Karrie Fransman’s debut graphic novel, The House That Groaned, makes a number of emotional and narrative feints before coming to an over-the-top, shockingly violent conclusion. It’s a story (or rather, six stories) about the inhabitants of the six flats that make up a rickety Victorian-era building. There’s a digital touch-up artist who doesn’t like to be touched (though he longs for this), a fitness fanatic who is trying to escape her obese past and what it represents, a man who fetishizes disfigurement, a pleasure-seeking gourmand who takes things to extremes, a lonely old woman who literally blends into the background, and the new girl: an impossibly beautiful young woman who has her own story of transformation. These characters all have their own dreams and fantasies, but it’s the grimy reality of their everyday lives that winds up being the key to the narrative.
Fransman’s main feint is leading the reader to believe that the paths of the residents of this decrepit building will cross and change each others’ lives for the better. Each of the building’s inhabitants is lonely in his or her own way, and Fransman quickly provides clues that certain of the residents could ease the pain and solitude of the others. While Fransman leads the reader down this path for a while, she also provides clues that the building is less a home than a trap, a ticking time bomb down to its last few seconds before detonation. It also becomes clear that some of the residents are predators, some of them are prey, and some of them are the sorts who simply get left behind after a disaster.
Fransman successfully pulls the rug from under the reader’s feet on several occasions. The gourmand tortures the dieting woman, taunting her with midnight phone calls detailing the sorts of food she and her Midnight Feasters are about to binge upon. Then, in one of several flashback sequences that fills in key blanks and serves to turn the narrative on its head, the woman is revealed to be far more monstrous than merely freedom-seeking. On the other hand, the disfigurement-loving fetishist turns out to be simply a product of a fascination with disfigurement from a very young age–nothing more, nothing less, and seemingly incapable of a true emotional connection. All of the characters have their own method of coping with things, and none of them are healthy. After several twists and turns, it was so shocking to see one of the characters accidentally get brutally injured that I thought at first that it was some sort of dream sequence. Instead, it’s a harbinger of the end, as a literally explosive moment provides a sudden and stunning ending for all of the characters. The ones who live and wind up together prove surprisingly, given how little they’ve done to “deserve” a happy fate. It’s simply the way things wind up, where chance rules all.
Fransman’s highly stylized approach contributes to the waking-dream quality of the comic. The two-toned use of blue gives every scene a late-night, sleepy feel. Her chipmunk-cheeked characters look as much like marionettes as people–all the better to dance for their puppet-master. Tellingly, the only time we see any white space in a panel is in a flashback sequence. The cheery character design is a needed contrast to the randomly cruel humor we see in this comic, a viciousness that works because it’s so unexpected. This comic is as much a story of body horror as it is a slice-of-life comedy; it’s an uneasy mix that Fransman springs on an unsuspecting reader with great glee and skill.