Dark Horse Comics, 2015-2020
Emmy always knew that the woods surrounding her home crawled with ghosts and monsters. But on the eve of her eighteenth birthday, she learns that she is connected to these creatures--and to the land itself--in a way she never imagined.
Harrow County was a Dark Horse comic series that ran for a total of 32 issues, It told a story that came to a genuine conclusion, rather than merely being discontinued, which makes this a series worth reading in its entirety. It's collected in eight trade paperback volumes, and also in a four-volume Library Edition set. (There is also a two-volume Omnibus set that collects all 32 issues, but without the extras that are found in the TPB and Library Editions.)
Harrow County is a Southern Gothic fairy tale. It's a dark fairy tale that becomes darker as the series goes on, and by the apocalyptic finale, it's almost become the stuff of epic fantasy.
The series had something of a slow start for me, though I appreciated its creepy atmosphere. Its art, entirely done in watercolors, took a while to grow on me, but it really conveyed the eternal late summer of the setting. Harrow County is a rural farming community in some unspecified part of the U.S. in the early 20th century.
Emmy is a teenager who's lived a fairly idyllic life on her Pa's farm. Her mother ran off or something when Emmy was little. ("Or something." Yes, we'll eventually learn more about that.) In the first volume, Countless Haints, we learn that Harrow County is just full of "haints," supernatural ghoulies and ghosties of various sorts. The people of Harrow County fear them, yet seem strangely accepting of their existence.
When Emmy's own father tries to kill her, the whole dark story unfolds. Emmy is actually the reincarnation of Hester Beck, a powerful witch responsible for creating all these haints. She perpetrated a reign of terror until the people of Harrow County shot, stabbed, hanged, and burned her.
As we will learn, in Harrow County, sometimes death doesn't stick.
Emmy decides to use her powers for good, rejecting the idea that she's destined to be like Hester. The people of Harrow County know what she is and fear her accordingly, but it doesn't stop them from running to her for help when they have problems with haints. Or other problems.
In the second volume, we learn that Emmy has a twin sister, Kammi. Yes, an evil twin.
How exactly the twin infants were separated at birth and Kammi got taken off to the big city is not explained, but Kammi arrives in a fancy car with a silent chauffeur, just aching to be reunited with her long-lost sister and to get back to her roots in Harrow County. Emmy is initially thrilled to learn she has a sister, but it soon goes badly. Kammi has Emmy's power, but no compassion or empathy.
Emmy is reluctant to go to war with her sister, but Kammi soon leaves her no choice, and the haints of Harrow County choose sides between them.
Kammi, like Hester, will plague Emmy for the rest of the series no matter how dead she's supposed to be.
In this Southern-fried gothic fairy tale, racial issues are present only in a very subtextual way. Harrow County has a small African-American community, and they have their own "wise woman," Lady Lovey, who was once beloved by everyone but now, like Emmy, is feared and hated for her supernatural powers, even though she uses them to protect her community.
There is never any explicit racial tension in the series. It's just noticeable that whites and blacks live separately, despite all of them being part of Harrow County's saga.
Emmy's friend Bernice takes on greater importance as the series goes on. Initially just Emmy's best friend, Bernice finds out just what Lovey has been doing out in the swamps, and becomes her apprentice and then her successor.
Bernice and Lovey are mortals who have learned some magic. Emmy, however, is something more, and this will eventually come between them, as Bernice becomes more powerful but realizes just what Emmy is capable of, especially if she goes bad.
With the fourth volume, the stakes go up as Emmy is introduced to her family; her real family.
They aren't quite gods. They aren't even truly immortal. They can be killed (as Hester Beck demonstrated). But it can be hard to make them stay dead (as Hester Beck demonstrated).
When Emmy's family gathers to explain her true origins, they offer to instruct her in their ways and tutor her properly. This did not go well when they did it for Hester, and it doesn't go well for Emmy when she realizes what they have in mind for Harrow County. They aren't gods (and one of their problems with Hester was that she wanted to rule Harrow County like a god), but they still treat humans the way gods do, as expendable puppets.
That all happens in the first half of the series, and sets up the second half.
It's a bit of a slow burn. A lot happened in the first half of the series, but initially the main conflict was with Kammi, and then some family drama with these sinister not-gods who showed up out of nowhere. But over time, what writer Cullen Bunn did was create a rich setting with lots of lore we have become familiar with, and a whole slew of minor and major characters, from Emmy's terrible family to the many haints haunting the woods, each of whom has their own story.
And then, in the second half, that cosmology is shaken up some more, as Emmy has to do battle with everyone all over again. Her siblings. Kammi. And eventually, of course, Hester Beck.
The series becomes increasingly bloody. There is a lot of gore and grue as people and haints die, all culminating in a spectacular final battle.
I loved how the series wrapped up, with a finale that ends Emmy's story in a very conclusive way. Cullen Bunn made me care not just about the people, but about a skinless homunculus, a goblin, and a four-eyed bull monster.
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