Pick up a copy of The House that Groaned and you are struck by how gorgeous the book is an object. The cover picture is itself a house; look closer and you see that the windows have been cut out. Open it and the inner page reveals the rooms inside, complete with occupants; the book turns into a guide to the house and the past histories of its denizens.
The House that Groaned is Karrie Fransman’s first graphic novel. She is perhaps best known to the general reader for her personal comic strips serialised in The Guardian and The Times. The deceptively simple story opens with the character of Barbara walking down a quiet, anonymous street to take up residence in a shared household at 141 Rottin Road. Gradually we are made aware of all of the inhabitants’ backstories, which typically involve some trauma or strange secret, endowing the narrative with the ambience of a suburban gothic sitcom. Barbara, who has a secret of her own, encounters tormented diet and fitness guru Janet, obsessive-compulsive Matt who airbrushes women in magazines for a living, diseasophile Brian who picks up dying, disfigured, or ill women, hedonistic epicure Marion, and elderly Mrs. Durbach, who literally fades into the background.
The tone of the novel shifts effortlessly, and at times queasily, between humour and grimness; think of a cross between AL Kennedy’s wonderfully off-kilter short stories in What Becomes and the classic domesticized gothic of Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher. Like Kennedy, Fransman hones in on the messy thingfulness of human bodies and the everyday tragedies that occur around and to them. As with Poe, there is the twin obsession with corporeality and uncanny spaces; Roderick Usher’s hyperesthesia and incestuous impulses mark him out as an ancestor to some of the tormented souls of Rottin Road. Poe’s tale of the grotesque is further recalled in the catastrophic climax to The House that Groaned.
The elision of the strange with the everyday is amplified by Fransman’s visual style, which is utterly unique: her characters’ saucer-cheeked faces are instantly identifiable, and the wash of grey/green colours lends the narrative a delirious quality. The house itself becomes a framing device, as the clanking, leaking pipes and rodent fauna between the walls sometimes come to fill in the gutters between the panels, enclosing the characters within a decaying structure .
The House that Groaned is a continuation of Fransman’s fascination with houses and primal domestic scenes; she has worked previously on comics sculptures, such as Behind the Mirror, which converted a doll’s house into a three-dimensional narrative, the viewer reading the story as they would a page in a graphic novel by looking through the windows from top left to bottom right. The story within was inspired by the ‘Bloody Mary’ myth of a ghost who appears in a mirror if her name is called three times.
As with her comics contemporary Luke Pearson (whose Everything We Miss was reviewed here recently), Fransman is fascinated by the possibility of uncovering the weirdness hiding behind the façade of commonplace banality. Characters start off appearing quirky and eccentric, but collapse into psychosis with the twitch of her pen. This compellingly odd book deserves an unobtrusive home on a crumbling shelf, nestled between David Lynch DVDs and Tindersticks albums.