So it was kind of a lackluster week for comics. Until today, that is…
When I Arrived at the Castle
by Emily Carroll
Emily Carroll is one of those cartoonists whose work just kind of speaks to me. She tends to lurk at the intersection of horror and folklore, with a fine appreciation of the weird and a slightly off-kilter approach that often takes her stories down roads less-traveled. I’ve seen her work compared to Edward Gorey, which I can understand. Both have a similar love of the macabre. But Carroll’s work is wilder, scarier, less mannered. And she has a preoccupation with body horror that Gorey just can’t match. When you visit her website, for example (that’s http://www.emcarroll.com/), you’re greeted by this charming sight:
Which is a bit more grotesque than most of her work.
But it does set a tone.
Scrolling down, you can read a selection of webcomics, which I heartily recommend. There’s a number of great reads there, but if you only have time for one, I’d go with the award-winning “His Face All Red.” That one’s got a dark, folksy, Tom Waits sort of vibe, and uses the webcomic medium to good effect. It’s collected in Carroll’s book Through the Woods (which I’ve gushed about before), but I think the web format serves the story better.
So anyway, yeah. I’m a fan. And any new Emily Carroll book hitting the stands is good news as far as I’m concerned. Which brings us, at last, to When I Arrived at the Castle.
This one’s a gothic horror sort of thing, the story of a woman who travels to a dark and mysterious castle to kill the vampire who lives inside. But things go off-script pretty quickly from there, the story descending almost immediately into the stuff of dreams and nightmares. Aggression gets confused with lust as the two women circle each other, the line between predator and prey blurring as they go.
That blurring of predator and prey is aided by the fact that the vampire hunter (as you may have noticed) has the face of a cat. I didn’t quite know what to make of that at first. This is cartooning, after all, and that sort of anthropomorphism isn’t uncommon. I wasn’t especially fond of it as a purely aesthetic choice, but I got used to it as the book sucked me in.
And speaking of aesthetics, this is a gorgeous little book. Carroll’s done the whole thing in black, white and red, which is a more limited palette than she usually works in. But it’s a really striking color combination that she uses to put the visual focus more on page design, contrasting the blacks and whites for greater impact, with the reds often used as accents, or for emphasis.
There’s a heavier manga influence on the art than Carroll sometimes uses, as well, especially in relation to our vampire hunter. Look underneath all that banging at the top of that page, and you’ll see some classic manga close-up stuff going on. That wide-eyed design she has gives her a kind of innocence, and puts us on her side.
Carroll also uses gray tones to good effect here, to add texture and mood, or to convey shadows for certain lighting effects. Most of it looks like ink wash, but I think there’s also some pencil shading here and there. You can see a bit of both in the page below, along with more of that black-white-and-red contrast.
Beautiful stuff. You can see a bit of the dreamlike quality in that page, too. The backgrounds are just sketched in sometimes, like half-remembered details. Then there’s that floral pattern in the bottom right, creeping in from the corner. That’s a really weird detail. They seem like a visual, dreamy representation of a feeling that’s coming over Our Heroine. But they’re in stark contrast to what’s going on around them. Those doors on the other side of the panel have just turned to scary red-on-black, after all, the minute she peeks through the keyhole. So there’s something alarming going on. But tied into that is what you’d normally think of as a pleasant bloomin’ ’round the nether regions.
Then you turn the page, and that makes perfect sense.
Fear, anger, violence, lust… It’s all mixed up in this book, creating a creepy-erotic horror vibe that’s both queasy and titillating. I’m not going to spoil where all that goes, but eventually we get to things like this:
So, yeah. Wow.
I greatly enjoyed this book. It’s 72 pages of beautiful artwork and dreamy, symbolic storytelling. It’s simple in its approach, and took me maybe 30 minutes to read. But it’s been lingering with me for hours since I read it. And that, my friends, is good bang for your funnybook buck. We don’t get comics this strong very often. But when we do, it’s the sort of thing that genuinely lifts my spirits. I was having kind of a bad day before I read this. And after… Well… My day wasn’t any better. But I didn’t care so much.