There is always a castle is these types of stories. It’s always big and imposing and, against all expectations, it always feels empty, understaffed and underserved. Emily Carroll’s new graphic novel is certainly built-up on this familiar gothic traditions — old haunts that are scary as they are seducing — but in execution and intention it turns out to be quite a different story.
Written and Illustrated by Emily Carroll
Like many before her that have never come back, she’s made it to the Countess’ castle determined to snuff out the horror, but she could never be prepared for what hides within its turrets; what unfurls under its fluttering flags. Emily Carroll has fashioned a rich gothic horror charged with eroticism that doesn’t just make your skin crawl, it crawls into it.
You know that story. There is a beauty and there is a beast. The beauty comes from outside, is recognizable to the readers as ‘one of them,’ while the beast is locked within, something other and alien. You’ve read it and seen it in a thousand variations. Things are different in Emily Carroll’s “When I Arrived at the Castle.” Just a bit at first, and then very much so. The visitor to castle is herself a beast of sort, a cat of the catgril fashion (human body but long ears, and mouth with small sharp teeth), while the countess within is the beauty, ethereal and distant, drawn in alluring fashion which for moments stresses out white skin, perfectly symmetrical face, heaving bosom. But still her beauty is alien enough, uncanny in its radiance, that we can accept here as the inhuman one (even before her behavior signals that something very wrong is going to happen). From there on out it’s very much a free-for-all to see how the story will continue and how it will end.
There’s an element of fluidity to whole proceeding. Scenes move seamlessly into one another as the story shifts in front of our eyes. Our heroine came in for a simple mission, to slay the evil countess, but soon discovers complexities she hadn’t dreamed of before; it’s not just that world is not as she thought she was, even she herself has some murky depths she’s not aware. ‘Depths’ are important to the story, water is quickly established as a recurring element. The cat lays in a bath and describes a dream involving a “milk-white lake;” the water meant to clean but always end up concealing something, something that lurks beneath. The sense of fluidity that’s written into the plot and characters is reflected in the art: scenes and pages never feel like they ‘end,’ instead they melt into one another, evoking a nightmarish reality from which one can never quite escape. This is Emily Carrol’s world; we are just guests (please behave).
Quite frankly, I lack the words to describe just how achingly beautiful this graphic novel is, how it manages to balance a sense of tenderness with the feeling of lurking dread. Emily Carroll has always been one the finer artists of her generation, casually translating a sense of darkness into beautiful illustrations that are mesmerizing in their monstrosity, but this is just something else. The actual story is rather slim in terms of plot mechanics, there only two characters after all, but this simply allows Carroll to perfectly utilize the pages to mold and stretch the reader’s anticipation.
One particularly masterful scene involved the cat gazing at the countess through a keyhole. Much of this graphic novel involves gazes of some sort, every panel becomes a full-page shot as she becomes more comfortable in her own skin before breaking out of it in one maddening and bloody moment. It’s such a great use of pacing to lead the readers on, and of colors to break our expectations. And while this might be, visually at least, the standout the whole graphic novel is filled with such powerful moments. From pencils to colors to design to lettering (and some pages here managed to make my spine tingle a bit just with words on the page) Emily Carroll appears to be in full control of her craft. As far as I am concerned she operates in a completely different level from the rest of the comics world — both technically superb and emotionally resonant.Continued below
As the story progresses we get just as lost as the cat, the black and white, a reflection of her simplified worldview, gets redder and redder. Is this a story about how we are all monsters to one degree or another? Is it an inversion of the type of traditions that always paint powerful women as demons to be slain and weak one as damsels to be rescued? Is this about the cycle of abuse, and if so who is the abuser? To a degree all the answers are true and none are. Like any true grand work of art “When I Arrived at the Castle” can and will be read in dozens of different ways, be subjected to hundreds of interpretations.
Like the castle itself it is all things at once. A threat, a temptation, and a riddle….