Mr. Vertigo Reviews 85: The Low, Low Woods; The Dollhouse Family; Bitter Root Vol. 1 – Family Business

The Low, Low Woods
Carmen Maria Machado, writer; DaNi, artist; Tamra Bonvillain, colorist
DC Black Label, 2020

This entry in Joe Hill’s Hill House Comics is a strange one. It takes place in a hellscape called Shudder-to-Think, Pennsylvania. The coal mines have been burning underground, calling the setting of the Silent Hill movies to mind. This isn’t quite as apocalyptic, but it’s close. The story opens innocuously enough: two young women awaken in a movie theater, having apparently fallen asleep. But one of them is convinced that something happened to them. Then on the way home they are first attacked by a rabbit, then chased by some sort of mutant deer.

It turns out that memory loss is a common among the women in town. The more the girls investigate what happened to them, the stranger things get. There are the mysterious skinless men, the women who turn into sinkholes, and the town has a witch. When pressed, she reveals the town’s strange history. The water at the old spa induces forgetfulness–a fact that was an open secret among the town’s men. Remembering her own sexual abuse, the witch cast a spell sending all of the men underground. But the spell went wrong, starting the fires. A spell intended to help the women instead turned them into half-things (rabbits, deer, trees, sinkholes).

After a climactic event, the two friends and the witch make up potions to give the remaining women in town a choice: they deliver two potions to each of them, one to remember, and one to forget. So this is a rare horror story that not only explains the source of the horror, but even provides a resolution. But it takes its time getting there, and in the end both the magical water and the witchcraft exceeded the limits of my willing suspension of disbelief.

Despite the admirable focus on women’s rights (and positive LGBTQ portrayal), it didn’t pay off for me. It was certainly not the art’s fault: DaNi and Tamra Bonvillain were effective storytellers, and despite the horror the book has a warm, organic feel. The collection concludes with a lovely collection of Jenny Frison’s variant covers, as well as interviews with writer and artist (including character sketches).

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The Dollhouse Family
M.R. Carey, writer; Peter Gross, layouts; Vince Locke, finishes; Chris Peter, colorist
DC Black Label, 2020

Alice is six years old when she inherits an antique dollhouse from a great aunt no one in her family knew about. The toy has a very complicated history, which we see in glimpses right from the beginning of the story. The narrative really kicks into gear when one of the antique dolls that came with the house speaks to Alice, inviting her in for a visit with the family–and supplying the magic words necessary to shrink her down to doll size.

When she gets older Alice investigates the history of the members of the dollhouse family. It becomes apparent that they were all running from something, and are in the house because of a deal they made with it, something that she has rejected three times over the years. After discovering a mysterious alien metal her ancestor had sought to use to defeat the spirit in the house she hatches a plan–with the help of another opposing entity that had been following her around in the form of a cat.

It turns out that the dollhouse came into existence as a result of the battle between two ancient demonic entities that crashed to earth. This revelation ties together the disparate historical stories that had run through the book. There was obviously some sort of magic behind the dollhouse, but I was expecting something more mysterious. The demonic battle resolves everything (leaving an opening for a sequel with Alice’s daughter), but it’s almost too bizarre to swallow.

It’s still an enjoyable read, which is not surprising given a creative team that is Vertigo in all but name. Carey and Gross co-created The Unwritten, and Gross illustrated Carey’s Lucifer, as well as The Books of Magic. Locke worked on The Sandman and others. So the storytelling has a comfortable old-school feel. The collection concludes with variant covers by Jay Anacleto and Ivan Nunes, as well as Carey’s original pitch for the series and an interview with Carey and Gross.

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Bitter Root Vol. 1: Family Business
David F. Walker, Chuck Brown & Sanford Greene, creators; Rico Renzi & Sanford Greene, color artists; Clayton Cowles, letterer.
Image Comics, 2019

This is a horror story with a difference. On the surface it’s an exciting monster story about the monster-hunting Sangerye family, a Black family based in Harlem who specialize in curing the souls of those infected by hate using conjure roots and herbs. At a deeper level it is rooted in American race relations. If that isn’t obvious when we see the Jinoo revert to white human beings after treatment, there is additional backstory from a cousin in Mississippi.

Another demonic race appears which is even more dangerous: stronger than Jinoo, their condition is also contagious. Even alchemy doesn’t work on them (the story is a mash-up of all sorts of horror tropes). After losing a family member to a mysterious void, the battle seems lost. But reinforcements emerge from the void, including several family members thought dead. It’s a joyful reunion until one of them warns “we have to get ready. Hell is coming.”

Bitter Root is an exciting, action-packed horror tale with a family of protagonists who happen to be Black: that representation alone is remarkable. Walker, Brown and Green created a striking group of characters, distinctive in their speech patterns as well as their physical appearance. Readers who don’t want to consider the deeper implications still get a good read. In addition to including striking alternate covers and character designs the collection concludes with several essays exploring race and horror, rootwork and conjure, folktales, and more. It makes for a deep reed, and feels like homework after the lurid action in the comics. I can’t recall a comparable feeling of manifesto in a comic collection.

About marksullivan5

Freelance Journalist & Musician; Senior Contributor, All About Jazz.com; writing on comics at mrvertigocomics.com & No Flying, No Tights.com
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