The Neighbors #1: A Little House in the Woods
It's here! The first issue of The Neighbors, my comic book series with Letizia Cadonici, is in comic stores today. You can also grab it on Google Play and Amazon. The final order cut-off for the next issue is Monday, April 3, so please do put in a request. Thank you, so much, for reading and supporting my work.
It was already the third morning since they had left the father's house. They started walking again, but managed only to go deeper and deeper into the woods. If help did not come soon, they would perish. At midday they saw a little snow-white bird sitting on a branch. It sang so beautifully that they stopped to listen. When it was finished it stretched its wings and flew in front of them. They followed it until they came to a little house. The bird sat on the roof, and when they came closer, they saw that the little house was built entirely from bread with a roof made of cake, and the windows were made of clear sugar.
"Let's help ourselves to a good meal," said Hansel. "I'll eat a piece of the roof, and Gretel, you eat from the window. That will be sweet."
—Hansel and Gretel, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
We learn fear as children. The shapes it takes are simple: Being lost, being eaten, being abandoned by people we depend on, trusting people who mean us harm. The story of Hansel and Gretel starts with two children, awake past bedtime, eavesdropping as their mother convinces their father to kill them. The children journey into the woods; they meet another bad mother, another adult who offers them food and shelter while plotting to destroy them. But, by that point, the real betrayal has already happened. There is a witch in the woods, but there’s a witch at home, too.
The world is full of witches; it is full of adults who hurt and betray children. It’s good for children to know these things, which is why we have stories.
The Neighbors is written in the language of old stories. There’s a house by the woods, and an old woman who offers gifts to children. There’s a family: Mother, father, two kids. There is something bad in the woods. You already know all this; you were a child once, and you were raised on fairy tales. Some part of you still knows how to fear the way a child fears.
It’s been hard for me to talk about The Neighbors in promotional interviews, because it’s a mystery — by the time you reach the last page of the first issue, you’ll have some idea what it’s about, but it’s in my best interest for you not to know until then.
What I can say is that it’s about childhood. I don’t think you can understand just how vulnerable children are until you spend time around them as an adult. I remember being scared of everything, growing up, and my adults always told me that nothing bad was going to happen. As an adult, I know they were lying. The world really is full of things that can maim or poison or kill children; even the most fearful child isn’t really fearful enough. Being new to the world, kids can’t reliably identify a threat. Some of the worst things they have to fear are hidden from them by simple incomprehension.
We all carry around some memory of being small and weak and powerless, of not knowing what was going on or how to protect ourselves. That experience informs our most primal reactions. The one horror movie I can’t watch alone is Poltergeist, and Poltergeist is famous for the fact that no-one actually dies in it — it’s almost completely bloodless, just spooky televisions and skeletons and self-rearranging furniture, but it terrifies me because all those things are seen through the eyes of very small children. A creepy clown doll that moves on its own is just as terrifying as Jason Voorhees or the Babadook. It’s more terrifying, because adults know the Babadook is a metaphor, but kids believe that clown doll might be real.
Addressing the vulnerability of children is addressing the vulnerability of everyone, because we were all children once. No matter how old or wise or tough or cool you are, if someone turns the lights off in a crowded room, you’re five years old, frightened of strangers and the dark.
That child is probably smarter than the adult version of you who knows — or says, anyway — that there’s nothing to be afraid of. A lot of bad things happen under cover of dark, in this world of ours. Not all monsters are metaphors. Not all strangers mean well.
For my last series, Maw, I wrote five essays exploring different characters in the series. This time around, it would be trickier to do that — I might wind up giving something away. What I can do, though, is give you a list of recommendations and influences, pieces of art that impacted the telling of this story in some way.
If you put all these recommendations together, you might get the full picture. Even if not, you might come away with something good to watch or to read when the issue is done.
- Pan’s Labyrinth (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2005): The first time I watched this, I nearly missed the fact that it was about fascism. I was too terrified for the little girl, left alone in a house with a grown-up who didn’t like her. The movie works as horror, fantasy, and political commentary, but del Toro’s uncanny grasp on how childhood actually feels is what makes it so powerful.
- Gretel & Hansel (dir. Oz Perkins, 2020): Someone on Letterboxd said, not wrongly, that if this movie had come out under A24 we’d be having a different conversation about it. Oz Perkins is divisive — I’ve found a lot of his work slow and unrewarding — and the intentionally strange, Guy-Maddin-ish atmosphere of this movie will strike some as precious, but it’s is impressively committed to telling its titular fairy tale straightforwardly, with the violence intact. The witch’s feast, in particular, is terrifying.
- Pyewacket (dir. Adam McDonald, 2017): I love the witchcraft here — blood and milk and red strings tied between trees — but what really makes this one stand out is its insight into teenage anger, and its understanding of how teenagers simultaneously resent, love, hate and need their parents.
- The VVitch (dir. Robert Eggers, 2015): A family, a house, the woods, the rising panic of realizing something out there doesn’t like you. Like Pyewacket, the witchcraft here is bloody and grungy; like Gretel & Hansel, this movie is willing to show someone actually eating a baby. Its biggest influence on The Neighbors is in how it cuts through the corniness of old stories by presenting them in a serious, literal, grounded way, trusting that the people who told them had good reason to fear.
- The Magic Toyshop, Angela Carter. “Fairy tales for adults” can seem like a tired pitch, and that’s because half the people who pitch it are trying to do Angela Carter. Her short story collection, The Bloody Chamber, is more famous, but The Magic Toyshop was the first Carter book I read, and the disquieting mix of fairy-tale tropes with adult sexuality and evil has never left me. I can’t do this, but you should read Carter to see how it’s done.
GROSS FOLKLORE CORNER:
“Hold the snake lightly head downwards, letting it slip quietly from hand to hand as if you were going to let it slide to the ground, but as it slips through the hand, put the back hand rapidly to the front, so that it is continuously slipping head-downwards, through one’s half-closed palms. The snake will gradually grow less and less lively, and when it is quiet, coil it in the palm of one hand with the head resting up the arm towards the crook of the elbow. Breathe on it several times and cover it lightly with your other hand cupped for a moment or two. When you remove your hand the snake will remain perfectly motionless until purposely disturbed.”
— On the creation of a snake familiar. From Catherine Parsons’ Notes on Cambridgeshire Witchcraft, quoted by Nigel G. Pearson in The Devil’s Plantation: East Anglian Lore, Witchcraft & Folk-Magic