Middle schoolers Marshall and Grey are walking to school one morning, history projects in hand. Marshall, practical and prudent, has drawn up a poster of Sally-Bea Hurst who, after being accused as a witch, fled Salem to Ander’s Landing, the small New England town they call home. Grey, inquisitive and imaginative, has made an elaborate scale model of the local cemetery, a place that fascinates him and which, much to his best friend’s chagrin, often cuts through as a shortcut to their school. Marshall, ever cautious, opts to go the long way around this time, leaving Grey to walk the graveyard by himself. Distractedly comparing his work to the somber surroundings, Grey trips, his project flying out of his hands and landing at the bottom of what turns out to be a freshly dug grave. His mind jumps to grave robbers at once, and so, wanting to get away, he quickly goes to retrieve his project — only to see it being snatched up by a clawed hand.
Shortly after, Grey starts to get nightly visits from the strange, hissing figure, who seems to be more interested in leaving him lurid, macabre gifts than actually hurting him. Grey and ghoul soon form an unlikely bond that threatens to drag them both down into the deep, dark dwellings of the dead.
The Ghoul Next Door was a tremendously fun read. Equal parts charming and creepy. It’s a balance writer Cullen Bunn knows how to strike well, since he employed a similar tone in Harrow County, an excellent horror comic full to the brim with southern congeniality to go along with its southern gothic spooks. Harrow County is, of course, aimed at an adult audience, so it is decidedly more mature and macabre than this middle grade affair, although that’s not to say the horror aspect of this story was held back in any way. Ghoul Next Door is full of striking, spine-chilling imagery, especially so in its opening segments, which brought to mind other deliciously spooky stories such as Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and more recent efforts like Katherine Arden’s Small Spaces series. Artist Cat Farris does amazing work here, her whimsical, watercolor illustrations making for a clever contrast to the story’s peculiar proceedings, as well as affording it some seriously spectacular atmosphere (her splash pages in particular are beautiful and wonderfully detailed).
It’s an atmosphere I wish could have been carried through to the end, since the final act drops much of the story’s initial spookiness in favor of a more adventurous tone. Still, the ghoulish world that Cunn and Farris have fashioned is fascinating, and I would gladly return to visit its colorful caverns down the line. (There is a sequel that also boasts a playful title — Up to No Ghoul — and it involves vampires. Of course I’ll come back.)