Recently nominated for the prestigious Harvey Award for 2019 Book of the Year, Emily Carroll’s When I Arrived at the Castle is a tour de force for those who appreciate Gothic horror, lesbian vampires, and stunning illustrations and story lines. Illustrated in black and white and, with an exquisite touch, brilliant reds, the story follows our heroine, an anthropomorphic cat, as she enters the lair of the countess/vampire with the one express desire of causing her demise. The countess/vampire is humanoid in shape, except when she shape shifts into a half-human snake-like creature, but is at all times otherworldly. Upon entering the vampire’s lair, the protagonist is offered a bath which works as a transition into a more horrific setting than she and the reader may have initially imagined. There is a definite undercurrent of the fairy tale world in the tale which involves magic, transformation, and, in turn, grotesque reality. This is all exquisitely managed in very few pages, with numerous full-page illustrations punctuated by pages of full text among the otherwise panel-less comic book format. The pages of full text briefly relate tragic stories of other heroines who met horrific deaths. These pages resemble pages from age-old decorated collections of fairy tales but, in true Carroll style, the background colour is a relentless brilliant red.
Carroll’s countess is seductive with long flowing hair and a curvaceous body accentuated by sensuous lips and bedroom eyes. Her protagonist, on the other hand, is much more robust and familiar, if you discount her cat ears and tail, of course. Ironically, the story reads as a “cat playing with a mouse” scenario, with the roles reversed. The reader is immersed in the seduction, the resistance, and the dangerous game of the trauma and the absolute abuse of power. At the same time, the reader’s imagination must be fully engaged as there is much left to individual interpretation by Carroll’s deft use of text, image, and layout of the page. As in her previous works, Carroll plays with lettering, pacing, mood, atmosphere as we explore the castle along with the feline heroine. There is a mesmerizing five-page sequence where the Countess is being observed through a keyhole which sets the tone, the pacing, and the knowledge of subsequent horror.
There is much to unpack in this slight graphic novel, as it embraces horror, erotica, terror, unease, and ambiguous characters and points-of-view. Highly recommended for an adult audience.
When I Arrived at the Castle
By Emily Carroll
Koyama Press, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: Adult
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Character Traits: Lesbian, Gay, Queer Genderqueer
Creator Highlights: LGBTQIA+ Creator