Out of Skin by Emily Carrol


Horror works when it upsets the boundary between life and death, the mundane and sublime.

It especially works when the sublime is contained in the fragile carcass of a woman’s body or mind, a favored subject of deconstruction in the horror genre. Emily Carroll’s Out of Skin is one of my favorite stories of hers to date and it does exactly that. We’re quickly introduced to a mysterious pile of rheumy bodies in the woods and a woman who doesn’t seem to think twice about hiding them. Its a great open and gives the protagonist immediate dimension: She’s okay with being complicit in these murders in order to remain undisturbed. She cared for her family dutifully before they all died. She lives alone in the middle of the woods and has no visitors. This short section paints a fully realized character in a few sentences and a few panels which many creators have trouble doing over entire chapters.

Emily’s storytelling style is also fascinating. For one, she compresses actions into simple symbols instead of trying to draw out characters during the motion. She’s more concerned with mood over movement which benefits the story greatly as things seems frozen in time, everything frozen and waiting in anticipation. In the face of danger being still is a death wish. The woman is trapped by her home and the woods that surround her, her figure pressed against the jagged black edges of the panels, loomed over by tall dark trees. She doesn’t move when the cart man approaches her, his smiling figure invading the scope of her vision in three staccato panels.

Like in her other comics, red is alive in this story though used more economically, a sudden violent lashing to the eye. As the cart man draws closer to the cottage, his cloak and the forest around him flash a biting crimson. The woman herself is barely distinguished from her surroundings, her clothing a mute green and orange, until the second day when the red finally claims her skin and the rest of her body as she drinks from them.

Emily’s compositions aren’t necessarily composed for realism but are flat and structured in a way that recalls a draftsman of the Middle Ages or an illustrated Gothic manuscript. Her delicate lines plays off the aggressive inky black smears and splatters. Like Gipi, Emily opts to communicate only the crucial parts of a figure or the environment instead of demarcating every object with a harsh line. The woods that haunt many of her comics are smeared with shadows until they aren’t when they reach up out of the ground, bonewhite, alive and vengeful while other times they are mere vague ink washs in the background. The home that becomes a Beksinskian mausoleum is both terrifying and beautiful, the white limbs and mouthes clutching and writhing around this woman who is now an accomplice to their murders. The stark and sudden detail in the woman-home is especially stunning, every drop of sweat and wrinkled, bruised and veiny fold of skin rendered with a careful line.

The scrolling aspect of this comic is also expertly used, the slow descent through the panels and anticipation of the next image surrounded by the black of the screen feels eerie, like when you’re a child hiding beneath the covers and you slowly lower the blanket from your eyes to peer into the shadows of your room.  At the outset we lower ourselves into the darkness of the these strange woods, a milky pile of bodies waiting at the bottom to greet us. When we first see the corpses close up they are framed in ovals, a classic portrait frame that reminded me of Poe’s short story The Oval Portrait and how objectification is lethal. Death is the ultimate objectifier; murder, a tool of impassioned greed. Emily takes this idea farther, when the women become household objects: a spoon, a bed, a blanket, a door. Objectified women find other ways of feeling alive. The act of objectification, before providing pleasure to their murderer, is now a point of terror, warping their bodies into constructs of vengeance and desire.

How the woman in the woods reacts is what is truly interesting to me. She doesn’t feel the need to avenge these women nor does she wish for them to come between her and her only visitor and sometimes lover. I vaguely felt envy would end up being the woman’s motivation but mainly it was loneliness and a desperate desire to have just a single person to be with intimately in whatever form. A desire so deep that not even so many cold corpses could dampen. Emily’s stories breach a disturbing threshold between folktale and conspiracy theory. Our protagonists, often seen by themselves as victims, are sad creatures yet aren’t entirely suspicious of the surreal illogic they are forced to experience and function in. The unexplained forces that haunt them don’t startle so much as they extort their sanity from them.

Like in His Face All Red and Margot’s Room, the woods breed strangeness in men and forces their desires to rise and subsume them in a chilling metamorphosis. There is a wonderful elliptical quality to her narratives that offers neither solutions or ends but simply brings the story to a head where we are left stranded in the black of the page, abandoned to the eerie strangeness Emily has so effectively bred in us.

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