Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘A Guest in the House’

“But at this point you rush right through me and I start to drown”

Emily Carroll knows how to make creepy comics, certainly, and that’s what we get in A Guest in the House, which comes from First Second Books. So … it’s creepy, but is it … good?

I’ve never been as enamored of Carroll as some in the comics literati, and it’s because something that rears its head in this book, as well. Don’t get me wrong – she’s a terrific cartoonist and storyteller, and that’s why it bugs me that I don’t love her more. In this book, we get Abby, a young-ish woman who’s just married a man somewhat older than she (not too much, but enough to make it a thing) with an adolescent daughter whose first wife died. Now, as consumers of pop culture, we are conditioned to believe that he killed his wife, especially because he and his daughter moved across the country from where they lived and he keeps the attic locked (is he Mr. Rochester?) and he doesn’t want Abby going up there and he’s also very skittish about his daughter going into the lake by their house. Why he would be worried about that when they have never lived there before is just one of the mysteries of the book, and Carroll does an excellent job leaning into these tropes and using them skillfully. Abby is a very introverted person, and her self-esteem is very low, and she doesn’t have many friends. She has an active fantasy life, though, and she dreams of being a knight in shining armor, killing dragons and rescuing damsels in distress. That becomes more pertinent when Crystal – her stepdaughter – is drawing scenes from a medieval fantasy world at school, and then Abby finds out that David – her husband – still has some artwork his wife painted, and then Crystal is keeping old photos of her mother against her father’s wishes, and eventually Abby starts dreaming of Sheila – the dead wife – as a damsel to be rescued. We can guess what happens next – Abby begins seeing Sheila while she’s awake. Is she a hallucination or a ghost? Crystal implies that she sees Sheila, too, but does she? It’s all very mysterious!

Did David kill Sheila? Is Abby really seeing her ghost? Carroll does a masterful job building the tension, as she shows us that Abby is deeply unhappy, as was Sheila (maybe, unless that’s not a ghost) and David, while not a bad dude, is used to having things his way. Carroll doesn’t make this too much of a feminist tract, as she’s more interested in the horror aspects, but as we know, genre fiction is a great place to examine social issues without actually examining social issues, and Carroll gives us a woman who believes she isn’t good enough for the man who married her and she wonders what that says about our society. Abby interacts with some people in the book, of course, and even those small interactions show how trapped women are in this world, even if they’re happy. Sheila implies that she’s dead partly because she couldn’t or wouldn’t fit into that world, and as we increasingly believe that David killed her, we wonder if Abby will be his next victim or if she’ll find the strength to survive. Abby also envies Sheila, as non-artistic people tend to envy artistic people, because Sheila was able to express herself through paintings. So she begins to look at Sheila as a “friend,” which is never good when the friend is either a hallucination or a ghost. That never ends well.

Carroll toys with our expectations, and there are some good twists in the book, but what bugs me about Carroll’s work is her ambiguity. Now, I’m not one of these hosers who needs concrete closure in everything I consume, pop culture-wise, but Carroll loves ambiguity, and it occasionally works against her. There’s a difference between ambiguity and confusion, and too often with Carroll, I’m confused. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the end of the book confuses me. There’s a page near the end where something happens that isn’t drawn particularly well, so it’s difficult to figure out exactly what’s going on. That would be fine if the very final image in the book (which is extremely beautifully drawn, I’ll give it that) weren’t so confusing. I honestly don’t know what happens, and while it’s fine to leave it ambiguous, if you cannot even figure out what is going on, it’s hard to leave the book with a satisfyingly confounded feeling, as in “Huh, that was weird but something to ponder” when you’re too busy thinking “What exactly the heck just happened?” I could be dumb – that’s always the best thing to think when I’m reading something – but if I’m not, it’s frustrating. Furthermore, I never know if anyone else is feeling the same way I am. I did find a review that said the ending was a bit too rushed, but I didn’t feel that, I just couldn’t figure it out (I mean, it does come at you quickly, but I actually don’t mind it). I’ve felt this way before with Carroll’s work, and it makes me think I’m the dumb one, because others don’t think that way, or they’re too scared to admit it. Ah, that’s it – I’m the brave boy saying the emperor has no clothes!!!! That’s it, right? Well, probably not. But I’m the only one reviewing this, aren’t I? This is a powerful story that gets into a lot of interesting things, but because I’m not exactly sure what happens at the end (and, despite the undercurrent of social issues, the plot does matter in this book), I don’t love it as much as I want to.

Carroll’s art remains amazing, though. Abby’s real life is in gray tones, and Carroll’s work with Abby, making her just the slightest bit frumpy but definitely not unattractive, is excellent work. We can see why David would marry her – she is certainly pleasing to look at, and the way Carroll draws her shows how unattractive she does feel and how self-conscious she is about her lack of self-esteem. Abby is a fascinating character, and Carroll not only makes her interesting through the way she speaks but the way she draws her, and so as she begins to unravel the mystery, she tries to break out and become something different, but part of her “transformation” is … again, I don’t want to give too much away, but how Carroll shows that her transformation isn’t necessarily what she thinks is superbly handled. Another thing she does, and I can’t imagine it’s not deliberate, is with David – he wears glasses, and you rarely see his eyes. The lenses are opaque most of the time, and so we don’t really get into David’s soul, so just that little touch makes him seem less “human” than Abby, and the reader’s sympathies are with her far more than with him. I mean, she’s the POV character, so of course we’re going to be sympathetic to her, but that little thing she does with David’s glasses is quite neat. Then, of course, we get her fantasy world, which is in vibrant and amazing colors. Her armor is beautifully intricate, the layouts are wonderfully fluid and sensuous, and the shifts between the “real” world and the fantasy are excellently realized. Sheila is a wildly weird character, as she shifts from beautiful to … slightly less beautiful, and Carroll makes her a very compelling creature with a good hint of danger to her, as she should. This is an absolutely gorgeous comic, and while Carroll has been excellent for years, this feels like a step up for her. Even the final image, as I mentioned, is absolutely stunning, even if I don’t really get what’s going on.

As frustrating as the ending can be, this is still a good comic. Carroll knows how to create tense and weird and creepy situations, and her art is excellent. You might love the ending and even understand it! Wouldn’t that be something! As I noted, I don’t absolutely love this because of those final pages, but I still think A Guest in the House is definitely worth a read. And hey, there’s a link below where you can find it!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

One comment

  1. Peter

    Just read this and would agree pretty much on everything. Definitely a good book, but a little too ambiguous for me to call it “great.” The artwork is phenomenal but the story doesn’t totally work.

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