Peril In Panels: His Face All Red
Never has an opening line been so true, nor has one ever been so foreboding and off putting at the above quote. Anyways, it’s time for another article where I bullshit about comics, cartoonists, and anything else I can cram in here while I desperately try and be amusing while I do so. Ready? Then let’s go!
“His Face All Red” by Emily Carroll is probably one of my favourite short, creepy stories of all time. Mainly because it is one of the best examples of how not explaining something makes it scarier. In the same way that not explaining a joke makes it funnier. But before we get into that, let’s talk about our main girl Emily. She’s pretty dang amazing.
A graduate of Sheridan College’s classical animation program (class of ’05) now resides in Vancouver, British Columbia. She runs varies online galleries where she puts up different art divided by interest. One Flickr gallery is devoted to Dune fan art, the other to gaming related art. She also has a Tumblr where she and fellow artist Vera Brosgold challenge each other to draw various fashions from bygone eras. I’m no fashion connoisseur but I do like rad art and boy, does this thing deliver. And to speed up the process a bit here I’m going to directly quote her own bio page on her website (www.emcarroll.com).
“I work primarily in Photoshop, but all of my comics are inked first on smooth bristol, mostly with a nib and a bit of drybrushing thrown in, and then scanned and colored on the computer. I use custom textures I’ve scanned in myself, typically ink washes on smooth illustration board, and apply them in Photoshop to try to give the digital colour more of an organic feel. (I’m constantly learning and fooling around with different methods of working though, so this is apt to change anytime!)”
Her art style has a characteristic I’m a huge fan of: it is deceptively stylized. At a quick glance, the art seems very simple. Straight to the point. But when you take the time to look at it you realize there are tiny intricacies that put so much more into the piece in question. From the blank stare of an old woman, to a sudden, drastic change in colour pallet to symbolize a switch in emotional tone. The pace of her stories is impeccable.
There’s nothing extraneous, if a panel’s there it is there for a reason.
The closest comparison I can make to her art off the top of my head is Kate Beaton,
though really only because they both share an affinity for old-timey clothes and sort-of the way they draw hands and faces. Also Kate Beaton’s never drawn anything scary that I can think of. Be great if she did, though (hint hint, Ms. Beaton).
Carroll’s writing is fantastic, though of the stories I’ve read I’ve noticed they are all incredibly dark. As in, no-light-escapes-the-black-hole-dark. And some have this creepy, Grimm Brothers feel to them (mainly due to the settings) that just add to the over-all creep-factor. One story, “Out The Door” ends abruptly with huge skeletal arms reaching in to the panel, asking the main character to leap into their grasp. Which may or may not be
a symbolization of death or just an odd nightmare the character is experiencing.
It is never explained (though I would love to talk to Emily Carroll about this).
Again, if you don’t explain something it’s usually scarier than when you do (see the movie The Bay, which falls apart the second the viewer learns what the cause of everything is,
it is a prime example of this).
Anyways, enough of this jibber-jabber about how cool Emily Carroll is.
Let’s jibber and jabber about how great His Face All Red is!
Not the best example of her sequential work, though certainly in the top 3. It’s ominous and dream-like. Not “the character is having a dream” dream-like. I mean this story is like one of those “dreams that feel as if you are the camera and are watching someone else’s life” dream-like. It is a tale of jealousy and fear, plain and simple. Well, actually, not plain and simple. It’s actually kind of unclear and complicated at times. The main character isn’t Scar from the Lion King, who’s just incapable of just being happy with his life.
This nameless narrator’s life sucks because his loving brother is funny, smart, handsome, has a pretty wife and is successful. Also everybody else in their small rural village is kind of a jerk (including his bro’s wife) and treats this dude like garbage because he’s kinda meek. That’s the underlying subtext that I’ve managed to pick up after a few rereads.
SPOILERS AHOY for this next bit, people. I gotta tell you what happens so we can talk about what the story implies with these choices after. If you don’t want to be spoiled, then why don’t you check the comic here.
Alright, so the village’s livestock is under attack by some unknown creature. It only strikes at night and is large enough to to kill multiple sheep and wreck fences. it came from the woods as “most strange things do”, to quote this great work. Our milquetoast narrator stands up at the town hall and offers to hunt the beast himself. His brother looks at him full of pride at this incredibly generous and foolishly/stupidly brave act while the rest of the town LAUGHS IN HIS FACE. Seriously, village people. I get it, this guy’s not cool and the idea of him killing a monster is funny but come on. At least wait until he leaves, that’s just fuckin’ mean. He’s trying, what’re you doing, Random-Village-Guy-With-No-Name? Huh? I didn’t see you speak up, ya coward! *ahem* Sorry, I…uh, I shouldn’t be getting mad at fictional characters. That is…problematic. And does not speak well of my already questionable mental-health. Back on task.
The narrator’s awesome brother says they’ll hunt the creature together and everybody’s like “D’aww thanks” and I’m all like FUCK YOU, VILLAGERS! YOU CAN’T NOT BE ASSHOLES FOR ONE GODDAMN MINUTE WHEN THESE TWO ARE INVOLVED–sorry, I did it again.
They set off into the cold, quiet woods. The woods that are filled with freaky stuff,
like a tree that has leaves that look like hands.
“A common oak!” says Cool Bro.
Or a stream that sounds like dogs growling.
“A babbling brook!” again says Cool Bro.
And a random, deep hole in the ground devoid of any light that smells of lilacs.
“How curious!” Cool Bro mentions, as he is unfazed by everything. Then they find the beast. Just like that. Boom. Monster all up in their grills. And what does Narrator Bro do in the face of peril? He hides. Huh. Well that is understandable.
*Cough*coward*Cough Cough*. Ahem, excuse me.
After a few “that’s not a good sign”- style silent panels, our narrator comes out of hiding to find that Cool Bro shot the beast, which was just a big wolf, apparently. Then they both laugh about how it was just a wolf, ha ha. And at how Narrator Bro hid. And how grateful all the jerk-villagers will be. Grateful to his brother, that is, as our narrator points out in his thoughts. Then you can probably guess what happens to C.B. now, can’t you?
You can just imagine what the narrator did with his still fully-loaded rifle.
Now, I’m really playing this part of the plot up for jokes but only because it is really, truly depressing and unnerving. Just the way it’s implied to have been a fairly quick decision to kill a brother and such a knee-jerk change of character to the narrator. He finally shows some dang initiative and he uses it to shoot his brother. Wow.
Anyways, the narrator murders his brother with the loaded rifle, drags the corpse to the lilac-smelling hole, drops him in and goes back to the village. He tells everybody how the beast struck when they separated and killed his brother instantly, so he avenged him, showing them some torn cloth from C.B.’s nice coat. And all the jerks (including the wife) thank him and console him, he takes his brother’s animals and sleeps peacefully for three nights. Never dreaming once.
Then his brother comes in from the woods (as most strange things do).
Everybody rejoices at his return, as our narrator is in total disbelief. “I can’t believe I go so lost!” the brother exclaims, “Me! Living beside those woods all my life! Thank God for my brother. Thank God he killed that devil.” But then there’s something else off with him, other than being alive when he shouldn’t. Our narrator is the only one to notice his brother’s fine coat isn’t torn at all and shows no sign of injury. That night, the narrator can’t sleep. He dreams of his brother’s dead body, laying in the ground. He wakes up twice and sees his brother digging outside in the field. In the morning, they sit in his brother’s house and have some tasty beverages. The narrator wonders if this feeling, the dreams, everything is just guilt that he hadn’t felt before. Or if this really is his brother, healthy and whole again? And why won’t he turn to face him? This is all very troubling.
At night, he ventures into the hole in they found in the woods, using rope while holding
a lantern. At the bottom he finds the body of his brother, his face all red. And that, my friends, is Emily Carroll “His Face All Red” story from start to finish. I’d say spoilers were ending here but they really aren’t. We now need to discuss what the story’s ending implies. WOO HOO!
This ending can imply a lot of things. That the brother who returned is a double,
the real beast that had been killing sheep and such and that the wolf was innocent.
Or that the hole somehow cloned him. Or that the double simply just watched the narrator kill his brother and decided to take his brother’s form just to live his life. Or that the double will one day kill him. It is also kind of unclear if the panel showed the narrator’s point of view as he approached his brother’s corpse or if the panel zoomed in on the dead body turning to face him. That isn’t really an art-failing on Emily Carroll’s part, it seemed very intentional so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and I think so should you.
The story also implies that the narrator, our main character, has grown into a very cold person. Despite being very meek, trying to do right and so forth, all it takes is for him to realize he has an opportunity to lash out and he does. With no regret at all. And it’s never really said that he hates his brother. It’s very clear he dislikes the villagers (so do I) and while he is attracted to his brother’s wife he doesn’t seem to like her either. And then BAM, killed his brother, lies about it then sleeps like a baby. Those are some straight up evil, vile, disgustingly two-faced actions right there. As a little brother who has been jealous of my brother’s success in the past I’d still never kill him. I have the ability to accept things and not covet other people’s things, as most people do. At least not to an obsessive “I’m going to kill you and hide your body” way. More of a “Damn, Jerry has a nice house, I gotta work hard so I can afford one to” way. But then again, I don’t live in a small village where everyone is a jerk. I live in a small town where I’m a jerk. Eat it, everybody else! Ha ha!
Also, we should probably talk about how those villagers were jerks again. Man, were they just the biggest jerks. Anyways.
That quick, violent act of pure hatred and malice is what I like most about this story (shocking to all who know me, I’m sure *roll my eyes*). That is how things usually go down when it comes to violence and other such actions. It’s quick, sort of messy and really strange. Supernatural elements aside, I could actually believe this story were a real one, if it was presented that way and you remove the return of the brother. It doesn’t get unbelievable until right at the end. Classic plot twist in the final act, like an old fairytale. Except there’s no moral, which makes it even more realistic and even more unsettling.
We cut away before we know for sure what’s happened and are left shaken by it. Does the narrator die? Does he live forever in fear? Is it a double, does it get exposed? The answer? Who the Hell knows. And that is how it should be. All these possible interpretations of what happened in the story, or any story, are what happens when you leave people guessing. Not that you can’t explain some things because you totally can.
Just make the explanation A) interesting and B) not kill what hooked people to the story in the first place, namely, the suspense and intrigue.
As someone who’s looking to make a story based on a particularly odd dream I can say
I will most definitely be looking to Emily Carroll’s work for inspiration (especially her dream journal comics) and anyone looking to do similar (or in the mood for some great comics) should do the same.
Oh, and you’ll notice I didn’t put that many scans in here. That’s because all of Emily Carroll’s comic work that I’ve mentioned is online and does not, as far as I know, exist in the physical world. And because I want you to go and give her all the views because she fucking deserves them. She’s cool, Canadian and her comics are solid. And if the illustration section of her website would load for me I’d have posted more of those in the place of the scans.
But anyways, thanks for stopping by. Tune in next time in, three weeks into the future for the next instalment of Peril In Panels where I will either do the story “Kraven’s Last Hunt”, “Preludes and Nocturnes” or take a look at the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s version of the famous Mr. Edward Hyde! I can promise it’ll be better than this one. Why? Because when you’re this bad you have only one place to go and that’s up.
Enjoy the article and keep it monstrous, you freakish chumps!
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