Julia Gfrörer’s work resonates deeply in this current moment, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Laid Waste, published in 2016, was about a plague-ridden medieval town. The mundane manner in which she depicted utter desolation was more terrifying than the gruesome scenes of the book, so much so that even squeamish readers can’t help but peruse her work. In her newest and arguably greatest book, Vision, Gfrörer exceeds herself in unflinchingly depicting the slow horror of grief, via supernatural sexual relationships and servitude.
Vision is ostensibly the story of a sexual and romantic relationship between Eleanor, a mourning spinster (and primary caretaker of her sick sister-in-law) and a haunted mirror, all set in the world of 19th century New York. The only other major characters are her brother and a doctor whom she takes on as a more flesh-and-blood lover. Masterfully, Gfrörer expands on the simple and familiar premise of the haunted house by focusing less on the horror and more on the frayed humanity of our characters. The haunted mirror is introduced not as some terrifying object, but rather an insecure lover, possessive of Eleanor’s time and body. The sexual acts between them, reminiscent of video sex, are rendered in penstrokes that evoke pain and vulnerability. These same emotions are present in the rest of the artwork which showcases a keen eye to historic detail.
Though she hits the beats of the horror genre (a mirror cracks, objects get supernaturally knocked off of desks), Vision will leave the reader more uneasy than scared. But it’s in that more muted power that the book becomes an exemplar of the form, layering as it does this subtle terror throughout its pages.
The heart of this uneasiness lies in its main motifs: mirrors and reflections of the self. Gfrörer uses myriad forms of doubling throughout the book, the resultant effect being a reality where the reader is unsure of much. The title itself can either be understood as referring to the haunted mirror or the hallucinatory aspects of the book (both the supernatural things Eleanor sees and experiences, and the veracity of the sister-in-law’s undisclosed illness). The sister-in-law is dying of a mysterious disease—the symptoms of which aren’t visible—while Eleanor is suffering from an illness that affects her sight. The angles used for the book’s nine-panel grids are reminiscent of the angles one sees when looking into a mirror. One particularly haunting technique Gfrörer expands upon is a three-panel sequence that goes from clarity to occlusion or vice versa (rain to no rain, light to darkness, and a clear mirror to a clouded one, to name a few).
All this coalesces into a narrative where the horror of reflection is evident in every panel, one that leaves you with bedevilling questions, that answers to which even repeated readings of the book won’t provide. What sickness, if any, does the sister-in-law have? Who is the entity in the mirror? Is it Eleanor’s recently deceased fiancé? What is the exact nature of the predatory relationship between Eleanor and her brother? Vision could easily prove to be a genre-defining work, one that permeates the reader’s psyche—and possibly making them look askance at mirrors afterward.