Supernatural creatures seem to dominate media attention in cycles. In a matter of 5 years, we’ve seen vampires return to vogue with an oversaturation of vampire themed TV, books, and films that made the blood-sucking motif transition into the trendy and then the passé. At the moment, the zombie craze may just reach a similar oversaturation line, forcing the subgenre to also begin to lose its steam, which means that a new supernatural horror creature can take over. Will we see a return of the werewolf next? Or Frankenstein? If comics continue to influence TV and film and vice versa, then I suspect the new supernatural fixture to capture the terror of the public will be…witches.
Witches? Is there anything new to add to the mythology? Haven’t witches remained in our collective imaginations for hundreds of years? While witches never really disappeared from the horror genre over the years, the last time I can recall witches in the foreground of public attention is in the 1990s, and those witches tended to be more of the sillier, more kid-friendly kind (think Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Hocus Pocus, Halloween Town, and late night episodes of Bewitched on Nick at Nite). Based on the enormous success of Scott Snyder’s Wytches, it looks like the cute witches of the 90s are getting a makeover, one that brings them closer to the primordial connection of witches to the earth and to evil.
Taking a similar approach with the grim, eerie witches of Snyder’s creation, Cullen Bunn, the mind behind the magnificent Western series, Sixth Gun, creates Harrow County, the fictional setting that gives the the series its name and the place destined to feel the influence of Hester, a witch who once healed the citizens of the area with her powers but eventually succumbed to the evil around her and in her inherent power. Though the residents of Harrow County killed Hester, her connection to the earth allows her to live on, particularly through her ability to create humans from elements of the earth, and to carry on her own spirit, she has created Emmy, a child born from a tree. While everyone in Harrow knows about Emmy’s non-human origins, she does not, and on the eve of her eighteenth birthday, when dreams become strange and people begin to gather in the night, Emmy and her powers begin to awaken.
As with any strong horror work, the horror here represents something more universal; in Harrow County, Emmy’s discovery of her power and her attempt to wrangle its darkness symbolize a less supernatural experience almost all of us go through: growth into adulthood. For Emmy, adulthood not only means learning more about life away from the farm she knows but also learning about the forest, all of the Haints (ghosts of wandering spirits who cannot seem to leave the world) who wander there, and the graveness of her powers. Emmy’s struggle to understand the internal and external ambiguities between good and evil in her world exaggerate the belief formation process we experience as we develop as adults and begin to understand that good and evil can be relative rather than exact.
Consequently, while Harrow County certainly exists as a work of the horror genre, it is ultimately a coming of age tale. As a result, the core plot of the series focusing on Emmy’s growth and conflict does not contribute anything particularly groundbreaking and is a tiny bit stale. However, Tyler Crook’s artwork and Cullen Bunn’s imagination for the creatures Emmy encounters strengthens Harrow County and pulls it up from falling into being yet another alternative form of the bildungsroman. In Harrow County, there are uniquely creepy ideas and images. From glowing skeleton ghosts to multi-eyed creatures that look like minotaurs crossed with Giger’s Aliens to a decrepit tree with jaws and crooked teeth to a little boy who can shed his skin and use it as a communication device while the rest of his body travels elsewhere and reports back on any impending danger, the creepy crawlies of Harrow County are the reason to return to this series. Bunn’s ideas for characters capture your fear and dread, and Crook’s illustrations colored with loose and haunting watercolors make them just real enough to be believable but also loose enough to be almost mythical and archetypal.
The first volume of Harrow County, Countless Haints, includes character development sketches as well as the original prose chapters for the story, which Bunn originally intended to publish in parts online. These materials provide an insight into Crook and Bunn’s collaboration and their thought process in creating a complex setting, making the first volume a fun first read but also an enjoyable re-read after getting a better sense of the creators’ thoughts on the world they have created. For someone taking a beginner’s step into contemporary horror comics, Harrow County Countless Haints is a strong candidate as a starter book; it has a balance of horror and non-horror concepts, providing some chills but with the familiarity of a coming of age drama.
Though I prefer Snyder’s take on the witch, Bunn and Crook have undoubtedly created a fascinating, unsettling, and scary world in Harrow County that I hope will get further incorporated into the plot as the series progresses. After the first four issues, Harrow County has promise, but I would like to see it steer away from familiar journey to adulthood devices and move toward exploring the combination of its environmental and external horror with psychological internal horror for Emmy, which will take her character on more uncharted paths. Regardless, if my prediction comes true that witches will soon dominate our television sets and movie screens, I will look forward to seeing a version of Harrow County beyond comicbook pages.
Harrow County Volume One: Countless Haints collects issues 1-4 of the series, which is written by Cullen Bunn and illustrated by Tyler Crook. It is available now via Dark Horse Comics.