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'A Guest in the House' rests on atmosphere, delivering an uncanny, wild ride

First Second

Strong works of gothic fiction are propelled along as much by plot — those surprising storylines and turns readers look forward to encountering — as by atmosphere and the creepy, weird vibes it can convey. Readers can often just enjoy being carried along for long stretches by vibes, and vibes alone.

Emily Carroll's new adult horror graphic novel, A Guest in the House, seamlessly achieves that atmospheric element. The mechanics of its plot are a bit more unsteady. But even though the book doesn't exactly land plot-wise, it's an impressively long and gorgeous volume that delivers an uncanny, wild ride.

Carroll is best known for the horror webcomics that broke her out as a masterful artist and storyteller, including the viral short story, "His Face All Red," which she went on to publish in her first volume of collected pieces, Through the Woods. More recently, she collaborated with author Laurie Halse Anderson on an impressive graphic novel version of Anderson's bestselling YA novel, Speak. A Guest in the House, Carroll's first long work, is ambitious in scope and visual artistry. In it, she brings together many of the preoccupations that can be found in her earlier works, including fairy tales, supernatural horror, and young angst. Most interesting is her investment in playfully experimenting with layout, form and color to see how she can take age-old tropes and conventions and try and make these new, using the comics form.

Abigail, or Abby, is a 20-something, shy and soft-spoken woman who works at the Valu-Save and has just married an older, mustachioed widower and dentist, David. Now they live together, with David's daughter, Crystal, in a small house on the lake. Like the unnamed narrator in Daphne Du Maurier's classic work of gothic fiction, Rebecca, from which Carroll seems to have been heavily inspired, Abby drips of innocence and inexperience. She has few evident needs, or talents, of her own. Her background, which involves a sister who died in a car crash when Abby was 13, and a disturbed mother, is the bedrock to the many often disturbing and always strange fantasies and visualizations that take up much of her waking life. Over the course of the book, which introduces more mysteries than are ultimately resolved, Abby's internal hauntings take over.

Pages from Emily Carroll's <em>A Guest in the House. </em>
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First Second
Pages from Emily Carroll's A Guest in the House.

What makes Carroll's work such a compelling read are the visuals, which are consistently surprising and expertly move from one stylistic tactic to the next, each creating its own particular mood. For example, the narrator's scene-setting monologues are delivered in dull typeset set against lackluster, grayscale snapshots of life in this nondescript house, where the cupboards are neat and loons can be overheard in the mornings. On the other hand, when Abby falls into her own overwhelming world of daydreams and horrible whimseys, flashes of color — mostly a shocking red, and also a veiny blue — appear, fading away as quickly as they suddenly emerge. One particularly remarkable page pictures Abby staring off nonchalantly in the parking lot of the Valu-Save, presumably either numbing out or trying to make sense of things. A shopping cart whizzes by, and in it a bundle of tomatoes streaks red, its juices dripping, leaving a trail behind. As the scene closes, returning to a colorless view, Abby now looks cagey and vigilant from her spot on the ground. Is there something otherworldly in what she has just witnessed, or is this detail an effect of her overactive imagination? Is she just, in other words, making it all up?

A page from <em>A Guest in the House</em> by Emily Carroll.
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First Second
A page from A Guest in the House by Emily Carroll.

There are twists and turns throughout A Guest in the House, and some of these add depth to characters and move aspects of the plot forward. Though inscrutabilities persist even at the conclusion — and in an unsatisfactory way — the chilling ambiance makes this book one worth visiting. A Guest in the House is best read as a study of haunting and perception, or the ways it isn't always so easy to distinguish between what we see and what we imagine we see.

Tahneer Oksman is a writer, teacher, and scholar specializing in memoir as well as graphic novels and comics. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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Tahneer Oksman