Time to Take Off Your Skins

When I Arrived at the Castle reviewed by Tina Helbig

Emily Carroll’s beautifully illustrated gothic fairy tale tells of queer identities and skins that are shed, traded, and devoured. Behind each bloody door at the bottom of the labyrinth of the vampire countess’ castle waits another gruesome tale of body horror, and escape is only possible by embracing what is feared the most.

Fig. 1: A cellar full of bloody doors – do you

dare to look what waits behind them? (43).

Do your nightmares look beautiful? Emily Carroll’s hair (and skin) raising When I Arrived at the Castle has stunning visuals to offer: the short comic is coloured in a limited but rich palette of a deeply saturated red, milk-white, and a shiny jet-black. In contrast to this restricted use of colours, Carroll allows her illustrations to roam free of any regular or repetitive grids, often prefers a splash page over a panelled page, decorates her dreamscapes lavishly, and throws in some pages of prose as well – exquisitely complete with decorated initials, written in white on a surface of blood. Nightmares normally do not come with an exposition and a tightly laid out plot – but, despite this lack of coherency and information, the dreamer KNOWS. Instinctively, if not necessarily rationally, they are aware of their situation and their task: run, don’t fall, don’t look back. If you allow yourself to be drawn into this state of mind while reading Carroll’s comic, you will be able to enjoy a very dark fairy tale, which tells of ancient fears, betrayed trust, shed skins and identities.

Fig. 2: Page 49.

The first-person narrator arrives in the middle of a cold and rainy night at the castle of a young countess, an elegantly beautiful, beguiling vampire, with the intention to kill her – so far so generic. But the story also exploits dream logic, is infused with elements of the fairy tale and overall challenges the genre expectations of the classic gothic tale. To start with, the narrator is a hybrid cat/woman creature. Upon arrival at the castle… she takes a bath – a move that presumably no vampire hunter’s manual would recommend when first entering the beast’s lair. Yet this rather unexpected, irrational plot turn fits in seamlessly with the comic’s noctambulic atmosphere, which later on turns towards the horrifying surreal, when, for example, a girl who is asked by a cat to trade skins, happily and without hesitation takes off hers with a knife.

Fig. 2: Page 22.

Despite the narrator’s baby (or kitten) schema cuteness, the comic is a far cry from Disney-style fairy tales and more akin to some of the early versions of the Brothers Grimm tales, whose »major thematic concerns« were »[s]ex and violence« (Tatar, 10) – in later publications, they were more heavily edited to cater to the tastes of a broader audience and were, in particular, made more suitable for young children. Carroll’s comic depicts surreal body horror, sexual encounters, physical and verbal violence, and scenes which disturbingly combine all these elements. Skin, which represents in Gothic fiction »the ultimate boundary, the material that divides the inside from the outside« (Halberstam, 7), is cut off, traded, worn by somebody else, shed, re-entered, ripped to pieces and devoured. At the end, the reader cannot be sure who is wearing whose skin, if the ›inside‹ or the ›outside‹ – which even start to blend into each other – is more authentic, and which of the skins (and accompanying identities) are demarcated as ›good‹ and which as ›evil‹. This uncertainty of meaning, which defies the fixation of one ›correct‹ meaning and offers plenty of opportunities for the reader to come up with multiple and even opposing interpretations, should be seen as a strength of the comic, and not as a flaw. As Halberstam notes, »part of the experience of horror comes from the realization that meaning itself runs riot« (2).

When I Arrived at the Castle also resists conventional closure on another level: notably dissimilar from classic Gothic tales, the abject, here in the form of the ›animal‹ is not dispelled at the end, but summoned and embraced. The comic’s ›queerness‹ goes way beyond the scenes of lesbian homoerotic desire – which was firmly established as a topos of the vampire story with Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla – by additionally exploring the vast multitude of contradicting, non-categorizable layers of human identities.


  • Halberstam, Jack. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Duke University Press, 1995.
  • Tatar, Maria. Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales: Expanded Edition. Princeton University Press, 2019.


When I Arrived at the Castle
Emily Carroll
Toronto: Koyama Press, 2019
72 p., 12,59 Euro
ISBN 978-1-927668-68-9