The Low, Low Woods
(Hill House Comics and DC, Written by Carmen Maria Machado, Art by DaNi)
“One day, it was just your regular piece-of-shit coal-mining town where people died the way God and the company intended: hacking up pieces of lung or crushed beneath ten tons of rock.”
So we are introduced to Shudder-To-Think, Pennsylvania, a coal-mining company town that’s spent the last hundred years burning from the inside out, and that somehow just won’t realize it’s dead. That is not a metaphor.
Despite what certain chopped-up snake-flags will tell you, there’s always been an understanding that the United States is too big to be one thing, and that the different countries-with-in-a-country all have distinct personalities, histories and ghosts: Southern Gothic stories don’t happen in the same world, much less the same nation, as foggy Northwest Passage mysteries in Oregon, sun-bleached Florida Noir or Midwestern massacre. The last few decades have seen a resurgence in a specific subflavor of these stories dealing with what some would call coal-country, from the massively (and deservedly) popular fictional horror podcast Old Gods of Appalachia, hilarious but heartbreaking novel Meddling Kids and horrifying comic Redfork, to the crumbling smelting-town of Possum Springs in Night In The Woods and going all the way back to a ghost-town full of spectral miners damned to wander beneath the earth for their crimes in an episode of Carnivàle from 2003.
Key to this specific subgenre of Midwestern Gothic are two facts, indisputable and fundamental in the telling of a story in this setting:
The first is that the Appalachian Mountain Range is unbelievably huge, it is the single largest thing on this continent, spanning 21 states and 5 Canadian Provinces, and even as mountains go it is inconceivably, impossibly old; yeah yeah the Grand Canyon is maybe as much as 70 million years old, and that’s cool, but there are caves in the Appalachians that you, a human person, can physically walk into that have been there, in that exact spot, every second of every day since before life existed on this planet. These mountains are a reminder that as a species we are truly in the middle of our first breath; we have no ability to conceive the amounts of time the world actually deals in and as a result we are terrified of these fuckin’ things. That’s why the Rockies, the Cascades, the Superstitions and the Adirondacks, the Sierra Nevadas, those are all friendly mountains; gentle, lightly baked folk-singers write sweet, melancholy songs about those. But the Appalachians are something else entirely, and since you can’t, as a grownup, point to a rock and say ‘THAT BAD ROCK SCARES ME”, we frequently imagine that they hold secrets, that they’re gateways to–or prisons for–things beyond our understanding, because in a very real sense they are.
The second key to understanding Appalachian Gothic is this: the extent to which small mining towns and the generations of American families (mostly poor and many of color) that worked them have been left in absolute ruin by the purpose for which they were created absolutely cannot be overstated. Of course there’s the economic devastation when the single industry around which an entire community’s livelihood depends upon and revolves collapses; the U.S. is littered with the corpses of these towns, abandoned when the coal or the iron or the granite runs out, or else peopled by living ghosts who either couldn’t afford to leave when their host-body died or couldn’t bring themselves to leave the only land their people have ever known. But the blood-cost is arguably higher: black lung (or any number of equivalent industrial diseases), industrial collapses and disasters, natural gas poisonings and fires, catastrophic environmental runoff that poisons the land and the water for the rest of time, the depression, addiction and other mental health issues that accompany all of this and, to top it off, the absolutely brutal retaliation against any attempt to improve on any of it; there’s a reason that the United Mine Workers of America is one of the oldest labor unions in the country, founded after decades of strikebreaking and outright violence and murder against miners who fought for even the most basic rights and protections. All of this to say: the people who work towns like these are trying to get along like anyone else, but the mining itself, the towns and the companies are capital-b Bad, and given the nature of the story may also be that they dug too deep, either in ignorance and greed or, worse (maybe?), trying to Find Something down in the dark of the earth.
All and all and all of this to say that The Low, Low Woods is unique in my experience of Appalachian Gothic stories, because the small, decaying coal-town of Shudder-To-Think is definitely chock fulla naturally-occurring Grade-A weird shit, monsters in the woods, magic-women and skinless men beneath the earth, but none of it is inherently malevolent, and there’s definitely a Company that is extremely willing to write off human life for a profit, but they’re not the bad guys. No, The Low, Low Woods is unique because it deals with the horrific brutality of small, poor, oppressed people turning on one another instead of on the Powers That Be, but more specifically it’s possibly the oldest story in the history of civilization: men discovering something powerful and valuable and actively deciding to turn it away from the common good and weaponize it toward controlling women with violence and imposed silence. It is not my custom to reduce a story to being simply an aspect of its creators, but it is not coincidence that the artist and writer are both kickass dames, one of whom actually grew up in what might as well have been Shudder-To-Think, and are able to bring the darker side of the company town to light.
Here’s the breakdown: it’s the nineties and two best friends, both lesbians teens of color, have no idea how they’re gonna get the fuck out of this town when they graduate. Your English teacher thinks you have enormous talent and should go to college? That’s great, but you’re 17, your dad’s on disability from the mines and your mom’s a waitress. You gonna stay in town and try to scrape out a living? Good luck, the mines caught fire and are burning beneath the streets; sinkholes swallow children and cars alike, and the ground is so hot that snow evaporates the second it hits. And if you stay, and if you can both survive and make a living, something…happens to the women in Shudder-To-Think when they stay here; they get forgetful, and blurry, and start to wander and lose track of themselves. And so we find our heroines as the story begins: waking up from just such a fugue in the movie theatre as the picture ends, aware only that they have no memory of the last two hours, and deciding it’s fucking well time to find out why.
I’m a white cishet dude, which means there’s doubtless a lot about this story that isn’t aimed at me and that I’m not catching, but it seems to me it’s an excellent example of LGBT+ representation because it focuses on two gay girls of color whose characters are informed by those traits, but whose stories aren’t impacted by them any more than they would’ve been if one of them had gone to her boyfriend’s house instead of her girlfriend’s. Personally I think people whose lives are very often in real danger for the crime of being who they are should get to be who they are as loudly and belligerently as they like, but I also understand that many in those communities just want to be allowed to live their human lives without constant focus on what makes them Different in the eyes of others, and this is a fantastic example of how that can be just as effective a storytelling and characterization technique. There’s a trans character! They’re referred to as such exactly once because it bears on how they came to be where they are, and then it’s never mentioned again and the character is still entirely awesome, because they’re an awesome character that’s trans, not the other way around, and for trans people who just want to live life I have to imagine that kind of representation is just as important as the groundbreaking, public kind that’s externally important.
Other symbols and themes that I am qualified to notice are: does the burning coal-mine stretching beneath the ground represent the endless, simmering hatred the patriarchy feels, and its invisibility represent the way our society chooses not to see the damage that silent fire does to real humans every day? Do the half-human monsters in the woods show us what some people have to do themselves in order to survive in a world that doesn’t want them to exist? Are sinkholes that only show up when people are happy representative of the way we have to empty ourselves out and sell pieces of what’s inside in order to have what we want? And the Skinless Men…well, the Skinless Men speak for themselves, although admittedly they mostly go ‘BLARGH!’; we all know this classic way. I’m sure there are a bunch more! Maybe I’ll find them someday.
The Low, Low Woods is not what I expected, and not the story I would’ve told with this setting, and that is a good thing. It’s filled with horrors I didn’t know existed, both mundane and arcane, which make for much more effective storytelling and provides more of what stories are, fundamentally, supposed to do: place us in a new perspective and show us what life is like for people who aren’t necessarily like us, why they’re just as real as we are, and why we need to look at ourselves to see what endangers them instead of at dark, darting shapes in the wood. I mean the shapes are definitely there, they’re just minding their own business and suggest you get your own house in order before you call the cops on theirs. Oh also: one of the girls has a bitchin’ pocketknife named ‘Toldyaso’ that saves their asses more than once, and that is the raddest fucking thing I have ever heard.
Score: 9/10 Bells At Rest, Lambs To The Slaughter.
and I’ve got imitation moonlight