist, so he resisted taking medicine thinking he wouldn’t be him anymore, and that it could affect his creativity. However, he needed to push through and break the destructive cycles he was in, so he explored exposure therapy and medication. And by doing so he actually opened himself up to new avenues of creativity, as he wasn’t locked into panic attacks and crippling anxiety.

Katzenstein’s artwork in black and white was evocative and surreal at times. Some of his swirling expressive pictures reminded me of New Yorker editorial cartoons, so it was apropos to find out he has had some of his artwork showcased in that magazine. He finds humor in his agony, but it also will give you optimism to see that he has worked through many of his issues and has come out stronger because of it. Thank you to NetGalley for bringing to my attention a graphic novel that addresses mental health issues in a respectful and hopeful way and shows that therapy can be a life-saver.

-Nancy

Spy x Family

Spy x Family by Tatsuya Endo is the first volume in what promises to be an exciting new manga series.

Twilight is a debonair spy who needs to infiltrate an elite school to gain access to a political leader for an important mission. But he needs to gain a wife and child to do so, all within a week. At first, he hopes that just a child will do so he adopts Anya, a darling little girl who turns out to be a telepath, from a sketchy orphanage. He then later needs to convince a woman to masquerade as his wife, and whoops, Yor turns out to be an assassin. But they all have their private motivations in looking like a family, so they go ahead with the ruse of enrolling Anya in this private school and passing the stringent tests to get in. There is the requisite comedy of errors as these three people need to convince others they are authentic, and of course, they begin to bond despite their best of intentions not to.

The art is crisp and attractive, with a nice balance of action sequences and smaller poignant moments. I believe this will be a popular series, as readers will be delighted with Anya and rooting for Twilight and Yor to find a way to truly become a family together with Anya.  In an interesting coincidence, my oldest son who is a huge manga fan discovered this story on his own and ordered himself a book. Typically I am not a manga reader, so it was nice to be able to chat about this book with him.

As I order graphic novels for my library, I plan to order this series once there are three volumes out for my library’s collection. Thanks to NetGalley for an advance online copy, and putting what looks like a promising new manga on my radar.

-Nancy

Something is Killing the Children

Something is Killing the Children– if this title doesn’t grab your attention, I don’t know what will!

In a quiet Wisconsin town, children are disappearing. While most will never come back, a precious few escape and come back with horrifying stories of a monster in the shadows. The townspeople are distraught, so enter Erica Slaughter, who comes to Archer’s Peak ready to kill the monster on hand. This Goth looking Buffy The Vampire Slayer interviews a survivor and heads into the woods to kick some ass.

The world-building is intriguing, as you can’t help but wonder at Erica’s past and her intentions. There are hints that she belongs to a society of monster-killers, each with a small talking talisman- her’s being a purple octopus plushie.  She has quite an interesting look, her side-swept bangs always camouflaging one of her eyes along with what looks to be a glowing implant in the side of her face. She often wears a mask to cover the lower half of her face, with a fang motif, that I have to admit would be a bad-ass print to wear on a facemask nowadays with the pandemic we are in the middle of.

The artwork is definitely atmospheric- gloomy, creepy and bloody. Drawn by Werther Dell’Edera, his work is sketchy and imprecise. There are many closeups of people, and some come off as grotesque with an emphasis on crosshatching to signify lines and shadows. When fighting the monster, the gutters become black, with an even darker color palette. Colorist Miquel Muerto keeps all the colors muted, as to signify the darkness of the narrative.

I’ve heard good buzz on this new series- on Goodreads, on NetGalley and even better the staff at my comic-book store, Graham Crackers, recommended it to me.  It joins some books that have immediately hooked me in: Briggs Land (which Dell’Edera illustrated parts of V2), Locke & Key, Harrow County, Revival and Bone Parish. Thank you to NetGalley for an advance online copy so I could get in on what promises to be an exciting new horror series.

-Nancy

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