Here's a beautiful curio: Frontier, a quarterly series from San Francisco indie comics publisher Youth in Decline. Each issue features a stand-alone work by a single artist. The most recent is "Ann by the Bed," a 32-page comic by Emily Carroll, and it's a powerhouse — a gothic horror story in which a child's what-if scenario becomes a portal to a terror that is all too real.
The set-up is simple: "In the early morning of October 12th, 1934," Carroll tells us, "someone took a hatchet to Ann Herron's room and woke her up with a blow to the head." The killer followed her throughout the house before finishing her off "in the parlour of her family home."
But there are complications: Ann's parents, and her brother, George, have also died in a series of strange accidents. Her sister, Jennie, who survived, may or may not have been engaged in witchcraft. This is the best thing about "Ann by the Bed," which is named for a game kids play to scare themselves — that it raises questions without having, or even trying, to answer them; the whole point is the mystery.
Carroll highlights this by moving back and forth between the saga of the Herron family and its aftermath: two films based on the story, rumors that a pair of girls "who went missing … in May of 1993 played Ann-by-the-Bed before they disappeared."
The effect is that of a contemporary fairy tale, marked by symbols and misdirections. Were the marks found on the floor beneath Ann's body merely scratches, made in her struggle, by the dying woman? Or something more sinister, an invocation, the "sigil of Lucifer"?
The art only enhances this sense of movement, or uncertainty. Some pages work in comics format, with panels that trace a narrative. Others break out of it entirely: a black-and-white floor plan of the house in which Ann was murdered, scarred (or written over) with what appear to be slashes of blood.
Perhaps my favorite spread features an illustrated list of what is needed to play Ann-by-the-Bed — "a woman's glove … a bowl of water … five (5) pins … a small mirror … and (of course) a bed to sleep in" — faced with the full-page image of three girls on a sleepover as they prepare to start the game.
I've not seen Carroll's work before (nor, frankly, heard of her) but this is a powerful and disturbing piece of work.
"Just as there are many people reading these words right now," she writes, in the voice of Ann, "… all thinking they won't dream of me tonight … won't see me standing over them, won't see my face in the darkness … but one of you … one of you will."