The Webcomics Weekly is back in your life and filled with chills and thrills on this most spooky of days. We’re not doing “Through the Woods,” – too wintery for this most autumnal of seasons – but we are celebrating having a column out on Halloween by taking a stroll through the OTHER works of the internet’s greatest horror comic creator: Emily Carroll. I’m getting chills just thinking about them.
Emily Carroll Horror Webcomics
“A Pretty Place,” “The Worthington,” “Some Other Animal’s Meat,” “When the Darkness Presses,” and “His Face All Red”
Created by Emily Carroll
Reviewed by Mel Lake
In honor of Halloween and because I’m next in line for my library’s copy of her forthcoming book, “A Guest in the House,” this week I’m reading a selection of Emily Carroll’s short webcomics. She’s a legendary horror creator but I’m a latecomer to her work. These comics span over a decade of work, with the oldest from 2010 and the newest just released this year. So put away your candy and let’s dig into some spooky, subtle, horror comics.
Many of Emily Carroll’s comics play with the webcomic format in ways that take full advantage of the interactive nature of the web. She makes puzzle stories you put together piece by piece and stories that make you shiver in anticipation of the next click because you aren’t scrolling through them at breakneck speed. It’s the kind of inventive spirit that makes me love webcomics. (And the kind of thing that, in my opinion, got soullessly co opted by WebToon adding things like background music and animations to certain comics as flourishes that don’t really add anything.)
“A Pretty Place” is like a story in the form of a blueprint. Each room tells a miniature story. The main page has the title “My lady lives in a pretty place and tonight I’m paying her a visit.” A spooky visitor roams through each room as you click to explore the space. The top-down view of the rooms tell the story of the strange visitor and the strange resident as much as the text does. Like a twisted Barbie house, each room contains mundane furnishings that are expertly rendered—but something is off. Each room has a very tiny story of the narrator and the “lady” she seeks, giving you hints about what might have transpired between them but no concrete answers. Explore and come up with your own answers about the “pretty place” in which a lady supposedly lives. (I tried to pick a favorite and had a hard time—I think it’s the library, but the one that haunts me is the music room.)
Similar to “A Pretty Place,” “The Worthington” is an interactive comic consisting of a series of doors. Each one is in a different style that hints at what might be behind it, but I certainly couldn’t guess what was coming next after reading these micro-stories. Each one is unsettling and dreadful in a unique way, visually and viscerally. And each successfully tells a story in just a few panels. It’s a masterclass in compressed storytelling and I dig it, so much, man.
This story was adapted by none other than the masterful horror director, Guillermo Del Toro, for his Netflix series, “Cabinet of Curiosities.” It’s a more straightforward webcomic in form, but no less unsettling than the interactive interlocking stories. In it, a skin care multilevel marketing saleswoman named Stacey, slowly goes mad while doing her job. After leaving a bottle of lotion uncapped overnight, she dreams of being subsumed by the substance. She’s allergic to the skin creams, but after nights of unsettling dreams and dissociating during the daytime, she tries it, finding a newfound lease on life as a creature made of the lotion.
You wouldn’t think a sentient lotion monster would be so unsettling, but this comic truly does give readers a sense of dread. It captures exactly the pressures and insecurities women face to appear beautiful even if they are in pain. Stacey’s experience of the blurred lines between dreams and reality are both relatable and scary, and seeing her capitulate and take the lotion made me have a visceral “Don’t do it!” reaction.Continued below
Back in the older days of the internet before large platforms that aggregated content like webcomics, you might stumble upon an unassuming-looking page with a few graphics and a story. The story might be great or it might be crap, but there were so many home-grown websites like this that among the sea of websites, you could find real gems. “When the Darkness Presses” is a comic reminiscent of that period in internet history. The first page is black, with an image of a door you must click to open. From there, you’re presented with what looks like a normal comic website, with a normal comic about a woman house sitting for a family. She sleeps in the basement, because of course she does, this is a horror comic.
From there, you are presented with her dreams, which return to the black pages with red animated text to emphasize sound effects. Scroll down (if you dare!) to the bottom of the page and click on the door to return to the house and keep reading. It’s a blend of formats that works incredibly well to create a sense of a bifurcated life—while awake and while dreaming—that slowly blur together until you finally enter the mysterious door in the basement. Another effective element in the story is the use of a pattern, assigned to a bedspread, that is repeated throughout until it becomes associated with the narrator’s fear. And when you realize that the ads you ignored on the side of the page aren’t ads at all, but flashing images interspersed with the pattern, it’s like Carroll has taken away a sense of safety you didn’t realize you had. Because the mind associates advertising space as “safe,” having it there builds a sense of distance between you and the horror taking place in the story. Taking that space away is an incredibly effective and subtle visual tactic that builds dread in an unexpected way.
This comic went viral in 2010 and is perhaps the one Emily Carroll is most famous for. It was included in her print collection of horror comics and is well known online. It’s a comic that reads like a folktale—one of the cautionary tales that hasn’t been sanitized or watered down by a Disney adaptation. The setup is simple: two brothers go into the woods to hunt a monster and only one returns. When the second brother returns, the brother who killed him spends a torturous few days wondering what happened to the man he killed in the woods and goes to find out. It’s a scary story that is well told, with simplistic but effective character designs and a rich, rustic color palette. There are certain panels where the framing and perspective are so effective that I lingered on them just to admire the craft. If this were a movie, I would praise the directing of these shots, because the way they implicate both the viewer and the character in violent acts is beautiful and succeeds in pulling you into the story. Like all of the webcomics I’ve talked about, the ending is ambiguous but satisfying. Readers can draw their own conclusions about what exactly happened to the brothers, but the mood and the dread the story inspires is clear.
All of these comics are available on Emily Carroll’s website. Until next time, I hope everyone has a wonderful spooky season and does their part to stave off the Christmas creep!