The month of March marks Women’s History Month in the United States as well as International Women’s Day on March 8, 2019. An opportunity presented itself when award-winning comics creator, Emily Carroll, joined our upcoming panel event Oh, The Horror of it All, taking place March 13. Why not talk to Carroll about the women who’ve inspired her, her interest in body horror and her upcoming graphic novel, When I Arrived at the Castle, ahead of the event?
Your work is terrifyingly good. One of the standouts (and there are many) is the use of body horror in your reworking of fairy tale and romance tropes. What draws you to body horror and using it as a disruptor to traditional stories about women?
EC: Well, I write and draw very intuitively, and I often use art as a way to exorcise core discomforts or fears within myself. I have trouble making something scary if I myself am not actually scared (or at the very least upset) by it. So saying that, I have, like anyone else, a lot of struggles with my body, and negotiating the perception of it, publicly and privately, can be an unsettling experience for me. It’s frightening to rely so completely on a vessel that we don’t even entirely understand, and which can change and surprise us at anytime.
That said, the vastly less cerebral answer to this question is that I really, really enjoy drawing gore, and I find a sort of peace in rendering really unpleasant stuff.
Your art is stunning, versatile but also strikes fear in the reader. What’s your process like when tackling a story?
EC: I usually start with a core line or image, then build on it from there. And rather than have a fixed style, I try to adapt the art to the story, and what will best suit the mood I’m trying to create. I’ve thrown out a lot of finished art because although it might have been good technically, it just didn’t serve the atmosphere. When it feels ‘wrong’, I can huff and stamp my feet for awhile, but I’ll usually go back and change it.
However, the process for my upcoming book, When I Arrived at the Castle, is much different in that I just started drawing whatever I thought was the most fun and indulgent to draw (beautiful women, baroque embellishments) and made up the story as I went. So in that case it was the other way around from my usual style.
In your upcoming graphic novel, When I Arrived at the Castle, you have an anthropomorphic cat as the main character, which is a great counter to the Countess. I started to see anthropomorphic characters in your art in the last year or so and I wondered how you decided to go that route with your new book and if subsequent art/short comics have been inspired by that new direction?
EC: Honestly, the reason that character is a cat is because I had already drawn the Countess (who is a beautiful woman — most of the time), and I just couldn’t figure out a human face that would pair well with hers. When I tried to draw the cat character as just a human woman, it felt strange, like she was too real, when really I wanted both characters to appear more iconic. The cat face I gave her was fun to draw and play around with though, and led me to making some story decisions later on in the book that I wouldn’t have made otherwise.
And from there, I was just having so much fun drawing animal characters that I kept at it. I have another comic that released this past year from ShortBox called Beneath the Dead Oak Tree, where all the characters are these long limbed fox people, who are all basically identical aside from wigs and costume. And to be completely honest, I sometimes worry that when I draw humans I lack the skill to draw them well enough, that the reader will be taken out of the story because of some uncanny valley effect. I bypass this completely when I launch straight into the other direction and make everyone animals to begin with.
Plus they are extremely cute (again, most of the time).
Have there been female or non-binary horror writers whose work inspired you?
EC: Tons! I don’t even know where to begin, for fear of living someone out, but I’ll start with the big ones, like Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier, though my favourite writer of all time, horror aside, is probably Margaret Laurence. Short stories are my favourite though, and Angela Carter‘s fairy tale work is a big inspiration, as well as the stories and novels of Helen Oyeyemi, which play with the same kind of storytelling and can have such a romantic, otherworldly quality to them. And not necessarily horror-related, but art-wise I love Eleanor Davis, a master, and the brilliant Cathy G. Johnson inspires me to keep learning, growing, and experimenting with my work.
Do you have any writers or books you’d like to recommend?
EC: Yes! I would like to recommend Prism Stalker, a sci-fi comic series written and drawn by Sloane Leong, because Sloane’s incredible and there’s nothing else like it. I’ll also recommend How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ, which is an older book but always timely.
What are you currently reading?
EC: Right now I’m reading several things at once, because I’m a slow, but over-eager, reader: The Good House by Tananarive Due, A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin (which is a biography of Shirley Jackson), and Growing Things, an upcoming short story collection by Paul Tremblay.
Emily Carroll is a writer and artist of numerous award-winning comics, including the horror collection Through the Woods, which won both an Eisner and the British Fantasy Award for 2014. Her online comics work include numerous short stories, with subject matter ranging from haunted rivers to ravenous hand lotions. Her most recent work is a graphic novel adaptation of Laurie Halse Anderson’s 1999 novel Speak. She lives in Stratford, Ontario with two dogs, one cat, and her wonderful and talented wife, Kate.
You can buy tickets to the Oh, The Horror of it All panel discussion here.