Author: Cullen Bunn
Artist: Tyler Crook
Genre: Fantasy, Horror
Rating: 14 (age 14 and up)
Harrow County holds a dark secret among its sheltered country denizens. Beneath the roots of a lonely tree, there is a sinister force that lies in wait for its season to terrorize again. A mystical fear seizes the hearts of the residents there. It seems to orbit around an innocent virgin, Emmy, on the eave of her eighteenth birthday. Emmy has powers that are growing inside her as she approaches womanhood. When she looks out of her window, she is drawn to the tree, the woods, and the ghosts that haunt Harrow County. What are they telling her?
Cullen Bunn reminisces about his childhood in rural North Carolina as he brings those old ghost stories to life in this volume. He is no stranger to writing about the paranormal and surreal. He has written The Sixth Gun, The Damned, and The Tooth. He has also written for Marvel and DC Comics on some of their most popular characters, as well as founding Undaunted Press.
Tyler Crook teams up with Bunn to pencil, ink, and color this series. He worked for years making art for sports video games before he went to work for Oni Press on Petrograd. His career took off from there. He has also worked with Bunn in Sixth Gun, a supernatural western. He did the art for Witchfinder, Badblood, and Hell on Earth. You can find a time lapse of him doing the art for this series if you search for it. It is incredible to view the process behind this work.
Violence: This books has gobs of horror violence. A witch is hung and burned, there are animal sacrifice rituals along with panels of stillbirth calves, a bloody child trapped in a tree is curled up like a fetus, a boy sheds his skin and the skin is a haunted talking companion to the protagonist. Fiery skull beings and ghosts arise out of the ground, along with a huge Baphomet (Bull) looking thing that chases down people. A girl is choked (not to death) and magically people are turned to ash piles on the floor. There is also a bloody infant ghost attached to its umbilical cord being led by an out-of-focus dark demon figure through the town. Very scary imagery.
Language: Surprisingly, none.
Sexual Content: N/A
Spiritual Content: There is a member of a cult that believes the witch created people from mud and gave them life and free will. If the events in the comic are accurate, it seems like that is also what the artist and writer are trying to portray as well, making a weird occult religion centered on this one girl.
Drug/Alcohol Abuse: N/A
Positive Content: Pa reads the Bible to his little girl and his actions later show mercy. The protagonist extends a form of forgiveness to her enemies and heals the less fortunate.
Negative Content: It seems like evil is vague, almost non-existent. The characters are led by their own personal motivations and there is hardly any talk about right and wrong. Dark spirits called “haints” assist the protagonist in her journey to “awakening.” I am guessing that the story is anti-Christianity, and may even try to portray the devil as a misunderstood anti-hero.
I did a review on Images’ Injection and dealt with occult subjects there. The truth is we live in a world where the bible says the devil is the prince of the power of the air. That means that if we do not have Christ in us, we can be strongly influenced, even ruled by this powerful fallen archangel. I open with this because I believe this story by Darkhorse should be covered here, even though it seems to follow a young woman, Emmy, who may be possessed by an all-powerful witch.
I want to cover this story because I have hardly read any Darkhorse comics, except maybe dating back to the classic Predator crossovers against Batman. I have heard that Darkhorse puts out great non-superhero stories. I read a few reviews about Cullen County, then read a few pages and was captured right away. Such a compelling tale should get the attention that some Marvel and DC crossovers (quite frankly) shouldn’t get.
Secondly, I want to cover this because I believe the occult, witchcraft, strange pagan religions, and demonic practices exist and are becoming rapidly more prevalent in our society, even placed into a favorable light in pop culture. It is good to be aware of them, appreciate the stories in a non-subjective way, but exercise discernment. Just like movies and music, what we read can ultimately influence our behavior.
So, now that I have scared you off already and declared this a pagan work likening it to the Ouji board (haha) let’s explore Darkhorse Comics’ Cullen County.
We are instantly swept up into a William Faulkner-type backdrop: an isolated country town where everybody has a secret. The trees are twisted around black vines. We overlook a small farm with a few cattle. Tyler Crook’s mesmerizing watercolor techniques brings out the magic properties of the country, merging nature and mysticism. As different as the genres go, I compare some of his work to those big painted classic Calvin and Hobbes panels where the real and imaginary world coexist with each other.
After an intro story where a witch dies, we are introduced to Emmy. She is drawn simplistically but with thought and feeling behind each expression.
She is in her teens, but looks very much like a child, perhaps to show the fairy-tale nature of this series. She is special. Emmy notices “haints” which are spirits (ghosts) who watch her. She is afraid of them, seeing them everywhere. But something frightens her even more than the restless spirits by her bedside.
Emmy gazes out of the window at an old twisted oak that was scarred by a lightning strike some years back. It stands by itself, separate from the bigger, healthier trees in the forest. She has nightmares about that tree. She sees it is a monster and evil is stored up under its roots. In her nightmare, the scar turns into a jagged twisted mouth that calls out to her. She wakes up and she “can almost feel the grit of dirt on her tongue.”
The writer’s words in this series are poetic and haunting. It is like reading something from H. P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe.
Bunn lures us in quietly by giving us quaint images of country roads but then he drops little clues about dark secrets, hidden places, and black rituals. He writes masterfully, but with the fervent imagination of a child lying awake hearing bumps in the night. The script is paced so that he takes ordinary rural objects and gives them a deeper, more ominous meaning. We are never at ease while we follow Emmy’s progressions.
What we find is that Emmy’s dream world and the real world are not that separate at all. The writer employs a magical realism approach here. In the story, we could bump against something in the dark and it could just be an edge of a drawer. Or it could be a raspy boy with no skin crawling along the floors in the living room.
When we find a clearing in the forest it could just be just that. Or it could be an old civil war graveyard concealing a demonic monster accompanied by a gaggle of burning skeletons. Bunn’s world is where anything can happen. His descriptive and emotional writing makes it possible to suspend our disbelief and get chilled to the bone.
He also keeps us uneasy because he does a superb job of foreshadowing throughout. He employs Ernest Hemingway’s “iceberg” theory. This is where the main content lies under the surface. We can only see certain details of the plot. He does this with Emmy, but also with the world as a whole and all of the supporting characters. Nothing is as simplistic as it appears.
For example, in the beginning, Harrow County is a place right out of the Andy Griffith Show. The people are friendly country folks and they all know each other. Emmy is just a girl caught up in her imagination. She believes in the typical rural superstitions. The forest is just a way for her to escape into daydreams. And that old tree on the surface is just that: an old tree.
Only over time, and as the situation demands it, do we see the dark motivations behind these surface objects. We get a feeling that something’s not right, but we don’t understand why exactly. We can’t trust in anyone or anything as a reliable reference in Harrow County.
Because of this reason, Bunn’s characters do not remain static or unchanging. We aren’t sure what their motivations are from one page to the next. A killer in one panel could be a savior later on. A loving father could suddenly become hateful and untrustworthy.
Nature itself changes faces and even the phantoms have their own motivations. With these things in mind, it takes versatility in the art to make these things seem believable to us. That is where Tyler Crook comes in.
As stated above, Crook’s art is Calvin and Hobbes-meets-horror. There is something unsettling about it that keeps us on edge. Painted realism and a cartoon style is weaved in with dark themes like witchcraft and occult rituals.
A witch is burned and we see every orange skin bubble of popping flesh highlighted realistically. The atmosphere remains sooty, expressions in faces blush with true color, ghosts glow in the dark with skeletal features, blood looks genuine as it puddles and stains clothes, and every line the artist draws seems purposeful. There are no crosshatching or intricate pencil tricks; it is done with simplicity, bright colors, and line work.
But behind this simplicity are various themes. Bunn was inspired to write this by delving into his childhood experiences in North Carolina. He splashed in the streams with water moccasins. He walked the railroad tracks in the darkness. He heard ghost stories from his siblings and his imagination went wild. They would serve him well later when he wrote his own stories. In this series he seems to be toying with the idea that the supernatural and the natural world are entwined, and this connection affects everyone in the story.
I tend to agree. In our life, and in Bunn’s fictional world, the spiritual aspects affect the natural world. Sometimes they can be frightening when our mortal selves glimpse that other realm.
It is scary for the people in the story. There are no “nonbelievers” or “skeptics” in Harrow County. They all believe that the witch they burned years back has returned. The same witch that was healing people, practicing black magic in the woods in the form of animal death rituals, has come back to haunt them all.
But the twist here is that Emmy seems likable to us readers. She is imaginative, has healing properties, and wants to do good works with her power. It makes me wonder what is the author going to do next with her? This volume left those questions opened. What is Bunn trying to say to his readers when his protagonist seems to be drawing almost god-like powers from an ancient evil? Is he trying to subvert our Christian worldview or is he going to show that these “powers” cannot be considered good at all, thus not to be toyed with?
Whatever he is trying to say, there were enough enthralling layers in Harrow County to draw me in. It made me want to keep going. I guess if I judged this book by just its cover, the shed skin of a boy peering out of a bureau, I would have never seen Bunn’s brilliance or been acquainted with Crook’s unique style. So I won’t judge Emmy too harshly… yet.
Like Emmy and her cast of characters, there are multiple layers to people. We do not know what work God is performing in the hearts of any person, so we reach out to them with the power of Jesus Christ.
Paul was a murderer before Christ threw him down. David had someone purposefully killed on the front lines after an adulterous affair. Mary Magdalene was full of devils at one point. So Emmy and this book has a chance of redemption and showing that evil has real consequences. Even though I don’t think he’ll go that way at all, I enjoy the complexity behind Harrow County and I cautiously read the next issue.
We are in a war, after all, and there are monstrous things that lurk beneath the surface, buried in the roots.
[amazon template=iframe image&asin=161655780X]
+ Gripping story + Complex character development + Highly believable + Art blends with plot
- Art can be vague at times - The mystery was too soon revealed
The Bottom Line
Fans of creepy suspense, X-Files, the Twilight Zone, and horror that makes you think will enjoy this title. The story is not spoon-fed to us. There are no superhero battles that get in the way of superb storytelling. Pray about it first, then check it out if you get the green light.