A missing persons case. An ages-old family feud. A thriving drug trade. And, of course, Mothman. Those are just some of the things you’ll find in Silk Hills, the titular town at the heart of the new graphic novel from writers Brian Level & Ryan Ferrier, artist Kate Sherron, and letterer Crank!. Out next month from Oni Press, the graphic novel follows a former Marine as she investigates the disappearance of the son of one of Silk Hills’ most prominent residents. What she uncovers – and experiences – along the way make for a horrific and thrilling horror mystery.
Silk Hills is a page-turner from the start, pulling readers into the fully-realized world of a town full of secrets, interesting characters, and some truly startling imagery that stays with you long after you’ve finished reading. The Beat spoke with Level and Sherron about the origins of Silk Hills, their interest in the Mothman cryptid, and the creepy body horror of the book.
Joe Grunenwald: How did this book come about? Who first conceived of it, and how did the team come together to create it?
Brian Level: The way I remember it (which is not particularly reliable haha) is that I had few ideas in an Appalachian slasher/giallo direction. I spoke with Ryan briefly and he thought there was something there. We sat on it for a bit and I started having dreams that were kinda begging to be in the story and it started to shift direction. I logged a lot of them and spoke with Ryan (kinda nervous he’d hate me for a direction shift) and he was very into it. At that point we had a few longer conversations regarding scenes and world while narrowing down our characters and plot. Not long after that we reached out to Kate and she really brought it all together.
Kate Sherron: I’d been collaborating with Ryan on a few short things at the time, so when he pitched me the general idea for a longer project that ticked all my creative boxes, I got real excited. Brian and I then had a phone introduction/chat about the project and that was that: I had to do this book.
Grunenwald: Silk Hills sort of plays with the Mothman concept in an interesting way. What about that cryptid in particular do you find interesting?
Sherron: Full disclosure: I adore Mothman and even have a Mothman tattoo — a Brian Level original, of course — so understand I’m biased when I say that I find everything about Mothman interesting. If I had to pick one main reason though, is that they’re one of the more complex cryptids. Depending upon the person telling the story, Mothman is a wild sky-beast terrorizing teens necking in the woods or a sapient prognosticator of impending disasters. Mothman contains narrative multitudes, thus they contain so many fun creative possibilities. Plus their whole look whips ass.
Level: I love Mothman for a lot of reasons. Obviously aesthetics, but the sort of religio-horror element of it’s presence portending disaster. It’s almost biblical. Add the absolute all-encompassing weirdness surrounding the story and the ability to connect it to nearly anything you want to and I’m all in. Mothman in Silk Hills is a beginning and an ending place in a way. Mothman is a gateway.
Grunenwald: Aside from Mothman, actual moths also play a pretty large role in the book. How much research went into that aspect of the book, and how much liberty did you take with them?
Level: I’d say on my end the moth research was relatively limited. I did a bit of research on the front end and kinda mashed up some lore with the midwestern Locust broods to get a cool thing going. They symbolism of a moth is more meaningful to mean than any literal moth. I have an affinity for little crawly things as signifiers.
Sherron: Haha, wish I could say it was more rigorous but I basically looked at a bunch of references prior and kinda just winged it at the art stage. There were way too many moths to draw to get too fiddly.
Grunenwald: The town of Silk Hills is a fascinating place. How much does Silk Hills reflect your own personal histories? Did any of you grow up in a town like Silk Hills?
Sherron: I grew up a Missouri ‘burb girl, Ozark-adjacent but definitely a very different flavor of lower middle class. Closest I ever got to the Blue Ridge Mountains growing up was when Pops would sing John Denver for that night’s lullaby. I spend more time in the region now and live just outside the valley in the coastal Low Country, but my roots are planted in different soil. There’s a tiny art wink to said Midwestern roots, though – the Pump N Dump gas station is in homage to the best chain possibly in the whole country, Kum N Go. (I’ve driven through and peed in nearly every state at this point, so I can say that with relative confidence.)
Level: Silk Hills can’t exist anywhere specifically because it’s everywhere I’ve ever been. I grew up in the Black Swamp region of Ohio which shares some similarity in personality. The past twenty years I’ve been in Cincinnati/northern Kentucky and effectively Appalachia adjacent. There’s a lot of crossover. One thing that always stands out to me is how people on the outside of these places presume so much about the people there. Because they talk different or don’t read the same stuff or whatever. Some presumptions are correct; others, not remotely close. I feel like Silk Hills shows that diversity of weirdo that you’d get in any of the places I’ve grown up. Which is the same weirdo you’d get anywhere else, but with a little less flannel.
Grunenwald: There are aspects of this book that are, for lack of a better word, gross. Some truly terrifying, freaky, body horror-y stuff. It’s impressively unsettling. How much did you all push each other to take things as far as they could?
Level: Haha, Thank you! Ryan and I worked hard on the script to try to pace and build up to genuinely ugly corporeal stuff to punctuate with the weirder psycho-spiritual material. I wanted to feel the physicality of the moments, to the point of near absurdity. A punch that would shatter a skull, or a knife that would push all the way through the body. Those type of things that would become “unrealistic” weren’t a problem for me. In fact, I’d say we were really drawn to things that felt impossibly violent. Taking everything one step further and odder than what would be typical.
That said, Kate is the ONLY reason it’s as gnarly as it is. She absolutely crushed it. I don’t recall needing to push her in much. I think she was dialed in and just rocked.
Sherron: Oh, wow! Your disgust is genuinely high praise! As a reader/viewer, I’m fan of over-the-top gore and violence pushed to the point of absurdity but as an artist, I feel my style’s a bit too whimsical. It didn’t stop me from pushing myself to try and match the intensity of the script the guys gave me, though. Glad to hear it worked on you!
Grunenwald: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like this is the first straight-up horror book for each of you. What’s it like writing or drawing a horror book compared to other genres? Kate, in particular, your previous credits include books like My Little Pony and Rugrats. What’s your mindset have to be like to draw a book like Silk Hills in comparison to more family-friendly fare? Was it a challenge to make that switch?
Sherron: Technically, yes – it’s my first straight-down-the-middle horror book. All that licensed work was purely professional, though – I’m fair-to-middling at drawing on model and was happy to take the gigs offered to me when I was building up my name. If anything, it’s a much bigger effort for me to flip the middle-grade switch than to get into spooky gear because I veer more mature when left to my own devices. I did two horror-adjacent web comics prior to getting commercial gigs – nearly 400 pages worth between the two of them – and completed the horror-western mini-series Chained to the Grave before starting in on the art for Silk Hills. The stories I’m developing at this time, the personal art I do, they’re all some flavor of the genre. Even when I do cute stuff, it’s got to have teeth, you know? (laughs) Horror’s a great tool for introspection, catharsis, and creation and I’m hard-pressed to stray too far from it when given my druthers.
Level: For me, I suppose on a large scale like this, yes it was a definite change. Despite making several short horror stories myself, this is a beefy book and my first outing in this way. I can’t speak for anyone else, but horror is home for me. It’s my natural state of storytelling and where I’m strongest. Writing horror can be tough. The content can be exhausting. But the gloom of the genre is place I love to live inside of. Once that gloom settles on me I feel like I’m extremely in touch with a lot of parts of me that are closed off. Shameful and ugly stuff that’s unkind or befouled in some way. I can look at that stuff without judgement and kinda learn some lessons and find what’s trying to be said then it’s off to the races and all sorts of terrible stuff spills out! Haha Honestly, I’m grateful for the genre for helping me find who I am. It’s been that way since I was young and continues to be today. I’m also so grateful for Kate and Ryan being so willful and amazing on the project.
Grunenwald: What do you each think your collaborators bring to this book that would’ve been missing without them?
Level: There’s no way to answer this in any honest way because the book wouldn’t work or exist. They are completely invaluable. But since this is an interview question…
Ryan brings an incredible energy, humor and enthusiasm to the work. And the work itself is considered and precise. That combination isn’t extremely common but definitely is reflected in the finished book.
Sherron: The whole book would be missing without Brian and Ryan, is what! Even if you swapped out one of the guys for another writer, it’d be a totally different story and I would’ve drawn it in a different way.
Level: Kate pretty much is the entire language of the comic. The haunted spaces and unnatural colors… She conjured the place, we just gave some instructions.
Together, they also gave latitude to each other and me to really be who we were as creatives. We all had input (even on each other’s work) without any overstepping (i don’t think haha) and trying to work together to make something that was a product of all three as opposed to an exquisite-corpse-esque exercise of something done in succession.
Grunenwald: What would you say to someone who’s on the fence (or squeamish) about checking out Silk Hills?
Level: I’d say that that person ask themselves, “why am I on the fence?” That’s more important that anything I could say as a salesman.
We’re wanting to share with you. Odd pieces that don’t get put on shelves all the time. Everyone of all types are welcome to come over and spend some time with us weirdos for a minute. To have an experience that isn’t typical. If you don’t like the landscape then you can head home. Some parts of the book are upsetting, some are funny, some are horny, but in the end we made it with love. Often times, there is treasure to be found in the dark. We hope you find some.
More specifically, if you’re already a horror fan, why are you on the fence?! Get over here already! We got the goods!
Sherron: I’ll admit, I still don’t really think the art’s all that gross and I feel like Silk Hills is an accessible entry into the genre, especially for folks who are into surreal, strange stories like the one Brian and Ryan cooked up here. However, I am realizing I might be too close to the thing to make that judgement call for others. (laughs)
That said, I’d never want someone to read something that would upset them too much, but I also know that when I push myself past my own personal boundaries, it’s usually a worthwhile experience. Give us a chance and even if you don’t like us, you’ll still have a really good-looking book to add to your bookshelf. (Hardcover AND spot-gloss, y’all! So tasty!)
Published by Oni Press, Silk Hills is due out in bookstores on Tuesday, June 14th, and in comic shops on Wednesday, June 15th.