Welcome back to DEEP CUTS! Today, as a fitting capper to Women in Horror Month, we welcome the amazing Emily Carroll to talk about not just one, but two, of her creepiest webcomics. Like many readers, my first encounter with Emily’s work was her 2010 classic horror tale “His Face All Red,” which seems to make the rounds every Halloween in creepypasta threads and serious discussions alike. However, Emily’s deep body of horror work embraces many different styles and forms. Her most recent book, Through the Woods, was just announced as one of the Stoker Final Ballot nominees for Superior Achievement in a Graphic Novel.
While Emily’s website has many great stories to explore, Emily and I discussed two that seem to come from very different dark poles: the gruesome and hallucinogenic haunted woods of “Out of Skin” and the stark, contemporary ghost story/nightmare of “The Hole the Fox Did Make.” While these two couldn’t be more different at first glance – theme, setting, even art style – they share the same deep attention to detail and hauntingly poetic turns of phrase. By paring down the words and, as Emily says, letting the “artwork actually work,” both stories build in a unity of effect to create compelling myths that seep out into the world beyond the confines of the frame.
“OUT OF SKIN”
Hellnotes: Many of your stories have a particularly timeless feel, like a fable or half-remembered fairy tale. Was “Out of Skin” – with its ghost-haunted forest and vengeful spirits – based on a pre-existing story? What was its spark?
Emily Carroll: No pre-existing story really, or at least not one that I chose consciously — actually, if I had to trace its origins, I would say that it grew out of a conversation I’d been having with a friend of mine about our bodies, and how we relate to them (hint: not especially well). Before this I had been toying with the idea of a tree with hands for leaves — one appears in a panel in an earlier horror comic I made, “His Face All Red” — but the inclusion of the flesh house (and the flesh buckets, and the body pit, and all the rest of that good stuff) and even the design of the main narrator’s appearance didn’t come about until I started thinking in depth about how I relate to my own body and how I move through the world in it.
That said, the fairy tale setting and general tone of the writing was by design, as I wanted this story to fit in thematically with two earlier stories that feature the same atmosphere — “His Face All Red” from 2010, and “Margot’s Room” from 2011. They’re all vaguely interconnected stories taking place in the same setting, same general time period, and all deal with a “deep, dark forest” that transforms either the narrator or someone close to them.
HL: One of the elements that separates “Out of Skin” from the previous stories that I’ve featured is the graphic and gruesome imagery. A number of these are particularly haunting – my favorite, perhaps, being the image of the narrator accompanying the line “And I fell asleep in their mouth, with spools of their hair for my pillow.” The sparse, but precise, words are poetic in their juxtaposition with the images. When developing this – and in your work as a larger whole – did the words or the images come first? Can you separate them?
EC: That line in particular, I definitely thought of the image first — though I can’t exactly remember where it came from. I think possibly medieval illustrations of the Mouth of Hell, where you see all these souls trapped in this demon’s giant jaws? It was definitely one of the first decisions I made — aside from the chair made of arms — in terms of what to populate the transformed house with. I wanted to play around with size a little, to show that these bodies were truly limitless in how they could manifest in this poor woman’s house.
In terms of writing just in general, it’s difficult to say, I work so closely with both words and images at once, and they really do inform one another. I often do find turns of phrases that I like a lot though, and if they work with the resulting artwork then great, but if I’m just putting it in there because I like how it sounds and it adds nothing, it feels like empty vanity, and take it out. I take a lot of writing out of the finished product. I have to remind myself that it’s hard to make a story tense if I don’t let the art breathe. Learning how to write comics has been a lot about learning when to shut up and let the artwork actually work.
HL: As a transitional matter, I want to praise the artfulness of “Out of Skin.” The way the words and images blend together, the amazing use of the color palette – the washed out world, the violent reds, the charnel pallor of the house of flesh, the glaring spectral white of the tree. But our next story, “The Hole the Fox Did Make,” is completely different. It looks closer to pen and ink; the ‘hand-drawn’ roughness and the cursive lettering give it a much different feel. How do you decided which approach to use for the different stories? Is it a technical decision, a difference in how you visualize the material, or something else entirely?
EC: It’s funny you mention the difference between the two actually, especially in terms of one looking more roughly ‘hand drawn’, because “The Hole the Fox Did Make” is actually inked and lettered entirely on the computer (there are traditional elements layered into it though, a lot of graphite swatches that I manipulated digitally, for example). The reason for that comic being made in that way was simply that it was faster and less pressure for me to make a comic if I didn’t have to scan things in and could easily correct things — and “Fox” was being made at a time where I wanted to just make a comic quickly and not get too bogged down in the art of it anyway.
“Out of Skin” is drawn entirely in pencil, with colour (and a few layering effects) added digitally, and the lettering is all pencil too. I think I just wanted to try something new. I’d been looking at the work of cartoonists like Sam Alden and Cathy G. Johnson, and wanted to try out something similar. At the same time, I was experimenting to see if the inkless style would “feel” scarier at all, if perhaps having poorly defined edges and more blurring to the art would make it seem more eerie, more dream like.
The difference between the two is probably that I going into writing “Fox” I already knew the style I was going to be using — because like I say, it suited my time frame and work method at the time — whereas for “Out of Skin” I already knew the story I was going to write before I considered how best to execute it. I honestly think a lot of how I draw a certain comic depends on how much I have patience for at any given time.
“THE HOLE THE FOX DID MAKE”
HL: Changing gears now, I also want to discuss one of your more contemporary stories, “The Hole the Fox Did Make.” The link from your homepage puts this in the “Ghost story, mystery” category – the only of its kind – but one of the main narrative threads running through this story is Regan’s dream. Although there is symbolism that makes sense when the Fox is revealed, the whole surreal feel of the strip is influenced by these sequences. What was your inspiration for this piece? I note that you have done several strips that are apparently illustrated dream journals, but does this have a common genesis?
EC: I sort of touched on it earlier, but I started that comic while I was going through a pretty anxious period, highlighted by a lot of stressful dreams. I was working on comics, but they were all with other people, and I was becoming very tense not having something I could control and create on my own. I decided to try an experiment: I’d draw a comic strip for the first time, and I wouldn’t think about what the overarching story would be about until I had the first strip done. So I ended up with this first comic strip — which I knew, at least, was going to be horror — and I packed it full of these little details I could explore (eg. who is this little girl? what does this dream mean? why does she wake up feeling so hungry?). Even the title was something I put in knowing I could build on it — it’s a line from a folk tale called The Oxford Student, and I ran across it in a book of Angela Carter’s fairy tales. The cadence and strangeness of it really struck me — and still does, really, I think the whole poem is satisfyingly beautiful to read and say aloud.
Ultimately what this comic has in common with my illustrated dream journals was that both were a way for me to cope with anxiety at a time I was feeling a little overwhelmed. During the time I illustrated my dreams I was having a rash of nightmares, and I dream very vividly and frequently, so I was waking up just exhausted by them every morning. As I began pouring more of that anxiety into comics though, it did help, and eventually my nightmares stopped for awhile. I try to make time for small comic projects in and amidst my other work regularly now.
Also, just as an aside because you mention it: that story is labeled as “ghost story/mystery” because I honestly had no idea what else to call it when I put it up on the site. I like to give, at the very least, a vague label because I don’t want people to go in expecting a cute or fun web comic when it’s definitely not. But frequently when I am deep in a comic I have no idea if it will evoke the right response or not, if it will be scary at all — and so many people have told me that they don’t consider my comics “horror” (because there’s not enough gore? not enough axe wielding maniacs? who knows) that I will admit it gets into my head sometimes, and I try to find a different word to describe them. Consciously I know this is a little ridiculous, and I do consider “The Hole the Fox Did Make” to be horror. I think the events that happen in it are some of the most horrifying I’ve written/drawn.
HL: In many of your comics, you make excellent use of the “infinite page” available in web comics – embracing the ability to use space and links between panels that wouldn’t be available in a printed format. “The Hole the Fox Did Make” is different from, for example, “Out of Skin” in that it has – at least the start – a more traditional 4-panel-per-page linear layout. However, that changes on ‘page’ 17 and 18 (which also introduces color!), with the narrative climax. Why did you decide on this initial structure and these shifts?
EC: Initially, once I got underway with “Fox”, I was going to break the panel concept entirely at that climactic scene and do my more usual thing — an infinite canvas scroll that told the story of the murder in a completely different drawing style, much more free floating, etc. I actually had it half-finished when I decided it didn’t work at all, tossed the whole thing, and went with the rows and rows of four panels stacked on top of each other instead, which I thought was more powerful anyway. Simpler too. Usually when I make things simpler they work a thousand times better.
But either way, I knew after working on it for just a few strips that I wanted the story to climax with a break in form, and then return to the mundane 4-panel layout immediately after. I also knew I wanted to use red, because a) I’m a sucker for red, and b) it underscored the passion and violence of that scene. My aim was for the rest of the comic to feel cold in comparison, even more so after the red appears and then is leeched away again.
For the initial structure though, I just wanted to make a comic strip because I never had made one before. I wanted to see if I could make a horror comic strip, specifically. Strips work great for gags but I was interested more in maintaining tension across very brief, four panel updates. And actually it was intended to run as a daily comic at first, but I get too possessive with that stuff, and I knew the stress of updating daily would eventually get to me, even if I had drawn it all in advance. My general preference is for putting out a complete story all at once anyway.
HL: This story, for being a ‘ghost story,’ has what I find to be some of the most shocking scenes of violence in all of your work. In these two death scenes, what makes them so resonant for me is that, despite having the framing narrative of the dream and the ghostly presence of the whispering woman, the actual scenes of death are so much more grounded in reality than the more overtly supernatural stories. I’m curious as to how you felt about this kind of shift and whether you considered handling these elements in a less realistic (maybe more symbolic) manner.
EC: I went back and forth on the death scenes a lot — like I say, I started this comic not sure of where it was going or what it would be about, and so as I created it I went through a lot of permutations. The original death scene for the Whispering Woman was exceedingly brutal, for instance, and had a lot more elements to it — but as I mentioned, when I make things simpler they are almost always better, and it was true in this case too.
Either way, I suppose I did always want the death scenes to contrast the ethereal dream sequences in a rather blunt way. A lot of my work has this fairy tale, fantastical bent, and while this comic does have those elements too, I also wanted it take place in a very unromantic reality. Particularly the violence. I wanted the deaths to be these tragic — but definitely ugly — things. I think in a way it makes it sadder, both for the two characters who die of course, but also for the murderer (and I tend to like it best when horror is sad).
HL: Finally, other than your excellent website (which everyone should check out) and “Through the Woods,” where can readers find more of your work in a similar vein(s)? What about something completely different?
EC: Well, I just recently wrote and drew an issue of the excellent Frontier series, which is published by Youth in Decline — each issue is devoted to a different artist, and for mine I chose to do a stand alone horror story about urban legends and old murders. You can find that, as well as a preview, over here (http://www.youthindecline.com/product/frontier-6-emily-carroll) at their store.
I also work on children’s comics from time to time though, and most recently I finished the artwork for a new graphic novel called “Baba Yaga’s Assistant”, written by Marika McCoola and being published by Candlewick Press. It obviously has a lot of fairy tale elements and some creepy little touches, though is of course for kids and pretty light hearted. I believe it will be out later this year!
Emily Carroll was born in London, Ontario in June of 1983, and presently lives in Stratford, Ontario with her wife, video game artist Kate Craig, and their two awful cats. Her comics have appeared in several anthologies, such as The Anthology Project V2, Explorer: The Mystery Boxes, kuš! #9, Little Heart, Creepy #9, Fairy Tale Comics, The Witching Hour, & others. Her first graphic novel, Through the Woods, a collection of short horror stories, was published by Margaret K McElderry Books in July 2014, and by Faber and Faber in the UK. She is also the artist and co-creator of the video game “The Yawhg”. You can follow Emily on Twitter at www.twitter.com/emilyterrible