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?
Rising from the Grave
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.”
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!'”
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
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.”