When I first received the two titles I was to read, I couldn’t help but wonder how –if at all- they might relate to each other. One was a graphic novel collection of short stories, the other a hefty tome (containing two stories for the price of one) that might do double-duty as gym equipment or a barricade in the (inevitable) zombie apocalypse. But I plunged in with an open mind and found that, besides getting more than one story out of each, both titles had their fair share of intense moments that left me wanting to know more but gleefully afraid to turn the page for fear of what I’d find.
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll brings together a collection of spine-tingling stories that harken back to the macabre fairy tales of the pre-Disney long ago. Nestled within the pages are five short horror stories, related by the terror invoked in us by things that go bump in the night and the horrific possibilities of gnarled and twisted woods: a father who disappears within them, leaving his three daughters to survive on their own; a woman chased into them so that she may avoid the terrors of her home; a brother killed within them out of jealousy; a thoughtless joke, discussed inside them, turned haunting; and a nesting place for the creatures of your nightmares. Borrowing hints and elements from such classics as Bluebeard and Little Red Riding Hood, Carroll rather deftly combines vintage images with modern stories that have a feeling of timelessness. As I was working my way through the stories, I was filled with an unending sense of dread and despair; in my heart of hearts, I knew, as in old-school fairy tales, there would be no happy endings within these pages. The imagery itself is at times striking with its highly contrasting black and white with streaks of red – weaving blood and gore throughout the stories- while managing to effectively use soft, smoky styles to contrast with the sharpness of the violence. With all that said, if there is a weakness to be found in this collection, it was that I had to read it in multiple sittings to avoid the feeling of sameness and the occasional predictability of the stories.
The story told in Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds is two-fold: first there’s the story of Darcy Patel, a newly-signed 18 year-old author desperate to prove herself as a “real” writer in New York City, and then there is the story –as written by Darcy for NaNoWriMo- of Lizzie Scofield, the 17 year-old lone survivor of a terrorist attack. After Lizzie wills herself to appear dead in order to escape execution by the terrorists, she finds herself crossed over to the underworld where she meets the smoking hot Yamaraj and begins her transformation into a psychopomp. Did you get all that? Good. The two stories are artfully woven together by Westerfeld, told in alternating chapters that do a surprisingly good job of complementing each other rather than clashing the way one might expect such different stories to do. Coming in at a total of 599 pages, Afterworlds both looks and feels daunting until you start reading it; once you’re in, the pages practically turn themselves in this realistic meets paranormal romance YA novel. Not to be outdone by Through the Woods, Afterworlds has at least a few scenes that are sure to make even the most stoic reader think twice about dangling body parts over the edge of their bed at night. Darcy’s insecurity can be a bit much at times and Lizzie’s relationship with Yamaraj comes across as suffering from an acute case of insta-love, but when all is said and done, I could not stop reading because I had to know how things would resolve themselves, particularly where Lizzie was involved.
Call it a case of growing up in an era of “Happily ever after”s, but ultimately, it was the moments of happiness in Afterworlds that won me over. The unwavering, leaden dread that sat heavy in the pit of my stomach while reading Through the Woods simply did not provide enough variety and thus did not evoke a strong range of emotions or reactions within me. The highs and lows, the build-up of suspense and the quiet relief of crises averted in Afterworlds made it seem as though it literally and figuratively has more to offer.
Winner: Afterworlds by Scott Westefeld