After saying that you should buy this collection over Becky Cloonan’s latest volume of “The Punisher” yesterday, I figured an explanation as to why was in order. “By Chance or Providence” collects the creator’s three self-published one-shots along with a heaping collection of sketches. Though they all share the same feudal, nordic setting and feature some kind of supernatural aspect to them, these stories are only linked by the tragedy that love -- familial or romantic -- brings to its protagonists. That, and the fact that they’re all quite good.
“Wolves” starts things off on a fittingly creepy note by showing us a naked man in the woods struggling to survive. We’re told in narration that he’s cursed and the story goes on to lay out the reason why. Before his fall, the man lived as a hunter in the court of a king and had a woman he loved as well. His latest hunt is for a werewolf that’s terrorizing the land and his lover is especially worried for him in this case. By the time the story is over, we’ll have found out exactly why that is.
One of the things that “Wolves” establishes for the stories in this collection is that Cloonan isn’t going to spell things out for you. She trusts that you, the reader, are going to be smart enough to pick up on the smaller details of each story in order to work out what’s really going on. This approach works here because it leads to a fittingly tragic portrait of a man who chooses his duty over love and the price he pays for it.
The story that follows, “The Mire,” is the best of the collection in my opinion, mainly due to a clever narrative trick Cloonan pulls over the course of the story. It starts off with Aiden, a young squire, being tasked by his knight to take a letter requesting reinforcements for an upcoming battle to a nearby castle. The quickest way to said castle lies through a mire that is, of course, haunted. As Aiden eventually finds out, the nature of the spirits haunting this place are more specific to him than he could’ve imagined.
There are some familiar trappings to “The Mire” with the young boy who wants to prove himself in battle, the gruff mentor who requires more of him before that can happen, and forbidden love between the gentry and the aristocracy. Yet the familiarity here doesn’t breed contempt as Cloonan spins them together into something new. That’s all due to that narrative trick I mentioned which casts a certain aspect of the story in a whole new light. It was so well executed that I immediately had to go back and start re-reading the part it covers to see how it all lined up. Like the best twists, it only served to enhance an already interesting story.
Finally we have “Demeter,” which Cloonan won an Eisner for best short story a couple years back. Even though I didn’t think it was the best story in this collection, I’m not inclined to fault the judges here. It’s about Anna and Colin, a couple who are very much in love who live in a cottage by the sea. While they both rely on the sea for their livelihood, it is in fact a cruel and insatiable thing. What it claims, it will relinquish for a price, and even then only for a short time.
“Demeter” channels the feeling that while you know something is very wrong, you’re unable to do anything about it. It’s all about strapping in and bracing yourself as the story unfurls towards its inevitable end with grim confidence. Yet even though you know what’s coming, you still hope that it’s not because Cloonan does a good job in making the love Anna and Colin feel for each other feel genuine, while the former’s increasing fear comes off as wholly credible. It also makes the knife twist in the final pages that much more painful.
It’s rare that we get a volume’s worth of Cloonan’s art, which is another reason this collection is worth your money. While the level of detail she brings to her work is always impressive, as it helps convincingly sell the nordic-ness of the setting here, it’s also rich with emotion as well. Seeing the difference between the haggard hunter at the start of “Wolves” and his pre-cursed self a few pages later tells you so much about what awaits him. She even manages to make a talking corpse a sympathetic figure -- particularly after you notice the dagger sticking out of her chest and realize why it was there. Lee Loughridge provides colors for all of the stories here and delivers subtle work that complements their sad nature well.
“By Chance or Providence” does ask a lot from the reader in order to get the most of out its stories. It’s not the happiest read either, but it’s not the kind that will ruin your day if you give it a shot. Yet the stories being told here are done with a level of craft and artistry that I feel makes them worth the effort. If you were tempted to write Cloonan off as a creator because of her formulaic work on “The Punisher,” please don’t. This collection proves she’s a formidable storyteller -- when working from her own material -- and I hope we see more work like this from her in the future.