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Fall is almost here, and with it comes shorter days, colder nights and, of course, changing leaves. The arrival of autumn is, for horror fans, a particularly special time because it brings with it the sense of a darker, slightly more mysterious world that presents the perfect environment for scary stories. It's in that spirit that Vault Comics rolls out its Nightfall imprint each year, and this year's Nightfall titles are kicking off in spectacular fashion next month with The Autumnal, a new horror series that takes one of the most iconic aspects of fall — leaves blanketing the ground — and twists it into something terrifying.
The Autumnal marks the comics writing debut of Daniel Kraus, the acclaimed novelist behind titles like Rotters, The Living Dead, The Shape of Water, and much more. Together with artist Chris Shehan, colorist Jason Wordie, and letterer Jim Campbell, Kraus has set out to weave a spooky tale unlike anything else in his career so far, one in which the leaves themselves are a pathway for monsters, and a trail pointing back to a small New England town's dark secrets. Today, SYFY WIRE is pleased to reveal an exclusive first look at this creepy new comic in the gallery below, along with a commentary from Kraus and Shehan on how this dark fall tale came together.
According to Kraus, The Autumnal began with a conversation that morphed into an idea for a kind of horror creature unlike anything he'd written about before. Though he'd never written comics before, as the idea began to take shape the desire to do something "very visual" with it, beyond the scope of prose, was too good of an opportunity to pass up. That made comics the right venue for the concept, which began with a very simple, very creepy idea that stuck in Kraus' head long enough to grow into a story.
"Like a lot of my ideas, it came from a really random seed of an idea," Kraus explained. "I was talking to some friends. We were talking about books. I don't remember exactly what led to it, but suddenly I had this idea of leaves being stepping stones. Immediately, I thought, 'Oh, that’s kind of cool. I haven’t seen that.' And I thought of a patch of woods or how some sort of dark force might be able to use the leaves as one might use rocks across a stream, and the idea of having to keep leaves away from your house as if they were something dangerous. So, I had that idea and I sat with it for a few years, as is typical for me. Sometimes I sit with my ideas for decades. So, that’s where it started. It started with the idea of the small town and something in the woods."
That small town is the seemingly idyllic Comfort Notch, New Hampshire, a quaint but oddly standoffish place that is, like much of New England, a great spot to see all the colors of fall foliage as the leaves begin to change each year. Unlike some of those other towns, though, Comfort Notch is hiding something, a secret that makes even the friendliest local a little anxious when out-of-towners start to mess with the leaves. For Shehan, it was the sense of tension, of secretive dread, that really appealed to him about the project, even beyond the more monstrous aspects.
"I think drawing something that’s scary looking is the easy part, and there’s plenty of terrifying imagery to come," Shehan said. "What’s special about The Autumnal, though, is a lot of the horror comes in the form of the tension and dissonance between our main characters and the town of Comfort Notch. They’re square pegs in a round hole and I want readers to feel that discomfort and horror just as much as they do when they see the really spooky stuff later on."
Those square pegs Shehan's talking about are single mother Kat and her precocious, energetic daughter Sybil, and they're the characters through which The Autumnal's spooky tale begins to take shape. After struggling through life in Chicago, Kat gets word that her estranged mother — an apparently notorious resident of Comfort Notch — has died, giving Kat both an inheritance and a potential way out of her dead-end big city life. When mother and daughter arrive, though, they find townspeople who are both mysteriously eager to keep them away from the leaves and somewhat unwilling to engage with them in other ways.
"I think there’s something creepy about small towns," Kraus, who grew up in a small town in Iowa, noted. "That’s not coming from a city guy; it’s coming from someone who grew up there. I always think about speeding by small towns on interstates. You pass those towns in a second, but you never really have any idea what’s going on there inside all those houses and community halls. They seem like their own little worlds and universes that are total mysteries to outsiders."
Within that contained little universe of the small town that is Comfort Notch, Kraus sought to do something he'd never really attempted in his fiction before: Craft a horrifying, iconic monster unlike the sympathetic, often human creations of his other horror tales.
"Those few times where there have been actual monsters [in my work], they have been sympathetic monsters, like The Shape of Water or even The Living Dead, my new book with George Romero. Really, once you get into it, you realize that the reader’s sympathy is being directed towards the zombies, actually, not the people," Kraus said. "So, despite all the stuff I had written, I had never really written a scary monster, just a straight-up monster. And of course I think any horror writer worth their salt sort of dreams of coming up with the next whatever-it-is, Freddy Krueger or anything, just one of those iconic, evil beings. This was sort of me taking a shot at one of those things for no better reason than it just sounded fun, you know? I just wanted to just give it a shot and see if I could come up with something that felt iconic. And again, that really made me look towards comics, because so much of those iconic monsters that you think of come from visual media."
Though crafting a new iconic monster was certainly a lure for Shehan, he noted the key draw of The Autumnal — beyond the prospect of doing a horror book with Kraus — was not the chance to design a monster, but the chance to breathe life into the human characters at the core of the story.
"The Autumnal has two very strong, very smart female protagonists," Shehan said of Kat and Sybil. "In my new comics career, I’ve mostly drawn books with male leads, but as someone who has so many powerful women in my life, showing powerful women is something that’s important to me."
Reflecting on seeing Shehan's art for the series for the first time, Kraus also noted his co-creator's attention to character detail beyond the book's overt horror elements. Though we're all eager to see the monster in The Autumnal, this is Kat and Sybil's story.
"I knew from Chris’s initial sketches that he had a really good sense of the main characters. There wasn’t a lot of wandering around trying to find the right look for them. I had done my best to describe them, but right off the bat he had them perfectly captured. You know, he brought a sort of a realism to it that was a bit grittier than I had expected, and I totally love that," Kraus said. "This was always intended to be sort of like a mature piece. There is not a lot of romping going on around here on The Autumnal, not a lot of shoot-‘em-ups or anything like that. It was supposed to be a slow-burn, creepy, insidious type of horror. I think he has met that challenge perfectly, because it is a challenge. A slow burn is a certain type of challenge. It’s a challenge to write, and I think it’s a challenge to illustrate."
The slow burn of The Autumnal is set to unfold over the course of eight issues, as Kat and Sybil dig deeper into the past of Comfort Notch, what really happened with Kat's estranged mother, and what their place in the oncoming horror is. The scares are certainly there, and more of them will come beyond the upcoming first issue, but for Kraus, the key to the series remains his core characters: A mother and daughter trying to process the unfolding terror and what it means for each of them.
"I just had a sense of, 'If I want to go into this woodsy small town, I want to bust into it with a savvy city person,' in the same way that you have got Sergeant Howie busting into Summerisle in The Wicker Man. So, that was sort of step one. Then the more I thought about the story, once I started plotting that out, I realized that it would have to do a lot with kids. Then things started falling into place. There was, 'All right, Kat has a mother. She’s a mother.' And I liked the idea of the father of Sybil not being important at all, like there’s no secret lineage thing I’m playing with here. He is just not in the picture," Kraus explained.
"I just wanted to do a portrait of a strong single mother, but not strong in the sense that she is some superhero. She is flailing around to some degree. From scene one, she is kind of failing. She has had a lot of her own trauma and her own struggles, and she is just someone who can fly by the seat of her pants, and this opportunity rises up and she has got this place to stay, maybe, halfway across the country, and she just takes it. So, I liked the idea of that character, and I liked the idea of watching a child process a mother like that and figure out what parts of them are worth emulating, what parts are maybe not so good. I have rarely written two characters who I just like so much. I just really, really have great affection for both of them, which of course makes everything that is to come all the more painful."
The Autumnal debuts September 23 from Vault Comics.