Monsters at the Door

Emily Carroll’s debut book, Through the Woods, is full of doomed characters who often feel deserving of the grisly punishment coming their way. The stories are personal, in other words.

August 7, 2014

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Comics Journal, Social Text, the Village Voice an...

My day with Emily Carroll passes in the presence of the moth; I’ve never seen a bigger one. “It’s so meaty,” she says, sounding gleefully disgusted. It clings to the screen door as we cross between her snug cottage of a house in Stratford, Ontario, and the huge garden out back, suggesting a monstrous pair of jaws. Now and then her wife Kate Craig wanders their flowers, considering the shades, but our moth does not move as it waits for the night, or maybe for us. One week later, at Carroll’s book launch in Toronto, a fan will say her work is “scary but still beautiful to look at.” The phrase reminds me of that scene in her backyard, and the pinwheel-eyed women in her story “Out of Skin,” and, most of all, the way her horror comics reveal gruesome images amidst lovely ones, like someone pulling garlands off a corpse.

An animator by education and practice, Carroll only began making comics in 2010. Her third effort was a bleak little fairy tale called “His Face All Red,” the testament of a murderous coward who kills his more handsome, beloved, and trusting brother, only to find him returned several days later, incarnating by sinister irony all the rancor his sibling had nursed. Lurid red flashes interrupted the delicacy of Carroll’s lines and colours; as the guilty brother crept underground towards a bleakly abbreviated discovery, the “page” sank far beyond conventional dimensions. She tells me the effect was accidental: “I hadn’t done any print comics, so I wasn’t thinking in terms of pages … On some level it was an intuitive thing.” Carroll posted her story on a rudimentary website over the Halloween weekend and then went for a walk through Vancouver’s Lost Lagoon; when she got back, her wife made her look at the transfixed reaction online. “Neil Gaiman tweeted it too,” Carroll says, “so then it was…” and makes a noise like a rocket taking off.

There was a superficial resemblance to Angela Carter’s writing in “His Face All Red,” the folklore as revelation of perversity, inscribed across bodies. But you couldn’t say it spent much time dwelling on the pulpy tradition that long defined Western horror comics, whether faithfully emulated or rebelled against. The genre’s main tropes, codified by the publisher EC Comics, included ghastly Crypt Keeper puns, as if the Borscht Belt were an outer circle of hell; cheap irony in the form of gory poetic justice, sometimes to a memorably baroque degree, like the story where an evil baseball player got dismembered for batting practice; and, as Carroll puts it, female characters who all end up being “nags, shrews and victims, or [literal] monsters.”

A lot of the characters in my stories already intrinsically feel like they are worthy of punishment: "Well, of course it's going to end up like this. That's what I get. How dare I reach above my station. How dare I hope I will not be this sad creature."

Before the comics industry began censoring itself in the 1950s under government pressure, forbidding anything even vaguely suggestive of horror and decimating EC's publishing line, many of the era's most gifted American artists had found themselves there. While alternative cartoonists like Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns later internalized their work, others wrestled with these historical tendrils directly. As the critic Joe McCulloch tells me: “Even in the late ’80s, guys like Stephen Bissette were developing forums like Taboo which were specifically designed to counteract the traditionalism of comics horror … ‘His Face All Red’ seemed a break from that when it hit me. And it hit a lot of people.” His memory of the story’s rapid circulation is anthropomorphic: “A cartoon man—an older, conservative type, disinclined toward following webcomics and prone to assuming ‘Entertaining Comics’ as the default ‘EC’ until the end of time—whipping his head from left to right, palms facing skyward, crying ‘WHOO IS THIIS?’ in the direction of his back issue bins.”

Other young cartoonists have been drawing similarly idiosyncratic horror comics—Josh Simmons treats the genre as an unrelieved descent into utter despair, while Julia Gfrörer deals in the erotics of melancholia—but both publish most of their work in print, unlike Carroll. She was thrown by the response to “His Face All Red,” that nerd-culture tendency to see art as a systematic puzzle. “I did a thing that I call crazy-daisying,” she explains, after the toy sprinklers that spray water everywhere, “which is when you get any sort of critique about your work, and you immediately get defensive and start freaking out and talking way too much … You see comics creators doing it all the time. Especially if comics dudes get called out on doing something sexist or racist, they will crazy-daisy all over Twitter.”

She goes on: “People were saying, ‘What's the meaning of this? What's the meaning of this?’ and … I felt very much like, I need to justify this somehow, otherwise they will see that I am a faker that has faked my way into some kind of Internet buzz, so there has to be a one-to-one meaning for everything.”

She got over that. Reddit could interpret the lilac tree however it wanted. If some EC horror comic has a twist, it invariably kinks towards crude Old Testament morality, whereby the sinful will receive appropriate comeuppance. It doesn’t matter how noble or cunning or pleasant a Carroll character is: One of the scariest things about her work is its unsparing fatalism. “I guess it's a manifestation of my own general guilt unraveling,” she tells me after a pause. “A lot of the characters in my stories already intrinsically feel like they are worthy of punishment: Well, of course it's going to end up like this. That's what I get. How dare I reach above my station. How dare I hope I will not be this sad creature.” Of the five tales that comprise her debut book Through the Woods, “His Face All Red” is the only one published previously, as if it were crucially incriminating.


Emily Carroll was born 31 years ago in London, Ontario, a city palpably ashamed of the “Ontario” part (there is an unimpressive Thames River, among many other namesakes). Her parents, who got divorced when she was in junior high, both worked at the local University of Western Ontario: Her father was a sociology professor, and her mother taught nursing at the medical school. When I tell Carroll that a friend of mine and fellow native had described London as a “jockocracy,” she remembers one recent civic milestone: “They were naming their minor-league baseball team the London Rippers, I guess as in ‘Jack the.’ It was all branded, like their mascot was a guy named Jack who was a cartoon figure in a hat and cloak. And then the tagline for it was obviously talking about the Jack the Ripper murders. I said something on Twitter like, ‘Look at this totally tasteless thing my horrible hometown is doing.’” She mostly hated the place, but then, she laughs, “I also sort of hated myself.”

I found a row of tombstones right next to each other: Mother, Peace, Death. And Lily May Summerbell. That's a beautiful name! Poor Lily May Summerbell! Then it turns out she died when she was four years old, and I was like, "What's more tragic than Lily May Summerbell dying? The whole town must have wept. She must have had golden ringlets."

Carroll read a few comics as a kid; she preferred the Catwoman stories where Batman never showed up, and fastened onto Archie because “it was the only comic where girls were drawn prettily, and that's how I wanted to draw.” A more insidious influence was Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the children’s anthology by Alvin Schwartz. Few library books get challenged as often as the 1981 edition and its two sequels, courtesy of Stephen Gammell’s illustrations, the most nightmarish introduction to surrealism imaginable: A ghost whose eyes resemble bullet holes through glass, skeletal horses with limbs like lightning, netherworlds of bulbous and sickly-looking monsters. They seemed to be rendered with ichor, not ink. But the drawings only felt so ominous next to Schwartz’s simple yet evocative prose. It turns out Carroll and I had the same favourite story, about a possibly-sentient scarecrow named Harold, whose portrait doesn’t look too viscerally creepy until you read the final sentence: “As Alfred watched, Harold kneeled and stretched a bloody skin to dry in the sun.”

This is a dynamic Carroll aims for with her own work—the text is often surprisingly prominent, but it’s lettered in a florid, illustrative style. In “This Witch’s Work,” a comic about magic and trauma written by the cartoonist Annie Mok, blades reduce entire pages of script to tattered ribbons. (Mok notes that she ended up changing much of the rough dialogue after seeing Carroll’s finals.) “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold,” one of the new stories from Through the Woods, revises and ironizes the Bluebeard archetype mostly with lyrics, which bleed extravagantly through a grand charnel house: “I married my love in the springtime, but by summer he’d locked me away / He’d murdered me dead by the autumn, & by winter I was naught but decay.”

Horror movies stalk through some of her earliest memories. Carroll’s father and older brother made their own amateur shorts under the name Medusa Productions (an odd echo of Basilisk Communications, which distributed several Derek Jarman works). She was too shy to tread in front of the camera, but she still watches horror films constantly, often while drawing, like ambient dread. “It was, like, 8 a.m.,” she recalls, “and I put on—I was watching The Brood. And Kate walks out and there's all these weird-faced children stabbing this old man to death, and she's like, ‘it's too early for Cronenberg.’” Carroll returned to his filmography again and again while finishing “Out of Skin,” a story where human forms achieve hideous novelty: the house transformed into a nexus of shuddering flesh, the face bulging with fingers like a palpated sack.

In high school, Carroll didn’t really adhere to any one social clique: “I could go to the Anime Club meetings, and I would not be treated weirdly there, but I got invited to parties and things, with cool kids.” That second cinematic education is how she began reading comics again, since the Anime Club selections were often adapting various manga. Being a goth-adjacent teen nerd, her role-playing game of choice was Vampire: The Masquerade: “It's the most '80s conception of vampires, there's literally a rose with a petal falling off onto marble on the cover ... All the illustrations in Vampire are cool dudes in cool shades at night, with one ankh earring.” One of the players Carroll assembled had an identical twin, who would hang out and watch as they consulted the rulebook; eventually she made a character of her own. That was Kate Craig. “Kate was the only person I knew in high school who drew,” Carroll says, smiling. “It was so vexing that somebody else was good at art—that was supposed to be my thing.”

Touring the University of Toronto near the end of high school, Carroll was delighted to learn that one complex hosted the ’70s slasher film Black Christmas. But after arriving at Trinity College—traditional redoubt of Anglican WASPs, conservative enough that its students still wear robes to dining hall—she fell to a more prosaic form of misery. “I just had nothing in common with anybody … I actually had to be intelligent and do work, and that was apparently not going to happen,” she laughs. “I would constantly sleep so that I didn’t have to be awake.” Two months later, she decided to drop out, but her college head noticed the drawings all over Carroll’s walls mid-counseling and asked whether she’d ever considered art school instead. Kate was by this time studying illustration at Toronto’s Sheridan College, so she enrolled in their animation program, where many of her closest friendships began. Steve Wolfhard, an Adventure Time storyboard artist who met Carroll around then, says “we probably email one another a dozen times a day,” about reptoids, the paranormal talk show Coast to Coast AM, or “gross stuff on the Internet.” This was the circle of people that first welcomed her into animation, then encouraged her to roam elsewhere; it was at a comedy podcast convention with Wolfhard, of all places, where she felt compelled to start making comics in the first place.


The house that Carroll and Kate Craig share in Stratford lies on a pretty, sylvan street, bracketed at one end by a mysteriously abandoned building. After Carroll quit her animation job to draw full-time and her wife began working remotely for a video game developer, they considered moving to Toronto or Montreal, but Craig doesn’t like big cities. With its namesake theatre festival, Stratford offered both cheap Shakespeare and a small town they could feel comfortable in. Sometimes she walks 10 minutes away to write in the Avondale cemetery—Carroll’s upcoming issue of the Frontier anthology will employ urban legend and Southern Ontario graveyard rituals. “I found a row of tombstones right next to each other: Mother, Peace, Death. And Lily May Summerbell. That's a beautiful name! Poor Lily May Summerbell! Then it turns out she died when she was four years old, and I was like, ‘What's more tragic than Lily May Summerbell dying? The whole town must have wept. She must have had golden ringlets.’”

I've had more than one person say to me, when they met me at a convention, "Oh, I pictured you so differently." They all described a waify [girl with] long, blonde hair. And I was like, "All right ... great." I guess by drawing this way I can be like, "Heads up! Not waify blonde. Hairy lizard. Deep-set eyes."

Beauty in Through the Woods is both lure and armour, something resented or offered to tempt, a constant. Carroll can make even elbows look sensuously angled. Her hues might have been pilfered from a hothouse somewhere, “lush and velvety,” in the critic Joe McCulloch’s words. At times she’s taken this to a formalist extreme: “Grave of the Lizard Queen” divides moments from a life into mortuary artifacts, death at its most aestheticized. Sexuality tends to be sublimated. When the bride meets her Bluebeard for dinner in “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold,” all impossibly bright primary colours, the panels close in on bloody meat, long decadent fingers, her pale neck, his vulpine mouth—a scene that Carroll thought of as representing her “horrible wedding night.”

She designed that bride to look like a “decorative object,” so that her “china-doll aesthetic” would crack apart over the course of the story. Carroll may be fine “dressing like a slob” herself, but she’s always thinking about fashion on the page; she lost interest in Catwoman as a kid after the title character gave up her utilitarian grey suit for absurdly high heels. (“Of course, she has to look fuckable, she’s like a garbage monster,” she jokes during a tangent about some terrible Venom knockoff.) For “The Nesting Place,” she looked at flapper designs by the artist Erté, “these super-stylized costumes.” When angsty, tomboyish Bell discovers her brother’s lithe fiancée has become a host for a writhing, tooth-threading mass of worms, the monster promises: “The children at school will much prefer you once my babies stretch you into something tall, slim and pretty.” Bell is “sort of a pissy teen,” says Carroll, "and who's going to complain if a pissy teen gets happy? Who's going to complain if a frumpy girl gets pretty?”

I always wonder about the self-portraits of cartoonists. They’re rarely too flattering; Toronto’s Michael DeForge has lately taken to drawing himself as a mutant baby. Carroll’s main avatar is a burly, reptilian, goat-legged creature. It doesn’t capture that swirl of dark hair, the way her wide face rapidly sharpens into a grin, but she’s attached to it anyway: “Every so often I'll draw a portrait of myself, and then Steve Wolfhard or somebody will email me like: ‘What do you see!? Why are you drawing yourself like this?’ ... I don't ever want to be someone who draws an idealized or even attractive version of themselves. Maybe this is the most Canadian thing. ‘I don't want to seem like I like what I look like or anything...’” The caricature serves a purpose: “I've had more than one person say to me, when they met me at a convention, ‘Oh, I pictured you so differently.’ They all described a waify [girl with] long, blonde hair. And I was like, ‘All right ... great.’ I guess by drawing this way I can be like, ‘Heads up! Not waify blonde. Hairy lizard. Deep-set eyes.’”

Towards the end of the day, Carroll leads me into her deceptively vast basement to dig out some rough pages. Once she’s made enough notes—there were nine preliminary versions of the death mask from “Grave of the Lizard Queen” alone—her comics tend to take shape as composites, disparate images floating across long sheets of paper, stitched together and coloured in Photoshop. It’s a curiously austere route towards her luxuriant style, which seldom permits even the restraints of a panel grid. Although Carroll’s next big project is a print adaptation of Laura Halse Anderson’s young-adult novel Speak, she’s still thinking about how the online medium might be used to unpick comics narrative. If any spare time presents itself in between, she wants to finish a graphic Twine game, following the interwoven lives of a reptilian romantic triad who all forgot their birthday presents. “If you play through with all of them, the things that they do in each storyline affects the other storylines and what presents people will find ... And then they all have sex at the end in some weird lizard way.”

Carroll doesn’t jump at any old scare: She hates home invasion stories, horror movies about horror writers, and “overly complicated murders” (except Hannibal, where they’re staged like baroque art installations). It’s all tres extraneous. “Horror is emotions of helplessness or exploitation,” she argues, fraught secrets curdling into obsession. “So many of the characters I write about are so similar to how I perceive myself,” she recently told the critic Zainab Akhtar, “just taken to an extreme—they are angry and cowardly and roiling with envy—and I can do horrible things to them, which is pretty cathartic.” Maybe this is why she likes to end stories abruptly, with one revelatory and unnerving image: A denuded werewolf, a prince swollen by water, teeth clacking against apple. At the book launch for Through the Woods soon afterwards, Carroll will note that she rarely bothers to explain anybody’s backstory, because “the unknown is much more terrifying”—and how private the unknown can be, so intimately close.

Image via Emily Carroll's "Out of Skin"

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Comics Journal, Social Text, the Village Voice and the Awl. Along with Carl Wilson and Margaux Williamson, he is one-third of the group blog Back to the World.