“Then It Was Dark” from Peppermint Monster Press is an anthology of true – or at least, true-sounding – horror tales. And while the content is somewhat uneven, there are some scary standouts.
Edited by Sarah Benkin
Written and illustrated by Various
Have you ever seen something you can’t explain? Heard a voice speak a warning to you as you drifted off to sleep? Ever see a strange woman on a long empty road? Ever talk to a serial killer?
From the strange, nighttime experiences of a man deployed in Iraq to the story of a house haunted by a mad Jewish matriarch. From a chaplain’s experience performing an exorcism to the history of spiritualism and a ghost that seems to love LARPs, Then It Was Dark collects a variety of strange experiences from talented and diverse voices.
I’ve covered horror anthologies on this site before, and I keep coming back. There’s a particular feeling to this combination of format and genre that makes it work so well. I think the low page count of each story makes a difference – minimalism is spooky, right? And it’s wonderful to quickly flip from one story to another – to be freaked out from multiple vantage points.
In any case, there’s a good deal of variety here, and no matter how you like your horror, you’ll find something that suits your tastes; from demonic possessions, to LARPing ghosts, to terrifying encounters online. I’ve detailed a few standouts below.
“Hideaway” from Natalie Leif and Kelly Leigh Miller has some lively, cartoonish art and a deeply upsetting moment that immediately gets played off. Describing a farm where a brother and sister keep coming across unusual things, it has a charming, naive look, with smooth lines and washes of grey shading. The pleasant aesthetic, of course, makes the end all the more jarring. I honestly can’t think of any friendly explanation for what the children discover, and I doubt you will either.
“Suffocating” by Morgan Beem has an unusual, almost psychedelic, art style, and follows an unstable narrative that cuts off abruptly. The watercolour washes of grey, as well as the surprising variety of textures, keep the mood soft and ambiguous as a brief, supernatural encounter is laid out for us to interpret. In a few beautifully illustrated pages, we’re made to care for the two characters to the point of worrying about them, which is no mean feat.
“First Call” from Reverend Wesley Sun and Simone Angelini is the story of demonic possession I mentioned above, and is remarkable for being written by someone who’s conducted actual exorcisms – all the while remaining skeptical about the phenomenon. The art is rough and chunky, with a lowbrow vibe, immediately establishing a tense atmosphere, and the layouts manage a high number of panels per page. The story itself is told in grounded fashion, with Sun positing different explanations for what he experienced. Overall, it’s a down-to-earth story that still manages to be scary, as well as genuinely interesting,
“Dark Water” by Carey Pietsch is a light-hearted story that nonetheless gets across heaps of mood and atmosphere. Centering on a benevolent encounter at a summer camp, the ethereal art lays out an idyllic landscape and wholesome campers. The line work is deft, gracefully laying out tangles of seaweed and ripples on the water. The strong sense of place and sinuous layouts make it a quick, pleasant read, as well as the tale that’s most easily called to mind when you close the book.
“I Ain’t Superstitious” from Dirk Manning and Sires Jan Black closes out the collection, and delivers some satisfying scares. A trip to New Orleans, and a tour of supposedly haunted sites, winds up feeling like an actual supernatural experience, and our narrator doesn’t know what to think. Black’s manga-style artwork is crisp and dexterous, making the most of each shiver with strong, dynamic compositions. The lettering is also great, guiding us through a somewhat complex story with ease.
As is to be expected with this kind of collection, some stories have great art and iffy writing, or iffy writing smoothed over by good art. But in most cases, there are bits of concept and structure that make the story enjoyable all the same.
My only real annoyance with this anthology is that a number of the stories deal with sleep paralysis, or phenomena that sound a lot like it. Not to undermine anyone’s experience, but it’s a note hit too frequently, and it takes some fun out of the collection.
It’s always refreshing to read stuff by less established voices in the comics world, and it’s all the better when you come away impressed with what you encounter. As I said, my favourites won’t necessarily be your favourites, but there’s likely something here for everybody. Now, go forth and get spooked.