When I was a boy, my Grams used to tell me stories about growing up in rural Kentucky and the old tree in the backyard where spirits would gather and wait for a spectral train that zoomed past her house on tracks half-buried in the dirt and long-since unused. She said that tree had seen more than any person ever could, and when the nights turned chill, she knew the haints were coming, haints being restless spirits who missed their chance to move on and so wandered the earth aimlessly in search of a better place.
It was (mostly) for this reason, and those stories she used to tell, that I picked up Harrow County by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook. My Grams is no longer with us, but seeing this book’s subtitle – Countless Haints – made me pause, smile, and remember.
We don’t really have ancient cities in America, not like they do in Europe and Asia. But we do have ancient places where the trees are old and dense, and the hills and hollers lend themselves quite nicely to horror stories about ghosts and spirits. Bunn and Crook have captured this feeling quite nicely in Harrow County.
When the townsfolk of Harrow County murder a woman accused of witchcraft, she vows with her dying breath to come back, be reborn, and take her vengeance upon them. Emmy knows nothing of this. She is about to turn 18, and all of that happened long ago. Emmy is focused instead on what, if anything, turning 18 means. Will she go off and have adventures? Marry a handsome man and build a life of her own? Or will she simply stay where she is and help her Pa work the family farm far away from town and other people. A farm bordered by an old oak tree, twisted and scarred and all by itself, too. That tree gives Emmy nightmares, although she doesn’t know why, except that it calls to mind haints, those restless spirits endlessly wandering. She’s heard tales about them, and fancies the shadows on the walls could be them, or the ones in the trees, maybe the whispers on the wind. And then strange things begin to happen around the farm; animals dying suddenly and for no apparent reason, and the sickly calf she wants to keep and give a name, is healed by her touch. Her Pa is worried, but doesn’t say anything to her. He can’t be sure, doesn’t want it to be possible, that the witch might have her revenge after all…through Emmy.
Harrow County feels like the kind of ghost story you might tell while sitting around a campfire, surrounded by dark trees with shadows cast by the firelight dancing all around. I like that. The art is different, recalling elements of Tintin though stylized and modern with plenty of details. The faces are evocative and seem to pop off the pages. The story itself pulls you in as you follow Emmy through her coming of age and learning the world around her is far different than she originally thought. The twists and turns keep coming at her, sometimes she handles them well, sometimes she freaks out in the same way any of us would, which helps us as readers identify with her. We’re drawn into her story very quickly, and that’s very well done. She’s a sympathetic character and we want her to be safe.
Based on a novel the author first intended to serialize on his website, the book and story does feel weightier, with a lot of information being condensed within its pages without ever bogging the reader down. I like that, too.
I never found myself clutching a blanket to my face as I would whenever my Grams told stories, but there were several moments when, while reading, the room got a little too still and the shadows on the walls a little too dark.
If you’re looking for something to spook you, consider Harrow County.Patrick Hester is an author, blogger and 2013 Hugo Award Winner for Best Fanzine (Editor - SF Signal), and 2014 Hugo Award Winner for Best Fancast. He lives in Colorado, writes science fiction and fantasy, and can usually be found hanging out on his Twitter feed. His debut novel, Samantha Kane: Into the Fire is forthcoming from WordFire Press. His Functional Nerds and SF Signal weekly podcasts have both been nominated for Parsec awards, and the SF Signal podcast was nominated for a 2012, 2013, and 2014 Hugo Award. In addition to his Kirkus posts, he writes for atfmb.com, SF Signal and Functional Nerds.