Through the Woods

“What a fine night! What a good walk! I knew the wolf wouldn’t find me!”

“Oh, but you must travel through those woods again & again…” said a shadow at the window. “and you must be lucky to avoid the wolf every time…”

“But the wolf…
…the wolf only needs enough luck to find you once.”

Today I’ll be looking at something completely different. I was browsing my local bookstore, on the lookout for something new and exciting. Something extraordinary.
My natural attraction is to middle-sized prose books, but when I came across this collection I knew I had found it.
Something striking.
Something strange.

By god, the cover is gorgeous. I knew I had to get it as soon as I touched it.
It’s a perfect combination of just 3 colours (yes, I know black and white are not technically colours), and the texture is …different. Kinda gritty, but still smooth? Hard to describe, and not what you’d expect. Perfect.
I know we all say “don’t judge a book by its cover”, but when that refers to real books I think it’s something very wrong to say. The cover is designed specifically to reflect the contents of the book, especially so in this case, and a lot of hard work goes into it.

Through the Woods.jpg
So pretty!

This is Through the Woods, a collection of horror shorts renowned comic writer Emily Carroll. She is mainly known for her web comics (“His Face all Red”, which features in this collection, being one of her most famous ones). In 2014 the first collection of her work got published, and in 2015 this gorgeous book made it to us in the UK.

Described by Alison Flood in the Observer as Grimm meets Stephen King, this is probably one of the most “out there” books in my collection. A mix of horror shorts and striking gothic visuals, the main thing that stays with me about these stories is the endings. Some moreso than others, all of these shorts have open endings. The supernatural, fantastical and spooky elements are mostly kept in the dark. The artwork is gorgeous, it’s got a cartoony part to it but feels so slick, and some of the imagery is very … disturbing.

There are 5 stories in this bundle. I won’t go through the stories in any detail, as it would be impossible to talk about them without spoiling anything and the atmosphere depends on the many twists and turns the stories contain. My personal favourites are “Our Neighbours House” and “The Nesting Place”. These stories, like all of them, are true page turners – quite literally so, as every tense moment is set on the right page and only gets its resolution or escalation on the left. The atmosphere is Grimm (hehe) and the creepy parts of these stories are vague and not explained, but not too vague to be gripping. The chills run down your back because it all starts out normal, it feels safe, but the monsters of our childhood dreams creep back into the page. The spooks don’t need to be explained because we already know and fear them, which makes these two tales so effective.

The most famous story in the bundle, “His Face all Red”, is actually my least favourite. The story, like the others, is instantly gripping. It’s format is more appropriate for a webcomic, as it’s not as natural feeling with the flipping of the pages: it’s more appropriate for scrolling down a webpage:

His Face all Red

Also the story is ..alright. It feels shorter than it actually is, and it’s the least scary of the bunch. By no means do I mean to say that this is bad, though! It’s just the one I like the least of them all. But saying that about something in a collection that is so good, is like saying Milka is my least favourite German chocolate. It’s all good, just some are better than others.

The scariest tale I think would have to be the last one, “The Nesting Place”. It is the longest story, and it stays in the realm of the normal the longest too – lulling the reader into a false sense of security. Once everything turns macabre and the terror is revealed, the imagery is so scary that I found myself rereading it several times on the day of purchase, and actually had nightmares. It is hard to describe without giving anything away, so trust me – have a read.

This book is a good example to give to those who say that comics are either for children or geeks. It is so clever and beautiful, and the artist Emily Carroll has so much talent, that it will suade any sceptic.
It may not be for you though.
If you are a bit squeemish, tend to get nightmares or just don’t like scary tales, maybe don’t go for this one.

However, if you like to explore the world of modern fairytales, love comic shorts, or enjoy telling scary stories – or even just feel like seeing true art and craftsmanship – this is the book for you. It will creep you out, make you put the light on before you go into the room, and it will be over way too soon.


 

This collection is not made to be light, smooth, or easy to digest. It is meant to disturb, to break with conventions, and to linger. Because of this, it requires a heavier, smoky tea. The basis should definitely be made up of Lapsang Souchong, which is a little bit bitter and very smoky, as if you’re sitting at a campfire in a dense pine forest. However, as we’re getting closer to Christmas, and the story is more complex than “just” a Lapsang Souchong, I would actually go for a blend with that smoky base.

Luckily I recently had a wee haul at Yumchaa, and I can now combine this read with their limited edition festive tea: Old Fashioned. This blend is made up from Lapsang SouchongKeemun, Orange Peel, Rosemary, Pink Peppercorns and …”Christmas Baubles”…? Besides the prettily decorated glass that’s alledgedly in there, this tea is very warming and comforting. And comfort is something I kind of needed with these stories…

The heavy, smoky scent and surface flavour hits you first with this tea, but when you get past that initial heaviness you reach the soothing fruity notes. And the …Christmas baubles? The flavour gets smoothed out, and becomes more well-rounded.
It’s like sitting by the campfire in a dense, dark pine forest – knowing that you’re safe from the big bad wolf.

Turn down the lights and light some candles, bundle yourself up, and have your Old Fashioned cuppa close to you when you’re reading this spooky, disturbing collection. Through the Woods will spook and challenge you, with Old Fashioned you will be safe…

 

…untill the lights go out…

 

Old Fashioned

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The Sleeper and the Spindle

She wondered how she would feel to be a married woman. It would be the end of her life, she decided, if life was a time of choices. In a week from now, she would have no choices. She would reign over her people. She would have children. Perhaps she would die in childbirth, perhaps she would die as an old woman, or in battle. But the path to her death, heartbeat by heartbeat, would be inevitable.

In this rather unconventional storybook by Neil Gaiman, we get an answer to questions some inquisitive (and tiring) kids may ask after the fairytale: whatever happened after Prince Charming kissed Snow White awake and they rode off to their happily ever after?

We are introduced to Snow White, referred to only as “the queen”. Her ‘ever after’ coincides with Sleeping Beauty’s story, as the sleeping curse starts to spread to the queen’s land. Without second thoughts the queen rides to the Sleeper’s land to try and lift the curse and save her people, all the while trying to figure out what it is she wants to do with her life.

To avoid disappointment, don’t read the next bit if you don’t want any spoilers! The picture marks the next safe non spoiler spot.


 

Sleeping Beauty’s tale got subverted too: when she pricked the spindle she swapped places with the witch, who has been sleeping together with her people, while the aged princess can never sleep again. No man has been able to save her for 80 years, and only the queen and the dwarfs ever made it into the castle.

The queen kisses the Sleeper awake and reckognises her for what she is, the witch, and after the witch tries to bargain with her she breaks the curse and the witch is killed. The princess can finally sleep and the queen is left to decide what she wants out of life; to marry and rule her kingdom, or to live life in freedom.

Switching the ugly old witch and the sleeping beauty leads to a very unexpected twist, as beautiful / young equals good and ugly / old equals evil in pretty much all children’s stories.

But mostly it’s so, so very cool to see Snow White choose her own path. Sure, we’re happy for her when Prince Charming lifts her curse and takes her away to get married, but we don’t stop to think if this is actually what she wants. This tale shows us that no, it isn’t. She wants to live a life of her own, making her own choices, and she is willing to risk it all just to be happy.

There are choices, she thought, when she had sat long enough. There are always choices.
She made one.
The queen began to walk, and the dwarfs followed her.
[…]
They walked to the east, all four of them, away from the sunset and the lands they knew, and into the night.


 

The Queen Embarks

This is an adventure story, a modern retelling of a classic fairytale, a book about a kick-ass woman and the choices she must make.

The book is graced by many beautiful black ink drawings and gold highlights, which is reminiscent of classic tales and picture books. The style, however, is quite gothic. Not that there is anything gory or scary, but the detailing and atmosphere has a slight touch of the macabre.

The writing style is gorgeous. None of the characters have a name, and somehow that creates the feel of an epic, mixed with a bedtime story. The sentences and scenes flow beautifully into each other, which unfortunately makes this a short read. Although the ending is very satisfying, it also hurts that it’s over so soon: the sad hallmark of a brilliant novel.

Who is this book for, you may ask? Honestly, I cannot imagine anybody who wouldn’t like it. For readers of all ages and all levels it is an engaging story, for those who like pictures more than words there is wonderful artwork, and for those who love the classics but want more, here is a story that fits with the original but is like nothing you would ever expect.

On top of that, it bears an important and empowering message: no matter the situation, there are always choices.


 

Because this is such a subversive and exciting book, it would be wrong to drink a calming tea with it. The artstyle is too gothic and detailed, and the story too adventurous and unusual. Therefore, I would recommend combining this read with a tea that is quite something else: a Bohea Lapsang. This tea can be a bit hard to find, however, and I ordered mine from the online shop Jing.

Bohea Lapsang is a Chinese tea from the Fujian province, smoked with pine logs. Unlike the Lapsang Souchong, however, the tea is not directly on the fire. Because of this, the smoky flavour stays gentle and the tea easy to drink, not unlike a single malt whisky. It’s very smooth, and the taste evokes the sensation of walking through a pine forest on a golden autumn day and smelling nearby chimneys smoking.

So brace yourself with a steaming cuppa smoky Bohea, and embark on an adventure that will surprise you at every turn with The Sleeper and the Spindle.

Jing Bohea Lapsang

The Tales of Beedle the Bard

In J. K. Rowling’s little book The Tales of Beedle the Bard we are presented with a collection of 5 fairytales set in the Harry Potter universe, each with comments made by Professor Dumbledore. These comments spell out the moral lessons of the tale and provide some “historical” information (all within the HP world). As there are only 5 tales, probably the best way to look at this little bundle is tale by tale.

The Wizard and the Hopping Pot

In this tale a young wizard’s father, who spent his life helping the Muggles in their community with his “magic” pot as a front to his spells, dies and leaves the pot and a single slipper to his son. The son does not want to help Muggles and turns everyone away, causing the pot to take on the ails of the people ignored. The pot follows and torments the son relentlessly, untill he finally helps everyone like his father did, after which the pot puts a slipper on its single foot and walks silently behind him.

In Dumbledore’s notes we are provided with a brief history of shifting attitudes towards Muggles, and it is made clear that in the end of the tale, the young wizard’s conscience awakes and he is changed on a fundamental personal level. This message is undone, however, by the final line of the tale:

But from that day forward, the wizard helped the villagers like his father before him, lest the pot cast off its slipper, and begin to hop once more.

This implies that the wizard only does his good things for fear of punishment, not because he feels it is right to do so.
Although this does negate the intended message, it does provide us with a more interesting question: do our intentions matter when it results in us doing good?

The Fountain of Fair Fortune

In this tale, every year 1 person is selected to fight their way to an enchanted fountain which will bless whoever bathes in it with eternal luck. 3 witches make a pact of going together, and when 1 of them gets selected she drags the other 2 along with her, as well as an accidental knight. There are 3 obstacles on their way, which they must clear with their tears (proof of their dispair), sweat (proof of their labours), and memories (treasure of the past). On their way to the top the witches find their issues resolved, letting the knight bathe in the fountain. Promptly the knight and one of the witches fall in love, and all live happily ever after.

The three witches and the knight set off down the hill together, arm in arm, and all four led long and happy lives, and none of them ever knew or suspected that the Fountain’s waters carried no enchantment at all.

This story is so classic that it is easy to forget that it is set in the HP universe (the same counts for The Three Brothers). The protagonists overcome their struggles of ill health, poverty, and broken heartedness by their struggle to get better: their tears, sweat, and memories of their grief they must offer up in order to move on. This is probably the most important tale in the collection, as it teaches the reader that without any miracle, any magic, you can overcome it: it does get better.

The Warlock’s Hairy Heart

The titular warlock of this tale decides to separate his heart from his body, so as to never be weakened by feelings of love. Eventually he decides he must marry and starts to court a maiden who tells him that he is cold. He shows her his heart, shrivelled and hairy, and she begs him to put it back in. The heart had gone mad as a result of his beastly decision, he kills the maiden for her perfect heart, and dies in the process of replacing his with hers.

The maiden lay dead upon the floor, her breast cut open, and beside her crouched the mad warlock, holding in one bloody hand a great, smooth, shining scarlet heart, which he licked and stroked, vowing to exchange it for his own.

What marks this tale as the weakest one of the collection is the language used. The style Rowling was going for was archaic and courtly, but unfortunately we ended up with a tale using words like “gambolling”, “preening”, “mien”, “mewling”, etc. Most readers will not know what these words mean, which makes it hard to get invested in a tale of only 9 pages long. The tale is also very gruesome and gory, and I would not reccomend it for a young reader anymore than I would Bluebeard.

Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump

The tale of Babbity Rabbitty is very reminiscent of The Emperor’s New Clothes: a king decides he should be the only one with magical powers and prosecutes all witches and wizards, whilst also searching for a private magic tutor. A charlatan with no powers shows up and cons the king, until the king decides that he must prove his powers. In a panic, the charlatan forces a witch, a washerwoman named Babbitty, to help him by performing the spells the king attempts – which she does, until he attempts to raise the dead. The charlatan and the king are exposed, and they attempt to kill the witch in the form of a tree. They fail, and to avoid a curse they attempt to appease the witch:

Babbitty hopped out of the grounds and far away, and ever after a golden statue of the washerwoman stood upon the tree stump, and no witch or wizard was ever persecuted in the kingdom again.

This is a sweet and simple story. It is quite interesting to read The Emperor’s New Clothes from what is essentially the charlatan’s perspective, and seeing Babbitty outwit everyone and save her people is very satisfying. In the given context of the story we also get a bit of history of Muggle-witches/wizards conflict, which is a nice bonus, especially if you skip Dumbledore’s notes.
Overall this quick read is a nice little tale that quickly quenches my HP thirst.

The Tale of the Three Brothers

This is the most famous tale of the lot, having featured in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and it is arguably the best.
3 brothers cheat Death by creating a bridge over a river that was meant to kill them. To “congratulate” them, Death offers each a gift. The first wishes for the most powerful wand in the world (the Elder Wand), the second the power to bring loved ones back from the dead (the Resurrection Stone), and the third something to let him leave unfollowed by Death (the Cloak of Invisibility). The elder 2 brothers perish as a result of their arrogant wishes, but the youngest evades Death until he chooses to pass with him.

And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.

The reason this is the best tale, in my opinion, is because it is the most consistent in style with other fairytales. Its flow is superb, and besides some jading word repetition here and there, the language touches where any other fairytale does. It is written like a classic, which it is supposed to be in the HP universe anyways, and it is deeply intruiging.
The moral is simple: humans cannot escape from Death.


Although this is not a perfect novel, the tales themselves are very charming. I would, however, suggest to either completely remove Dumbledore’s notes, or to edit them down significantly, as they disrupt the flow of the reading. The stories vary a bit in quality, but put together it does feel like I’m reading classic tales from the HP universe, which has been such a significant part of my childhood. And quite frankly, I’m just not ready to let that go.

Collections like these work the best when read before bed, either aloud or to yourself, on a rainy November evening. And lucky us, this November has been quite wet up here in Scotland, so we get to enjoy it to its fullest.
A bedtime read like this calls for a calming tea. Nothing crazy, not too heavy, with a little hint of cardamom and ginger, and a dash of vanilla. Because of this I would recommend Anteaques’ Vanilla Chai. This is a black tea they describe as a traditional masala chai. If you’re up for it, add both milk and sugar for the full chai experience. It is soothing, warming, and perfect for a cold, rainy wintery night.

So curl up on the couch or your bed with a nice warm cup of Vanilla Chai, and once more pretend that our Hogwarts letter got lost in the mail.

Vanilla Chai