When you think of the most unlikely friendships, what comes to mind? Cats and dogs? Wolves and sheep? Well, how about the living and the dead?!
Today, the Beat can exclusively reveal that writer Cullen Bunn (The Sixth Gun, Harrow County) and artist Cat Farris (My Boyfriend is a Bear) have signed a deal with editor Clarissa Wong at HarperCollins Children’s Books to produce The Ghoul Next Door, a graphic novel about the unusual friendship between 11-year-old Grey Brighton and a ghoul named Lavinia. The story summary reads as follows:
THE GHOUL NEXT DOOR is about an 11-year-old boy named Grey Brighton who befriends a ghoul named Lavinia after she helps him with his history project: a map of the cemetery. Lavinia brings him presents that are considerate by ghoul standards (and gruesome by human standards) but when she brings him home to meet the family, Grey is given a choice: become a ghoul himself by eating the dead, or death. Lavinia helps her friend escape only to put them on a collision course with the spirit of a vengeful witch, who holds Lavinia captive unless Grey helps Lavinia still the witch’s mortal remains (which the ghouls have been unwittingly snacking on). Can Grey find the courage to face death in the land of the ghouls to save his friend’s life?
Literary agent Charlie Olsen of InkWell Management negotiated the World English rights deal with HarperCollins for The Ghoul Next Door, which will publish in Summer 2021, as well as an untitled sequel slated for Summer 2022.
Rising from the Grave
When asked how The Ghoul Next Door came together, Bunn said that it all started with his predilection for horror stories (see Harrow County for a prime example of that!). However, Bunn said, “what you might not know is that I’ve always loved horror stories aimed at younger readers. Years ago, I wrote a middle reader horror novel called Crooked Hills, and I just had so much fun with the tone of that book that I was dying to return to that kind of story—something both frightening and fun at the same time.” Bunn had been working on several stories of that nature when Olsen asked him if he thought one of those pitches might be something he could develop with Farris. The idea that would become The Ghoul Next Door “immediately sprang to mind” as he “could so easily envision her bringing these characters and this world to life!”
Both creators expressed a huge amount of respect for one another during our conversation about The Ghoul Next Door, stating that they were “fans” of one another’s work. For her part, Farris said that “Cullen’s initial pitch to me was something that was like the old Goosebumps books, but much darker.” She was immediately on board.
As to what sparked the idea to put Bunn and Farris in touch, Olsen said that “One of the joys of being a literary agent is getting to pair up creative teams. Cullen has a knack for writing books that I need to read with all the lights on, and after seeing some of Cat’s watercolors and her work on My Boyfriend is a Bear with Pamela Ribon, I had a feeling they’d be a good match. About two to three weeks after I put them in touch they’d put together an outline and six pages of color comics that were scary, but also kinda cute.”
And finally, what drew HarperCollins Children’s editor Clarissa Wong to The Ghoul Next Door was “the story’s palpable sense of adventure and how it’s really about an unusual, unlikely friendship that just so happens to also make the most perfect sense.” Wong continued, “I was instantly charmed by Cullen’s fun, fast-paced writing that immediately drew me into Ander’s Landing, and Cat’s bright colorful, watercolor palette that added the right dose of humor and cheer to this spooky story.”
From Bears to Ghouls
As mentioned by Olsen, last year, Cat Farris made waves for her collaboration with writer Pamela Ribon on Oni Press’ My Boyfriend is a Bear. The graphic novel, which tells the Shape of Water-like story of a relationship between a young woman and a bear but, for the most part, sees people accepting the relationship at face value, made waves for its absurd premise and endearing sense of humor. Part of that comes down to Ribon’s talented writing, but another huge portion of what made My Boyfriend is a Bear one of the Beat’s Best Comics of 2018 was Farris’ dynamic and expressive artwork.
When asked about the big jump from bears to ghouls, Farris admitted that the subject leap was “definitely a departure” for her. However, she continued, “working on a horror-type book is something I’ve been wanting for a while. I’ve always been a fan of creepy stuff! I was that kid in elementary school checking out the copy of Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark on a regular basis. There’s something really exhilarating about the supernatural, especially for me as an artist. It’s fun for me to think about creepy things and try to bring them to life.”
Indeed, one of the creepiest things about The Ghoul Next Door might just be Lavinia herself. While the range of visual interpretations of the undead stretches from unknown corporeal shapes hidden under innocuous sheets to rotting flesh dripping off skeletons that defy the laws of physics, what we see of Lavinia in the first pages of The Ghoul Next Door lies somewhere in the middle. Her design shows hints of a desiccated husk lurking in the shadows– the ridges of her spine are better defined than any living person’s. However, at the same time, there’s something earnest and kind lurking behind her eye sockets.
On Lavinia’s design, Farris said that Bunn described the way he imagined the ghouls looked like in an early email exchange between the two of them. From there, Farris dove into her own imagination. She said that Lavinia’s “skeletal look came out of what I thought might make her even more creepy. Lavinia has been hanging out, eating the dead for who knows how many years, so she’s certainly not going to look well-nourished, at least by human standards!”
Additionally, Lavinia’s famished design separates her more clearly from the humans in the story, “especially in silhouette, since she appears like that often at the beginning of the book before her full reveal.”
Bringing Together the Living and the Dead
If you ask Bunn what unites Grey and Lavinia, he’ll tell you that they share a mutually “curious” nature. At the start of the book, Grey finds himself living in Ander’s Landing, a fictional town that has a “deep connection to stories of witchcraft and tales of ghosts and restless spirits.” Grey, who Bunn describes as not only curious but “unafraid,” is “interested in the history and legends of his hometown.” And while his “earliest encounters with Lavinia shake his resolve to some degree, but he’s quick on his feet, adaptable, and open to the idea of giving a new friend—even one as strange as Lavinia—a chance.”
And make no mistake, at the start of their friendship, things are strange. As the story summary indicates, when Lavinia decides to befriend Grey one of the first things she does is leave him gifts. However, we’re not talking about toys wrapped with a bow or edible arrangements. No, we’re talking about things that Farris says “involve bone and hair” and made her shout to her studiomate about how gross these gifts were. At one point, she exclaimed “‘Shoot, can we get away with this in a middle-grade book? I hope so!'”
While Farris and Bunn would not reveal any more gruesome details about these gifts, Bunn did speak to the motivation behind them. He said that while Grey and Lavinia become friends during The Ghoul Next Door, they’re not “fast friends.” He continued, “Lavinia, who doesn’t fully understand the human world, leaves Grey not just one gift, but several. And, as you might expect, there are no gift shops in the world of the ghouls. She makes everything by hand… from the resources that are available. I had so much fun with these items, because there are little stories connected to them. The items themselves help to build a much bigger world.”
Indeed, the ultimate affect of these gifts and the friendship between Grey and Lavinia seems to be a unification between the world of of the living and the world of the dead. Grey has “never really thought about [death]” beyond “the legends and ghost stories that have fascinated him,” while, in Bunn’s words, “Lavinia has been surrounded by death…her whole life” and now finds herself with the desire to “understand the world of humans a little better.” So while the path to friendship for both of them is filled with “great risks,” they offer each other gateways into worlds that might otherwise remain locked to them.
Moreover, Grey’s friendship with Lavinia might even “show him that there are some fates worse than death.”
Spooky, Scary, Fun
As anyone who has ever tried to talk about death in America knows, discussing the end of life, especially with kids, can be a tricky topic. When asked about what ideas surrounding death he hoped to explore through The Ghoul Next Door, Bunn said that, at the end of the day, while he wants Ghoul “to be a fun adventure story…it’s impossible to avoid the themes of mortality and death when you’re talking about ghouls. Ghouls live in cemeteries and eat the dead after all!”
But beyond death, The Ghoul Next Door is a story about friendship. Throughout the story, Bunn says, Grey and Lavinia constantly find themselves “surrounded by death” and “they rely on each other to get through their harrowing encounters. I hope there’s a message there about how their friendship helps them face these moments of darkness and fear and even death.”
Alex is the New Media Editor of the Comics Beat. He is also a freelance comics editor with previous credits at First Second, Top Cow, and Papercutz. He primarily covers DC Comics and Magic: the Gathering.