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Next month, horror artist Emily Carroll will be coming out with a new comic titled When I Arrived at the Castle. It's a gothic lesbian vampire comic, a sentence in which every word gets more and more exciting. In anticipation for this release, I am going to be looking back at Carroll's previous comic, Through the Woods.
A simple glance at any of Carroll's comics shows an obvious fascination with the female body. Both in an erotic sense, and a grotesque sense, two sides of the same coin. Of the five stories in Through the Woods, only one (the viral hit, "His Face All Red") features a male protagonist. The others are all centred on women, women as allies, women as adversaries, who have to save themselves or save each other. Men, for the most part, are inconsequential. When they're characters they're either faceless villains or complicit in the terrorizing of women. Carroll illustrates a litany of horrors in her macabre fantasy world—monsters disguised as men, murderous husbands, shapeshifting entities, ghostly possession, bodily infiltration; but, of all of these dangers, it's clear that girlhood is the most perilous of all.
The female body is a site of violence in fairy tales. In Charles Perrault’s original tale, Sleeping Beauty awakens not with true love’s kiss, but when one of the children she bore following her rape by the Prince, sucks the spindle splinter from her finger. In the Grimms' ‘A Girl Without Hands,’ a maiden has her hands chopped off after her father made a sour deal with the devil (in some versions, she does it herself to spurn the sexual advances of her brother or father). The female body is one which is constantly treated as a material object to be claimed, controlled, or destroyed. Most alarmingly is the violence done to girls in multitudes, and the way it is brushed off. Bluebeard murders six of his wives for disobeying orders before he is finally stopped; the titular Robber Bridegroom and his band of rogues pretend to be rich suitors before kidnapping and chopping up girl after girl after girl. Often this violence comes because the woman in question is beautiful, or flaunts her looks, causing her downfall.
Carroll does not shy away from showing brutality in her stories. A disembodied woman sings a siren song visually represented as a trail of blood running across the pages; a seemingly ordinary young woman is shown to be the vessel for countless monsters, red tendrils like worms pouring out from her mouth and eyes. In the cases that the violence towards women is only implied, such as "Our Neighbour’s House", a Canadian Gothic twist on Little Red Riding Hood the threat of violence, because the method it will take is unknown, is heightened. It comes as little surprise to know that two of the tales in Carroll’s collection ("My Friend Janna" and "The Nesting Place") deal with the possession and infiltration of female bodies, while "A Lady’s Hands Are Cold" is concerned with the desecration of one.
Often this violence comes because the woman in question is beautiful, or flaunts her looks causing her downfall. A beautiful woman can be flawed (typically exemplified in laziness, vanity, or selfishness) but her hamartia is never anything that cannot be overcome by the end of the story to turn her into a submissive, humble bride. This belief bears a simple message: be a good person and you too can be beautiful. It is refreshing to note that the bulk of women in Carroll’s stories are average-looking teenage girls. In fact, the two characters who are beautiful—Rebecca in "The Nesting Place" and the wife in "A Lady’s Hands Are Cold" are not unconditionally beautiful. Rebecca in "The Nesting Place" is a paragon of roaring twenties beauty but that beauty is a cover for a horrible secret barely contained by her skin. The wife in "A Lady’s Hands Are Cold" wears beautiful gowns and jewelry with her hair elaborately done up, but her corpse-like face resembles that of her dismembered predecessor. Beauty almost always comes with a terrible price. Beautiful women, after all, are more likely to be victims of violence. Their allure can inspire lust and envy in others who will not hesitate to do terrible things to either possess a beautiful girl or strip her of her beauty.
"A Lady’s Hands Are Cold," the second story in the book is Carroll's take on the Bluebeard tale and my personal favourite. The traditional story goes like this: a mysterious aristocrat takes several wives, all of whom disappear under mysterious circumstances. His new wife, disobeying orders to not enter a certain room, finds the bodies of his previous wives locked away. In some versions of the story, the new wife must be saved from her evil husband after he discovers her trespassing, in others, she defeats him herself. However, the tale Carroll spins is not about Bluebeard, but his wife. The story is named neither for its antagonist or protagonist, but rather the woman who sets off the chain of events. Bluebeard is never named, never shown as more than a profile, or a mouth. For most of the comic he is neither seen nor heard from.
Bluebeard is a story punishing women for their curiosity. Eve, Pandora, Lot’s wife, women’s downfalls have happened because of their thirst for knowledge so long as stories have been around. A curious woman, for all intents and purposes, is a dead one. However, "A Lady’s Hands Are Cold" deviates in several ways from the traditional Bluebeard narrative aside from the lack of focus on the murderous husband. There is only one previous wife, who was dismembered and hidden within the house itself (in the walls, under the floorboards etc). There she sings a siren song about a marriage gone wrong which leads the current wife to explore. The dead wife is the one who ensures she will be found by singing a song about her marriage gone wrong. If this were a normal Bluebeard tale, the reassembled first wife would become an ally, but Carroll likes to keep readers on their toes. The undead woman is malicious and threatens to tear the newcomer to pieces. Rather than waiting for help, the new wife flees the estate and doesn't look back. She is alive at the end of the story but nobody knows for how much longer. The nightmarish technicolour the story is rendered in serves to capture the decadent lifestyle shown in the Bluebeard story, the most graphic in the book, while setting it apart from the rest of comics whose colour palettes are firmly grounded in reality, despite the supernatural occurrences.
As far as fairytale heroines go, Carroll presents a multitude of young women who could only be found in contemporary retellings of classic tales. Of them, Bell from "The Nesting Place" is the best example. A disabled girl with short hair who wears boyish clothes and ranges from introverted to standoffish Bell is everything a fairytale heroine should not be. This is in opposition to her future sister-in-law Rebecca, who is not only conventionally feminine and beautiful but has a saccharine sweet personality to match. Carroll subverts the reader’s and society’s expectations by making Rebecca the villainous one. Bell’s suspicions that something is off about Rebecca are proven to be true when it is revealed she is the ‘mother’ to dozens of red worm monsters who took over her original body and wear it as skin.
"Our Neighbour’s House," the first story in the book is one of Red Riding Hood. And what a bright red it is. The phrase itself is never uttered, and the cloak is only donned at the very end, but it is as vibrant as the blood-red moon that shines down on it. The girl, in this case, is not alone, she is the middle sister; and is not visiting her grandmother, but is instead told to go to her neighbour’s house in the event of her father’s death. Beth only leaves the safety of the house when it is clear that her sisters have been stolen away. Death waits for her at every turn: starve from lack of food, be taken by the same unseen evil that took her sisters or, get lost in the great expanse of snow she ventures out into. Beth only leaves when she knows she will never return. It is unusual that ‘Red’ doesn’t venture off the path, instead, she walks toward the wolf and greets him with open arms. She does not wait to be taken but instead offers herself up.
Typically, Red Riding Hood is a story about consumption. It taps into one of the most common fears children have: the “dread of being devoured.” In "Our Neighbours House," the reader is not present for the act of Beth’s consumption by the ‘man’ in the wide-brimmed hat. The story cuts away before we see her devoured, hinging on that sense of uncertainty for her future.
Readers know the source material of the story; they know how it should end, but not how it will end.