October is upon us. It is the month of ghost stories, when we frighten one another and remind ourselves of all that is unsettlingly beyond our understanding. Each year around this time, when I search for suitable material to chill my soul, my thoughts turn to one cartoonist in particular: Emily Carroll.
Rather than putting up individual installments of a single ongoing work, Carroll tends to present one complete short form comic at a time. These are self-contained stories, often several pages long, suitable for reading in one sitting, possibly alone at night while rain thrashes against your window panes and lighting sheds eerie light on the world outside.
Her work is haunting, not because it often features ghosts, but because it endures in the mind. I’ve never read a comic of hers that didn’t stay with me, popping up in my mind unexpectedly and (typically) reminding me of the horrors that lurk just past the edge of consciousness. These aren’t the kind of scary stories you tell by the campfire, causing a temporary feeling of fear that fades into surprise or relief. These are the kind of scary stories that slowly, subtly fill you with dread, becoming gradually more unsettling until they’ve eased you from a mildly ominous beginning to a truly horrific conclusion.
This is the kind of horror that creeps under your skin and stays there.
Normally I don’t talk much about what scares me, because to be honest there aren’t a lot of horror works that I find scary. While I can certainly enjoy a good horror story, and a few movies and books have been known to keep me awake at night, the vast majority of horror stories don’t frighten me at all. If I enjoy them it’s more likely because I’m intrigued than scared, and though I can empathize with characters who are in frightening situations, that doesn’t usually extend to being frightened just because they are.
When I wrote about Broodhollow, I didn’t really touch on that comic as horror, because as much as I love it, Broodhollow doesn’t really scare me. It’s hard to discuss the ways that something is scary when I’m not actually scared by it.
Emily Carroll is the rare example of an artist who can make me scared. There are definitely things to appreciate about her comics besides the fear element, so if her type of horror doesn’t get to you the way it gets to me, there’s still plenty of reason to read them. Within her body of work you’ll find compelling, imaginative vignettes that delve into dark and suppressed elements of the human psyche. Being scared is not a requirement for enjoyment.
I just think it’s cool that I found something that scares me and I want to tell everybody!
Not all of Carroll’s comics have the same feel to them, or are even accurately described as “horror.” While taken as a whole the effect is overwhelmingly spooky, these comics are versatile, with different art styles and tones depending on the requirements of the story.
Even the formats of the comics vary depending on what’s needed. The panels may be aligned vertically, or horizontally, or even using a combination to direct the flow of action along a specific path. Multiple stories use narrative tools that only work using the medium of the Internet. When reading The Three Snake Leaves, you get to make a choice about whose perspective the second half of the story is told from.
Margot’s Room gets even more inventive, asking the reader to click on various objects in the eponymous room to see different parts of the story. It’s up to you to figure out the order and make sure you read the whole story, and though figuring it out isn’t a challenge, it still feels like putting together a puzzle, and getting from the beginning to the end provides a definite feeling of accomplishment, and more importantly, of completion.
The Three Snake Leaves, by the way, is an adaptation of one of Grimm’s fairy tales. If you’re a fan of those fairy tales, like I am, then Emily Carroll’s comics are perfect for you. Her sensibilities as a storyteller are perfectly aligned with the atmosphere one expects from those dark and classic stories.
Sometimes, I’ve found it hard to tell whether a particular comic is an adaptation of an existing fairy tale or a new story that Emily Carroll came up with on her own. Fairy tales work so well in her style, and her writing so evokes the feeling of old fairy tales, that often either option is possible. At times I’ve been surprised to find that the reason I’ve never heard a particular story before is because Emily Carroll made it up. The surprise isn’t that she could invent such ideas on her own, but that she could do so while making them seem so familiar, like they’re as integral a part of human storytelling as Cinderella’s stepsister having her toes cut off.
I wouldn’t recommend this work to the squeamish. The art is beautiful, but often grotesque, and at times there are acts of terrible violence. The blood and gore are not used as an artistic end unto themselves; every instance of violence is necessary for the story being told. Rather than shocking the audience into a reaction with violent imagery, an Emily Carroll comic will build an atmosphere of suspense, wherein a violent conclusion is the only reasonable outcome. If you cover your eyes during scary parts of movies, then sadly Carroll’s stuff might not be for you. But if you like being scared, and think you can handle anything, I encourage you to dive right in.
“But where to begin?” You might ask.
Well, there’s no bad starting point. None of the stories are too long, so you don’t need to worry about getting bogged down in a drawn-out narrative. If you’re on the fence, Out of Skin might give you a good sense for what Carroll’s work tends to be like. If you enjoy that one, there’s a strong chance you’ll enjoy the rest of them. I’m kind of perversely fond of The Prince & The Sea, while His Face All Red is the first one that I ever read, and it made a lasting impression on me.
Really, though, there’s no need to read in any particular order, or even to feel like you must read everything Carroll has to offer. Each story is self-contained, and most require only a few minutes to read through, though I strongly suggest taking your time, lingering on the artwork and savoring the experience.
A type of comic I haven’t yet discussed is Carroll’s dream journal. I love the idea of representing dreams in comics so much I’m kind of jealous I didn’t think of it first. (I did photographs, instead.) This isn’t the only place I’ve seen dreams as comics, either, but every time someone does something of the sort I think it’s super cool. Dreams are a great source of imagery, and they present ideas that aren’t bound by linear conscious thinking. Carroll basically says so in the introduction to her dream journal: “I'd recommend it too, if you don't already record your dreams -- I've mined a lot of ideas and images from mine, and it's a good source of, er, things a Waking You might not have thought of.”
Dreams are so much fun, and I love it when other people see that and give me a glimpse of what their dreams are like.
I highly recommend all the comics that Emily Carroll has on offer. Each and every one of them is extraordinary. Any time Carroll puts up a new comic I’m eager to see what she’s done this time, and I hope you will be too.
And if you’re looking for a way to get into the Halloween spirit this year, I can think of no better way than by huddling before your computer screen, in a darkened room, and discovering one of Emily Carroll’s distinctive tales of terror.