• Harrow County Volume 6: Hedge Magic

    Harrow County Volume 6: Hedge Magic
    Released by: Dark Horse Comics
    Released on: October 11th, 2017.
    Written by: Cullen Bunn
    Illustrated by: Tyler Crook
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    It’s late at night, Emmy is poking about the barn using a lantern to light her way. When she comes across a calf she’s named Shaky she can’t help but notice that the poor thing is trembling. Unsure of what has frightened the animal, she continues to look around. Some odd noises indicate that she might not be alone in there, and this is confirmed when she finds her creature friend Priscilla hiding in the rafters. When Emmy asks her why she was hiding Priscilla tells her that the humans have hired a ‘hunter’ to run her off.

    Emmy requests that Priscilla show her what she’s talking about, but before they can do that she needs to grab something from inside the house. Priscilla waits outside with the lantern, and once Emmy returns they rush over to the Mefford Bros grain silo. There’s no one about but when they head inside they find bear traps set about with strange inscriptions carved into them. When they head outside again, all the other haints from around the woods are waiting there, and the skinless boy tells Emmy that they too believe they are being hunted. They draw her into the woods where one of their own has been murdered, but Priscilla notes that the victim was cruel, would pluck babies from their cribs.

    Emmy starts to wonder if Kammi has anything to do with this but this conversation is cut short when Priscilla hears a scream and runs deeper into the woods. There they find her brothers caught in yet another set of snap traps. They set out to free them, but them Emmy realizes that these creatures were right all along – they’re not alone, and they have been watched.

    Bernice sits in old Lady Lovey’s humble home as the crone lectures her about the evils of the haints in the area. Bernice had defended Emmy to the old woman in the past, but this time it’s a bit different. Bernice tells Lovey that Emmy’s different, she’s not like the woman Lovey squared off against – Hester – but Lovey makes her promise that she’ll protect all of Harrow County from the haints. And if that means one day having to stand against Emmy, so be it.

    Later that night when Bernice finds Emmy out in the woods the conversation is tense. Bernice accuses her of forgetting about the people she had promised to help and tells her that basically she’s picking up her slack. She tells her that people in town aren’t coming to her for help anymore because they’re scared of the haints that Emmy seems to be getting closer to every day. Emmy insists they are harmless but Bernice tells her that the haints she knows about aren’t the only ones around.

    The two girls go for a walk at Bernice’s insistence, where she tells Emmy of a bird like thing that has been active in the area that was a ruthless hunter, feeding on pets and livestock. No one told Emmy about this, but they did tell Bernice, who intends to do something about it. Bernice tells her of other things that the haints have done, how a goblin took three of her cousin’s fingers, how Priscilla and the others will eventually turn nasty. Bernice leads her further into the woods towards an old cabin. The skin in Emmy’s handbag protests as does Priscilla, but she heads in with Bernice to what first seems to just be an empty old house. When Bernice insists Emmy look through a specific keyhole, however, she then sees things differently – there’s a ‘keyhole ghost’ inside, a spirit that’s been trapped in there so long that the only way to see it is to peer through the keyhole of the door it can’t get past.

    The only way to see what the ghost wants is to look through the keyhole from the opposite side. Bernice doesn’t need to do this, Lovey told her this ghost was dangerous and that’s good enough for her. Emmy, however, takes a look and is horrified by what she sees. She agrees to help Bernice put a stop to the ghost’s activity, but it won’t be easy.

    Issue #23 starts off in a rundown old cemetery where a handful of people are listening to the town preacher eulogize Lady Lovey. The preacher asks the attendees why they’re here – Lovey scared people, she was not beloved by the townsfolk. He speculates, out loud, that they’re there to make sure he buries her properly… so that she doesn’t come back. He says that they won’t ever truly be rid of her as long as she is mourned. Some of those in attendance look at Bernice, knowingly.

    With the funeral over, one man even spits on Lovey’s grave. Bernice sees this and opens her mouth, she wants the people to know the truth, that they were wrong about Lady Lovey. No one except for Emmy listens to her. As the crowd heads out of the cemetery, a woman screams – behind them are snakes, scores of them, and they’re moving quickly. Those snakes that Lovey kept in the mason jars in her basement, as a way of protecting the people, they’re free now that she’s passed and these cottonmouths are nasty, servants of the death witch Hester Beck. Emmy tries to cast them out but her powers don’t work on them. Bernice gets physical, grabbing them and kicking them and trying her damnedest to get rid of the fowl things.

    Just then, a horde of dragonflies arrives. In Harrow County dragonflies are referred to as ‘snake doctors’ because if you see a dragonfly then it’s a sure sign that a snake is nearby. Emmy is able to summon all of the dragonflies out of the woods nearby and send them away – the snakes have no choice but to follow. It’s a temporary fix but it’s better than nothing. Bernice knows that the snakes will be back with Lovey gone. Lovey was trying to protect the townsfolk from the haints and from Emmy herself – the tension between these two possibly former friends is pretty thick.

    Bernice, suspicious that her one time best friend had something to do with Lovey’s death, heads through the woods to her late mentor’s rundown cabin. When she arrives she finds a few of the older townsfolk there to pay their respects. Not everyone thought Lovey was a witch after all. Nearby in the woods, Emmy talks to the haints, she wants to know the truth about what happened to Lovey while Bernice enters the old home and finds a woman waiting for her.

    Emmy’s out in the brush with a few of her haint friends when the rain comes down and the lighting strikes. Bernice is with her, it’s not going well. Frogs are flying all over the place and when one of them hits Emmy’s hand, it burns like acid. Bernice tells her that she brought this upon herself, Emmy just wants to talk things over. One of the haints tries to help by eating a frog, but you can’t eat poison without repercussions. Emmy knows she’s strong enough to use her powers to stop Bernice dead in her tracks right now, but they are – were? – best friends. She doesn’t want to do that.

    The haints, encroach on Bernice but Emmy calls them off and her familiar, the skinless boy, helps her. One of the haints – Priscilla – reminds Emmy that she promised to protect them, and that Bernice has been hunting and killing them but Emmy makes it clear that she will not let friends hurt each other.

    The creatures scurry off into the forest and the dark night, giving Emmy and Bernice a chance to cool down. Emmy makes it clear that she won’t fight Bernice, who responds in kind by running off into the night without saying a word. Emmy things someone has tricked Bernice into thinking that she’s done something she hasn’t, something awful. Shortly after, Emmy goes after Bernice but on the way a force that she cannot see assails her, and before she knows it she’s in the middle of a circle of stones, each one adorned with a drop of her own blood. Emmy realizes that by using her own blood against her Bernice was able to cause her harm, the same blood she spilled when the two of them met the Key Hole Ghost. Bernice appears and confesses to this, and also accuses Emmy or one of her haints of murdering Lovey, her mentor. Bernice tells Emmy to leave, and then Lovey appears…

    A plague of frogs that burn to the touch, a battle between witches, a visit from someone who comes from beyond the grave and a great twist ending that might in hindsight seem inevitable but which still packs a punch – this issue delivers. Not that every issue of Harrow County doesn’t deliver, because so far they all have, but Bunn’s writing has done such a great job of building up character development and backstory and twisting and turning the different plot threads that exist in this story that, well, they’re all working together at this point. The end result is a rich world rooted in folk stories and legend, a story rooted in the south, in small towns, the kind you hear about those old empty houses on the outskirts of town, where that weird old lady used to live all by herself. Like stories handed down to elementary school kids from the middle school kids who heard it from the high school kids who heard it from the college kids who obviously experienced it firsthand (or heard it from their parents), this stuff just gets under your skin. This issue won’t be kind to new readers, it’s not a good jumping on point, but for those who have stuck with Harrow County for a while, well, it doesn’t get much better than this. Add to the insanely good writing the equally insanely good artwork from Tyler Crook and it is, quite frankly, shocking that more people aren’t raving about this book. And a lot of people are, quite rightly, raving about this book, because it’s that damn good.

    In addition to reprinting issues 21 – 24, this collected edition also contains six pages of Tyler Crook’s sketches with commentary from Crook detailing what we’re seeing and putting it into context. There’s also a Harrow County Bestiary in which we get an illustration and accompanying text piece detailing the origins of four different creatures featured in the story – the skinless boy, the tattered skin, woodland ghosts and last but not least, goblins.