Time flies in Shudder-To-Think, Pennsylvania—no, really. El and Octavia wake up in a movie theater with hours inexplicably missing from their lives, and that’s where the weirdness of Hill House Comics’ The Low, Low Woods begins—with skinless men, deer women and plenty of body horror along the way.
Author Carmen Maria Machado (Her Body and Other Parties) talked with DC Nation about exploring “Pennsylvania gothic” horror with two “dirtbag” teens, collaborating with series artist Dani and getting advice on her comic book debut from Joe Hill.
From early in issue #1, the two main characters—El and Octavia—feel very fully realized. How did they develop for you?
I wanted to have two young women, I wanted them to be women of color, I wanted them to be queer, and I wanted them to be the kind of people with whom we’d be really interested in exploring this world. So, you have El, who is a reader and a writer—they’re both sort of dirtbag teens, but she’s especially a dirtbag teen. El’s just being herself, but also has a lot of questions and is trying to aggressively pursue answers to the various mysteries of the place where they live.
Octavia is very cool and analytical and is interested in certain mysteries, but there are others that she wants to leave behind because she just wants to get out of town. They have a different energy, and it was important to me to have that conflict. In many ways they’re compatible and similar, which makes sense because they’re good friends who really love each other, but also there is this tension between them about what to do concerning certain elements of the story.
How do you describe the horror of The Low, Low Woods?
“Pennsylvania Gothic.” Body horror. Environmental horror. (Laughs) I feel like there are a lot of different sub-genres going on.
For the setting, you live in Pennsylvania and grew up there. What was it like to take those personal experiences and shape this heightened setting?
I grew up in the suburbs of Allentown. It was more farmland than in the mountains, but we would drive through Pennsylvania a lot and I would visit different parts of the state. I was always really interested in these old mining towns and these very small communities that had suffered a lot of economic loss and the complicated relationship the state has with things like coal mining and fracking. The cool kids would go to Centralia and take photos of the smoke coming out of the ground—it was very goth, or something. (Laughs)
I liked the idea of setting it in something similar to Centralia, but I also wanted to have flexibility and not stick to exactly that specific timeline and story.
Each Hill House Comics series is set in a different era, and this takes place in the mid-‘90s. How did you land on that time period?
It was an era that I was alive for, but I was not a teenager for. I’ve had to ask some questions on Twitter: “If you were a teen in the ‘90s…” I wanted it to be pre-cell phone, because I feel cell phones take the drama out of certain kinds of narratives.
Since this is your first comic book, what have you learned about how to tell a story—especially a horror story—that’s unique to the medium?
A thing that I discovered when I was working on the first issue was thinking about perspective. In fiction, you tell stories with perspective, but in this, I could have a person talking, and a voice narrating, and a visual perspective. It’s way more complicated, but it also creates a lot more space for the tension of horror. Visually, it gives you even more stuff to think about.
Speaking of visuals, what’s excited you about working with Dani?
It’s been amazing. I can’t draw to save my life, so watching her transform my imagination into these physical images has been really, really incredible. “How does she do that? How is it even possible?”
What does it mean to you that The Low, Low Woods is a part of Hill House Comics?
The really cool part is having a guide like Joe (Hill). Joe is not only brilliant in writing comics, but he’s a lovely, kind, generous human, who just gives really good writing advice. I’ve been overjoyed to have him as a part of this process because he’s done a lot for me and gotten me to think in different ways about what I’m doing. I’m really grateful to him.