An anthology of short horror stories collected and edited (and some even written) by Rachel Deering with collaborations from some of the best horror writers in comics? Well, this is going to be fun!
Written by Various
Illustrated by Various
A monstrous collection of all-new, original terror tales from the darkest and most brilliant minds in comics.
Horror is up there with comedy in how difficult it is to write from an objective point of view. What’s scary to me might not be scary to you, might not be scary to someone else. That makes reviewing horror stories a difficult job. Which is a good thing I have the task of reviewing more than twenty of them in one go, right? This anthology was put together by Rachel Deering as part of a Kickstarter to bring some of comics’ brightest talents to scare the pants off readers with one book of short stories. Now, there are a lot of stories here, this ain’t your daddy’s five-stories-to-an-anthology kind of book, which means this review will be breaking up each story into a paragraph (or two if I get wordy) for itself to talk about it in depth and whether it worked on a technical level. We’re in for a long haul here, folks, but let’s dive into “In The Dark”.
The first story of the anthology, unfortunately, isn’t the best opening. Written by Cullen Bunn and illustrated by Drew Moss, “Murder Farm” is a story where the art vastly outweighs the writing. Not only because of Drew Moss linework, but also because of the colours by Tamra Bonvillain and the letters by Rachel Deering herself. The artwork is purposefully stylised like the printing styles of comics from the 50s and 60s, even going so far as to emulate Ben-Day dots with the colouring and having the colours bleed into the edges of the word balloons. Unfortunately, it’s a definite case of style over substance as Bunn never really manages to match the quality of the art with his writing. The story centres around four kids exploring a haunted farm, but the story never gives us time to care about the kids enough to be scared for them nor does it establish a normality at the beginning of the story to make the scare anything more than “Oh, look, a dead body”. It’s an incredibly stylised story that manages to establish the visual tone of the book and wear its inspirations on it’s sleeve, but never manages to make it up with the writing. It’s disappointing that such a weak story would open the book, even if it is saved from being outright bad thanks to the artwork.
Thankfully, that story is followed up by one that is written with much greater care. “The Unseen“, which is written by Justin Jordan and illustrated by Tyler Jenkins, has a much grander scope with the space it has to tell its story. Jordan takes great care in his writing to create a character that’s the focal point of the story and one the readers care about. When the supernatural element is introduced, which is a highlight of Jenkins’ art in this story, it doesn’t feel abrupt or like it’s breaking the narrative flow. The story earns it’s sad ending by creating a character that you care about even over such a short space of time and then using the supernatural element to create only one possible outcome for the character. Not necessarily scary for my tastes, but definitely well written on Jordan’s part. However, this isn’t the best work from Tyler Jenkins. The pencils and inks are scratchy and unfocused taking away from the level of care in the storytelling. The colour work from Kelly Fitzpatrick really goes a long way to try and save the story, though, as the use of changing gradients when the supernatural element is introduced creates a means of storytelling in the colour and shows it as a key factor in the story. A definite step up from the first story in terms of writing, but an unfortunate step down in terms artwork despite the effort on Kelly Fitzpatrick’s part.
The next story is perhaps the first for the anthology to really work in terms of both writing and artwork. This is the first of two stories written by Rachel Deering and this one, titled “Famine’s Shadow“, is drawn by Christine Larsen. The most striking part of this story is the art, which marries simplistic character work with impressive environment details which works thanks to Larsen’s use of cross-hatched shadows. The shadows naturally create oppressive borders around the panels, which ties into the claustrophobic feel of Deering’s writing, but the cross-hatching technique doesn’t sacrifice colour to create that effect. Deering’s writing, much like Jordan’s in the previous story, spends time with the character of the story well before introducing the horror element of the story. It almost lulls the reader into a false sense of security and, just when they think they are safe, Deering pulls the rug out from under them to show just how horrific this story is. This is a truly horrific story told incredibly well by Deering who almost makes the reader a participant in their choice to continue reading. It really wouldn’t be the same without Larsen’s art, which ably creates an incredibly claustrophobic atmosphere that keeps even the most peaceful parts of the story tense. This is the first story of the book to really work on both a writing and artwork level.Continued below
Then there is a definite change in pace with “The Guilloteens” by writers Michael Moreci and Steve Seeley and artist Christian Wildgoose. A story that opts for something closer to a horror-tinged action/adventure than a straight horror, this one definitely goes a long way to break up the repetition of stories for something more light hearted. That isn’t to say it isn’t incredibly violent, mind you, as Wildgoose teams up with “Luther Strode” colourist Felipe Sobreiro to bring as much blood to the action as possible. The thing that makes this story stand out is that it’s simply fun. While a lot of the stories in this collection opt for very oppressive atmospheres, this ends up closer in tone to something like Shaun Of The Dead; it stand out for being funny, but manages to stand up shoulder-to-shoulder with the best this book has to offer. If there was only one complaint I had with this story is that this story could easily support a comic by itself and needed even more space to run with the idea. A definite highlight and a great measure in experimentation with the genre.
Mike Oliveri and Mike Henderson bring things down a notch for the most part with the next story, “All Things Through Me“. Opening with a feeling of “Hellblazer” and “Ten Grand”, this occult thriller works because the two Mikes have the faith in the story enough to let it go batshit crazy at the end. Mike Henderson’s art switches from a most naturalistic style to an incredibly violent and thrilling action scene without missing a beat. He also manages to create a genuine scare in a transformation of the character between panels that pulls the rug out from under the reader with a sharp turn in tone that was hard to see coming. This is one of the better stories in the collection thanks to the faith the two Mikes have in their story to let it play out how it does and even give it a heartfelt ending.
You know, the words Steve Niles and “master of horror” kind of go together naturally, don’t they? The next story, written by Niles and illustrated by Damien Worm is titled “When The Rain Comes” and is probably the most effectively scary story of the bunch, for my money, at least. You could almost be forgiven for thinking that Niles was working with Ben Templesmith again on this story as Worm definitely has a similar visual style and makes it work here. The use of colour filters over the pencil work not only creates the look of faded photographs, like looking back on sad memories, but the oppressive use of black in the artwork plays into just how depressing this story is. Niles is at his best here as he simply lays down exactly how the story will play out in the opening pages, but the realisation won’t hit you until you’re already too deep in the story to go back and check. It’s a really simple horror story, not to spoil it too much, but it’s definitely effective thanks to the combined talents of Niles and Worm. These two could really benefit from collaborating more and scaring the pants off of everyone.
That’s followed up by a story from Tim Seeley and Stephen Green, titled “The Body“, which is a mixed bag at best. It’s not bad, per se, and it actually has an amazing last page reveal, but there’s a number of weird details in the story (like a gang that exclusively wears luchador masks and carry katanas) that break the immersion into the horror. Perhaps it was an attempt at a horror comedy story, but the punchline is pure horror and it never felt all that funny. It’s written as if it’s a horror, and written well for the most part, but there are just so many out of place elements that makes getting to the still incredibly well done last page seem rather uneven. It’s not the worst story of the bunch, nor is it the best, despite the effectiveness of the last page.
The next story, though? Now, that’s one worth reading. Titled “The Last Meal“, this one comes from the writer of “High Crimes”, Christopher Sebela, and artist Zack Soto and is probably the most horrific story in the collection for a number of reasons. Based around a rather infamous story of a meal that is an affront to God, this story actually works best thanks to the art from Zack Soto. Soto’s art is actually rather simplistic, employing the use of markers for colours and rather simplistic character work, but the effect is to dull the horrific scenes portrayed. It’s a great juxtaposition that wouldn’t work with any other artist and would possibly be impossible to even look at with any other artist, but thanks to Soto’s art and Sebela’s narration the reader becomes an active participant in the atrocity, filling in the gruesome blanks in their mind as they read. A truly sickening tale that lives up to the promise of horror from two storytellers that have crafted an excellent story that fits the best of their respective talents. Possibly one of the best stories featured in the collection.Continued below
Unfortunately, while “The Last Meal” ranks up as one of the anthologies best stories, “In Plain Sight“, the next story by Tom Taylor and Mark Chater doesn’t quite hit the mark. The art is the most impressive thing about the story, opting for a gritty realism which should go hand in hand with Taylor’s writing of a seemingly mundane detective living a downtrodden life. Unfortunately, instead of creating a horror story that leaves the horror element an unexplained mystery which makes it even more scarier, Taylor creates a story where the plot is an unexplained mystery. Perhaps I missed something in my reading of it that would clarify, but it feels like the story is missing a page or two that would explain what I just read. There’s a difference between Stephen King saying the unexplained mysteries are the ones that stick with us and writing a story that simply makes no sense. An unfortunate low point for the book.
Things pick up here, but only briefly, for a story from James Tynion IV and Eryk Donovan. With the title “Why So Sad?”, this story shows that Tynion really is a rising star comic writer with a lot of untapped potential. Bringing the story back to the time of weird haircuts in high school, this story is a look those kids who don’t know what to do with their feelings or how to express them and the horror of conformity that takes the shape of an actual horror. A true tragedy in the shape of a horror. Or maybe I’m projecting, being one of those kids myself. The artwork for Eryk Donovan is perfectly suited for the story, able to switch to the mundane of a high school corridor to the washed out inks and bright colours that really brings the horror home. Sandwiched between some of the weakest stories of the book, this one has the chance of being overlooked which would be a sure crime.
There are two stories I want to lump together here real quick mostly in the interest in time and the fact that we just crossed two thousand words with that last paragraph. “Not All There” by Duane Swierczynski and Richard P. Clark and “Doc Johnson” by F. Paul Wilson and Matthew Dow Smith are my least favourite stories of the bunch. Technically, there’s not a lot wrong with them in terms of writing or art, but there’s something about them that doesn’t click with me. With “Not All There”, the eventual revelation of what the actual story is about is actually deeply gross to me? The art was a definite stand out for that story, capturing the exploitation/grindhouse feel of the story, but it doesn’t save of it from being creepy on a possibly unintentional level for me. “Doc Johnson”, on the other hand, is just kind of unremarkable. From both the writing and the art, there’s no real element that comes off as scary or even haunting. There’s an eerie atmosphere to the heavily shadowed art, sure, but that’s par for the course with this book. Both stories are definitely not up to the standards of the other stories present in the collection, but both for different reasons. Best to skip these.
“Shadows“, written by Matthew Dow Smith and illustrated by Alison Sampson, actually comes between the last two stories, but it was easier to combine those two and just talk about this one separately because Dow Smith works much better as a writer here. This story is one that is effective because it’s more haunting than it is scary, largely because of Sampson’s incredibly haunting artwork. Sampson, naturally, employs heavy use of shadows that keep the period piece setting always in an air mystery, but the use of a number of vertical panels and the motif of the candle keeps everything feeling at a deep unease. It’s a very haunting effect that works in conjunction with Dow Smith’s very effective and haunting writing. It’s a simple story, but it works and it comes between two stories that are nowhere near as good by comparison.
The next story, this time coming after “Doc Johnson” for those keeping track, comes to us from the writer of the collection’s introduction, Scott Snyder. This one is titled “The One That Got Away” and is illustrated by Nate Powell and is a strange one. For most of the story it feels like it’s not up to Snyder’s calibre of storytelling only to bring it all around at the end. Even then, the story feels slightly uneven as if the ending is only effective because the writing is so broad for most of the story, relying on very obvious exposition instead of atmosphere. It’s unfortunate because Powell delivers atmosphere in spades, making even a basement feel like the scariest place in the world. It might not be Snyder’s best work, but with Powell and Snyder working together it’s still better than most others’ best work.Continued below
Then things get weird. The next few stories start falling into the weird subcategory of genre horror with “Proximity“, by Sean E. Williams and Andy Bellanger, being a sci-fi horror and “The Lost Valley Of The Dead“, by Brian Keene and Tadd Galusha, being a horror western. “Proximity” is at first noticeable for just how different Bellanger’s art is from anything else in the book, channelling more than a little bit of Moebius to showcase alien landscapes and incredibly weird character. However, this story works because as much as alludes to a much wider sci-fi universe, the horror comes from the focus on the isolation of the characters and their actions based on that. It works because it’s a very simple character-driven horror story played against the backdrop of a sci-fi story we will never truly know the scope of. On the other hand, “The Lost Valley Of The Dead” works because it starts as a character-driven horror story with zombies presenting an isolating factor for the characters and then… then it gets weird. Without spoiling it, the writing is incredibly well thought out, playing sci-fi and western elements off of the horror elements of the story and Tadd Galusha’s art is a perfect fit for a grimy horror story with burnt oranges and gore aplenty. These two stories mark some of the most experimental pieces in the collection and they really go a long way in breaking up the flow of the book for the better.
“Set Me Free” is next, from Jody Leheup and Dalibor Talajic, and is another hard one to discuss without spoiling. The story works and it works on a level that whatever you are expecting by the end of the story isn’t what happens. It completely flips expectations, presenting a twist that you never know is coming despite the repeated hints throughout. Not only that, but the ending is much more heartfelt than you would expect from such a horrific ending. Excellent writing that’s bolstered by artwork that plays into the claustrophobic setting of the story, washing the story over with red lighting that haunts the story throughout. A story that surprised in how effective it was.
Then, “The Road To Carson” from Nate Southard and Christian Dibari is another western, but one that’s decidedly less weird than “The Lost Valley Of The Damned”. With incredibly moody art that plays into the grittiness of a western that wouldn’t be out of place in the best “Jonah Hex” stories, this another story that works based on a twist in expectations. Also another story that risks spoiling if talked about, so I’ll just say this a surprisingly well done horror and the only story of it’s kind in the collection.
“Body In Revolt” is the only story in the collection that is written and drawn by the same creator, Thomas Boatwright, and it’s also one of the best stories in the collection. Boatwright portrays a possibly autobiographical cartoonist plagued by a cold that is more sinister than it appears. Boatwright writes to the strength of his artwork which is frantic and manic, showing the crazed and possibly delusional point of view of the character, which a number of tight and uneven causing the eye to move across the page at an equally frantic and uneven pace. Ending on an image that will make you keep a bottle of cough medicine with you at all times, this another highlight of the collection that’s both funny and dreadfully frightening.
The next story is from Ed Brisson and Brian Level, titled “The Cage“, and is incredibly short and sweet, but definitely effective. Less of a horror story and more of a tragedy, Brisson’s story is so based around the ending that it’s impossible to talk about with spoiling. The art, however, isn’t spoilerable other than the fact that is a pitch perfect partner for Brisson’s writing. Level presents very naturalistic environments and bright colours which juxtapose with the tragedy of the story to not overburden the writing and also present the sadness of the story in such a realistic light. Another gem from this collection.
Paul Tobin and Robert Wilson IV follow that up with “The Girl In The Corner” which is a disappointingly bland story. It’s one of the longer stories in the collection and Tobin does an admirable job ramping up tension throughout the story to a crescendo, but, subjective time here, there wasn’t a lot to the story that worked on a horror level. Sure, it’s a rather inventive ghost story, but that’s really the only reason it would stand out and not because of the actual writing of it. Wilson’s art is a good accompaniment to the writing, though, with a Toth-like retro sensibility to the storytelling which is simple, but it works. Not a lot to say about this one, unfortunately, as there’s not a lot to it. Not the worst in the collection, but also not the best.Continued below
Now comes the other Rachel Deering written story, this time with art by Marc Laming and titled “Swan Song“. This is a very different kind of a horror story from “Famine’s Shadow”, showing Deering’s versatility as a writer as she crafts a story sparse with dialogue and built to the strengths of Laming’s storytelling. Laming creates a mostly silent, still and eerie feel to snow-covered woods which, broken by the lone voice of German singing, is haunting more than it is scary, but effective nonetheless.
“Inside You” by Valerie D’Orazio and David James Cole is a story that should work, and does work for the most part, if it weren’t for a twist in the tale that’s both too convenient and yet too contrived at the same time. It’s disappointing because it’s the kind of story that could really explore the real issue of body dysmorphia, but instead ends in an awkward attempted rape, a sudden twist that ruins the story up to that point and the realisation that it was never about that in the first place. Cole’s art is serviceable to the story, but is also a slave to it.
Last, but not least is “Gestation” as written by Marguerite Bennett and illustrated Jonathan Brandon Sawyer. This isn’t the strongest closer the collection could have had. It’s not a bad story, mind you, the writing is actually rather good and shows Bennett’s untapped potential as a writer. With a lot of detail being put into the character writing by Bennett and into the period detail by Sawyer which culminates in a really effective, Cronenbergian body horror scene, this is a good story. However, it’s not so much a strong closer as it is an adequate closer. That’s still better than a bad closer, thought.
Ultimately, the stories contained in “In The Dark” are good more often than they’re bad. There are only a few truly great, worth the price of admission stories, though, making large chunks of the book feeling a little flat. Some stories, sadly, don’t work at all and some stories are victims of being unremarkable stories pushed up to the few great stories in the book. Yet, overall, Rachel Deering has put together a really good horror collection, something that is rarely seen or even celebrated in comics, and that surely counts for something. Along with an impressive pin-up gallery and Mike Howlett’s essay on the history of horror comics, there’s more than enough backmatter to keep one occupied. Perhaps it’s slightly uneven, but when “In The Dark” works it really does collect some amazing contributions to horror comics.
Final Verdict: 8.6 – Especially for fans of horror comics, there should be enough content in here for almost anyone to get some enjoyment from it. “In The Dark” is available for purchase from Amazon.