Creator Interview: Cullen Bunn on Folklore and Harrow County
Article and interview by Kelly Gaines
It could be said that I have a morbid fascination with witches, ghosts, and old fashioned American folk tales, so when Tony Farina graciously asked me if I would like to appear on his Indie Comics Spotlight podcast and what series I wanted to cover, I practically screamed “HARROW COUNTY” at my computer, and then promptly composed myself and typed a more professional response. Harrow County- the comic that follows two young witches, Emmy and Bernice, on a journey of choice and consequence while beautifully navigating the fault lines that divide who they are and who they are expected to be. Toss in a cast of terrifying and lovable haints (a southern-American folk term for ghosts), and you get the series that kept me awake multiple nights with an equal rush of anticipation and terror.
Written by Cullen Bunn and drawn by Tyler Crook, the series’ deliciously layered elements of horror and personal exploration were far too multi-faceted to cover in one episode. Naturally, we planned a follow-up episode to cover the final four volumes. It was this second episode that caused a genuine scream of excitement when I was told that Tony had booked Mr. Cullen Bunn himself to talk with us. I spent the better part of two weeks coming up with questions, far too many to fit into an hour and a half time slot. Fortunately for us, Cullen Bunn is as nice as he is brilliant and agreed to let me send him all of the questions I didn’t have time to ask. ALL of them. It is with still reverberating excitement that I share Mr. Bunn’s thoughtful answers (and please be advised, there are spoilers ahead).
Cullen Bunn: Definitely stories featuring my own characters, ideas, and worlds. Those will always be more rewarding. And the stories that touch on some emotional point—that make me happy or sad or inspired—as I’m writing them. I like to think that if they make me feel that way, they’ll make the reader feel the same. When a reader tells me they love something I wrote, that it meant something to them... there are few better feelings.
KG: You worked a day job for a long time before becoming a full-time writer. What kept you motivated in that period of your life? Do you have any advice for writers who might be in a similar situation?
CB: There were days when it was really, really tough. I kind of lost the plot a few times. I forgot the end goal. But I always came back to writing. There were many, many days that I doubted I’d ever make a living as a writer. Hell, there still are. I remember being at a book signing with my frequent collaborator Brian Hurtt and the revelation that I’d never be able to be a full-time writer slammed into me. I looked at him and said, “There’s just no way. I’ll never be able to make that work.” Two weeks later, I quit my job and started writing full time. So, I guess my advice would be—don’t let doubt crush you, because there will always be doubt.
KG: The Skinless Boy is one of my favorite characters. Did you always know the backstory that Levi pulls for him, or was it something that developed in your mind throughout the writing process?
CB: I knew bits and pieces of his backstory, but I didn’t have all the details until I wrote that issue. I like to leave room in my planning to surprise myself.
KG: Bernice is really one of the only people in Harrow who tried to give Emmy a chance [[when she was first accused of being the reincarnation of executed witch, Hester Beck]], even when her own father turned on her. That makes Bernice’s decision on how to deal with Emmy so much more emotional. I read it as both of these young women being told that they have to grow up fast and start making big adult decisions when both of them would rather be children singing and carrying on in the woods. What was the driving force behind their friendship and the way their paths develop?
KG: There is such rich folklore in this series. Did your incorporation of different ghosts, ghouls, and methods of witchcraft come more from research, or perhaps from urban legends or stories you grew up with?
CB: The folklore of Harrow is sort of a combination of stories and legends I’ve heard over the years and weird ghoulish tales I just made up myself. Even the older ghost stories I heard or researched were twisted a bit to make them feel a little different.
CB: Snakes were always around when I was growing up. “Snake doctors” [[Dragonflies]] were always flying here and there. My dad told me a story about how he was a boy swimming near the roots of an uprooted tree. Those roots were crawling with Water Moccasins. That ended up in the book to some degree. I used to pick blackberries with my family. Invariably, I would find a Copperhead curled up under the vines and bushes. It became so common, they didn’t even bother me. That ended up in the book to some degree. I was once walking down the road with my brother, and we saw a snake crawling across the road. ACROSS the road! Its head was in the grass on one side. Its tail was in the grass on the other. It was stretched all the way across a two-lane road and still going! My dad did fundraising for churches and fire departments and the like, and one night I accompanied him on a pitch at a church... where they passed poisonous snakes around. And there are so many other stories! So, yeah, snakes were a big part of my life during those days. That helped cement Harrow County in my mind.
KG: Were there any ghosts/ haints or folklore that you really wanted to include but didn’t have room for?
KG: We see this recurring theme of supernatural characters being bound by food throughout the story- Kammi tries to tempt the Abandoned with food, Odessa mentions that the family cannot eat human food because it binds them, and later, the consumption of another member’s flesh binds Emmy to a difficult fate. Once you’re fed, you’re bound. (I’m even thinking in the broader sense of Persephone and Hades or Irish fairy stories), was that theme something you wanted to include in Harrow County from the beginning or did it come up as the story developed?
CB: That wasn’t a theme I set out to explore, but it came up again and again during the writing, so I just went with it. Food surfaces again and again in folk magic and in superstition and in fairy tales, which is where this came from.
KG: We see a lot of fun little folk-magic charms in Mason Hollow. Did you make them up, or were they inspired by something you’ve heard about or researched?
CB: I did quite a bit of research on the Mason Hollow folk magic. I tried to use as much “real world” information as I could find, but I did take quite a few liberties and I invented plenty of charms to suit the purposes of the story.
KG: Luke and Emmy’s little flirtation is adorable for exactly one second, and then it gets dark. Meeting boys is one of the earliest musings we see Emmy brush off when she turns 18 at the beginning of the story. Would you say there was any symbolism in the fact that she finally does talk to a boy just as she’s about to go down a dark path of her own making? It feels almost like a quick glimpse at the normal girl she could have been.
CB: I don’t know that I wrote those scenes with symbolism in mind. At least not consciously. But it’s there for sure. I wanted to show that Emmy might have had a normal life. At the time of writing it, that’s all I had in mind.
KG: Characters like Emmy, Bernice, and even Oddessa, seem forced to make impossible decisions for the good of all that require them to sacrifice their personal feelings, and yet the decisions feel so different coming from Bernice and Emmy when compared to Oddessa. Do you see Oddessa as sympathetic, or just well-disguised evil?
CB: Odessa is such a weird character. She’s a villain, but I always wanted her to be the most (and, really, only) sympathetic member of the Family.
KG: What was that scriptwriting process like for you? By the end of Harrow County, did the writing feel different from a few issues in?
CB: My script format and style changes from issue to issue, but the process I go through is pretty set in stone these days. Typically, I do a high-level outline of the issue, planning out the big beats of the book and how many pages each scene will take. Then, I do another outline where I break down every panel on every page. Then, I write the script. It’s the process that is most comfortable to me.
KG: The Christmas celebration surrounding Old Buck is so spooky. Were there specific old-time holiday traditions you were drawing on there?
CB: Those are real traditions! Maybe I made them a little dark for the sake of the story, but “Old Christmas” and Old Buck are real celebrations. My dad used to give the kids gifts on Old Christmas, saying they were left by Old Buck. The celebrations I mention take place around the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Old Christmas is on January 6th.
KG: Malachi is such a complicated character. Did you approach him with the thought that he would be a sympathetic character, or ultimately too flawed to be redeemable?
CB: For me, Malachi was always meant to be sympathetic, though not necessarily redeemable. He went through horrible changes. He paid a heavy price for his sins. But he was not redeemed. That’s what makes him sympathetic, I think. He knows he’ll never be redeemed, but he keeps on trying.
KG: Emmy finds out that she’s not Hester, but Amaryllis. The revelation changes the whole tone of Emmy’s role in the story- right up until she does the thing that makes Kammi a part of her. Did you always know that, in the end, Emmy would end up taking on qualities of Hester, or were these qualities inevitable simply because she has so much magical ability and power corrupts?
CB: I always wanted to dance along the edge of “will she/won’t she” when it came to becoming Hester. I hint at it in the first story arc and then really lean into it as the story goes along. My hope was that some readers might actually believe that Emmy would become evil by the end of the story.
KG: Does the family know that Emmy is really Amaryllis, or does that fact not matter to them?
CB: While I’m not sure I was thinking too much about it while writing the series, my gut tells me that they knew, which is why they treated Emmy so different than, say, Kammi.
KG: The family is very clear that Kammi is not one of them. Can you elaborate more on why that is and what makes her different from Emmy in their eyes?
CB: To the family, Kammi represents everything they hate. She was out there in the world. She was part of it. She embraced it. She loved it. And the family always felt like they were apart from it all. To them, Kammi represented Hester, who they exiled, and Emmy represented Amaryllis, who they lost.
CB: For me, it was never really about witchcraft as power. It was about the power of taking one’s fate into their own hands. Everyone had a vision for what they wanted (or expected) Emmy to be. A daughter. A witch. Good. Evil. Even Emmy herself had all these weird expectations. And she had to make her own way despite all those ideas.
KG: Even though we can’t hear Harrow County, we can hear it. You play with sound, or lack thereof, flawlessly throughout the series. In some scenes, like when Emmy crosses over the bridge into the woods, the sound effects feel like an indication of a transition between the world of the humans and the world of the haints. Was that an intentional decision on your part to play with the silence of a rural setting?
CB: Absolutely. I often struggle with sound effects and silent panels in comics. I never want to use effects just to use them. I want them to be a big part of the story. Every book I work on, I take a different approach to effects, silence, captions, dialogue. I felt like I got it right with Harrow.
KG: When Emmy is confronted by the ghosts [[of her dead loved ones]], it’s such a heartbreaking scene. At that moment, I almost thought it was a trick by Hester to distract her. Do you think that her Pa and friends were approaching her with love, or was it more of a big “YOU MESSED UP” moment? It’s so jarring that it’s the first time we see Pa and Emmy interact after his death.
CB: In a lot of ways, it was an intervention, I guess. It was done out of love, but it wasn’t an easy conversation. Emmy had always been so casual when it came to ghosts and such. I wanted this to feel unsettling to her, but for reasons other than what you might think.
KG: Do you have a favorite old southern ghost story or haint?
CB: Stories of the Devil’s Tramping Ground and the Maco Light are my favorites from when I was a kid. Of course, the tales my dad used to tell me, some of which I recounted in the back matter of Harrow County, rank pretty high for me.
CB: I don’t know that there were characters I disliked writing. I have favorites. Emmy, Bernice, the Skinless Boy, the Abandoned, Lovey, but I really enjoyed all the characters for different reasons.
KG: What sort of setting did you work in when writing Harrow County? Were there any habits you picked up to keep the inspiration flowing?
CB: Almost every page was written in my office. Typically, I outline sitting in a comfy chair (or at a bar) but the actual scripting took place at my desk. I don’t know that I had any rituals or habits for this book. Sometimes, I would listen the ambient music while writing. The score to Pumpkinhead or Tyler Crook’s own score played quite a bit.
CB: You bet I would! In the fall! Those haints would love me!