Southern Ontario Gothic: Emily Carroll’s Forest

It came from the woods. Most strange things do.

I’ve mentioned Canadian artist Emily Carroll before in Of Ducks, Russian Folklore, and the Mysterious Gamayun. While her illustrations for children’s series are quite lovely, I think her strength (and obvious interest) really lies in horror.

Today I’d like to feature a few selections from the 2015 collection Through the Woods, which received a few awards and a lot of compliments. While the stories within are generally lauded by critics and readers, I have seen a few reviews complaining that they’re not scary. I suspect that kind of reviewer is the same type of person who starts grumbling that there’s not enough action in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment* (only one murder! gimme Midsomer Murders’ body count!)

Emily Carroll is excellent at conjuring the kind of slow dread that makes one skin’s crawl (which is not to say that she shies away from gore). This is not horror where a serial killer is chasing his victim around with a chainsaw – I think the latter is a lot easier to set up than conjuring a fragile, haunting atmosphere of menace and stalking shadows. Carroll’s work can be visually stunning, with bright colours and swanky layouts, but it can also be sepia-coloured, quiet, intimate and unsettling. She combines these two settings to great contrast and advantage, sometimes within the same story.

A page from His Face All Red, arguably Carroll’s breakout comic that she posted online in October 2010 and which went viral. Read it here. In now occurs to me that her art is sometimes a bit Richard Sala-esque.
Page from A Lady’s Hands Are Cold. Carroll’s hand lettering contributes to a lot of the atmosphere. In a world of typeset speech bubbles that spoil the mood, it’s really nice to come across comics where the text is part of the design.
A page from My Friend Jenna, a story of two friends who conduct fake séances…
… and get a little, shall we say, embroiled in the lives of the dead. It was difficult to decide which pages to include, as I don’t want end up spoiling the plot.

Nightmares about losing teeth are very common (apparently, they’re ‘one of the most universal dream themes‘), so perhaps that explains why The Nesting Place is especially unsettling. Here is a sample of a few pages:

Carroll’s tales often feature somebody who is not what they seem, the unusual or scary hiding behind the veneer of a normal human being. Those wiggling teeth are fucking creepy.
A definite plot spoiler, sorry.

Finally, two pages from In Conclusion, which wraps up this collection with a brightly coloured epitaph:

Don’t forget to visit her website, with plenty more comics to read. A lot of her work is accessible online only, and makes great use of this medium** – for example, in A Pretty Place, you can select the room you want to visit in a sort of Clue-ish set-up; in Margot’s Room, you can click on objects (a mirror, some dried flowers, the window…) to learn their story. Definitely read the sexy, creepy, gory Writhe*** – it’s available for free download. Read her smart interview with Sean T. Collins for The Comics Journal here, or check out her latest book (not yet published), A Guest in the House, here.


~ ds

* To be fair, I am no fan of Crime and Punishment, as I thought it was quite a slog to get through… but not because only one person gets killed. Have a gander at some entertaining reviews of it here.

** She talks at length about designing a comic to be read online in An interview with Emily Carroll: A Fairy-Tale Teller in the Digital Age.

*** When I Arrived at the Castle, published in 2019, strikes a similar vibe, featuring a blood-laden love/horror story between a sort of cat girl and a vampiric Countess, all of it wrapped up in the heavy, shifting logic of a dream you want to escape from but can’t.