There are few modern comic creators doing horror as well as Emily Carroll. Her stories get under your skin, seeping back into your memory when you catch a glimpse of a bottle of lotion, a beautiful doll, a banner ad for an unfamiliar webcomic.
When I Arrived at the Castle
April 16, 2019
A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
When I Arrived at the Castle, Carroll’s latest work, is no exception. This gothic horror comic, following in the footsteps of Angela Carter and Shirley Jackson, tells the story of a nameless woman who enters a castle late at night for some unknown purpose. She tells the lady of the house—a beautiful, fearless countess who seems to have anticipated her arrival—why she’s come, and the lady seems to forgive her, but the night’s horrors have just begun.
All of these secrets unravel as you read further, but they are not the real draw. The protagonist, drawn as a feminine, curvy catgirl, is just one part of the mystery. This isn’t a simple, straightforward story of triumph over evil—very little horror ever is—but neither is it a moody, impenetrable set piece. When I Arrived at the Castle, much like the countess who greets the protagonist with an invitation to make herself at home with a warm bath, asks us to step in and get comfortable when we know we shouldn’t.
It’s the kind of story that needs multiple readings, not because it’s confusing, but because there’s so much to unravel, so much thematic detail to sift through. How do the stories the protagonist finds behind the locked red doors tie into the events of the story? What’s happening during the scenes in which the protagonist and the countess are tangled together? Sex? Violence? Both?
When I Arrived at the Castle feels like slipping into a rich velvet robe only to find that its red color is from centuries of bloodstains. Even the things that feel familiar about it, such as the spectral literary presences of Carter and Jackson, are twisted to suit Carroll’s unique style. There is nothing derivative here, even as the comic hearkens back to classic gothic horror, fairy tales, and contemporary writers.
It feels like nothing but an Emily Carroll comic; richly detailed when the story calls for it, stark and sparing when it doesn’t. Each panel is a story in itself, each character a lovely, eerie reversal of the other. One in white, one in black and white, and, eventually, both covered in blood.
There is an intentional eroticism about it, an exploration of desire and transgressing; the countess knows immediately what the catgirl wants, even if the reader does not. And what she wants, too, contorts and transforms over the course of the story, just as the countess does. Despite the gore, the story is still erotic, its focus on lips, teeth, and bare breasts drenched in blood blending titillation with disgust. That feeling of discomfort lasts long after reading.
The image that lingers here, like the lotion bottle, the dolls, the banner ads that preceded it, might be a beautiful woman. It might be a bath, still warm from someone else’s use. It might be a red door. But When I Arrived at the Castle, like Carroll’s other work, will not soon leave the mind. It haunts you, demanding that you look closer, closer, closer, until you’re confronted with all that’s uncomfortable under your skin.