Though traditionally a medium for bold masculine stereotypes from the 1960s to relive glorious delusions of manifest destiny, exploratory science fiction has always been a nuanced and versatile playground for authors and readers to explore the deeper themes of the human condition. With the fantastic House of Women, author and artist Sophie Goldstein uses a minimalist style and haunting visuals to create a truly otherworldly experience that touches on everything from gender to imperialism, all within the confines of a tightly scripted psycho-sexual thriller on an alien planet that would feel as at home in an episode of Black Mirror as it would in Adventure Time‘s Land of Ooo. With minimal dialogue and an emphasis on visuals and atmosphere, this book reads a bit like British thrillers like the Woman In Black or The Others, which makes this a sleeper hit for the horror and sci-fi fans alike.
The book follows an expeditionary crew of four women as they explore the wild and untamed planet of Mopu, a seemingly sparsely populated world of deep forests, bogs and at least one majestic, but entirely creepy castle. These women represent a mysterious galactic empire that is looking to bring civilization to the natives of Mopu seemingly to protect the economic interests of the Grendel corporation who has been mining resources from the planet for years. This introduces us to the mysterious Jael Dean, an employee of Grendel who has spent the past seven years scouting and reporting on the planet’s mineral and soil compositions – and developing a nuanced and provocative relationship with the locals. Outside of plant life and a cute little ridable elephant named Elijah, the native Mopuans are spritely little fauns that look like a mix between Teletubbies and Area 51 aliens. At least when they’re young they do, but we’ll touch on that in a bit.
Leading our expedition is Sarai, a principled believer in the group’s mission to educate the natives who can’t help but be captivated by the charms of Mr. Dean. In many ways she’s a prototypical Sci-fi protagonist, but there’s clear influence from the heroines of those Hammer haunted house films I alluded to earlier as well. Joining her on this journey into mystery are the matronly educator Kizzy, the stern and resolute Aphra and the mission’s science officer Rhivka. In real life it’s not good to think this way, but in a graphic novel the character design does somewhat telegraph the general moral alignment of the characters. Kizzy’s cherubic face and cheerful disposition rightly suggests that she is the emotional member of the cast, whereas Aphra’s stony, almost Moai-like visage lets readers know that she’s a far more serious person than her compatriots.
Then come the two characters most directly at the core conflict of the book, Sarai and Rhivka. Sarai has easily the most evocative face of the crew – which isn’t that surprising since she appears to be modeled after Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Rhivka, on the other hand, is an almost skeletal take on Anjelica Huston. She is the only character with colored lips in the book, and her wild, unkempt hair stands as a firm reminder that she is a character ruled by her sexuality. It’s that detail, however, that I really appreciate, as the women of this series are most typically seen in the official uniforms of the galactic empire – a modest, cowled garment that bears more than a passing resemblance to a nun’s habit or certain forms of Hijab. Seeing that she has a wild matte of untamed hair under the forced modesty of her role as a female representative of civilization is a brilliant metaphor for sexual repression. Of course, the horror tropes inherent in the book’s pedigree mean that her more ribald nature come from a place of madness, but still.
Sex, sexual identity and gender are actually at the heart of the book’s central conflict and the differing mentalities of all but (the essentially sexless) Aphra play an important factor in each character’s role. For most of the book it appears that the Mopuans are an entirely female species, remaining the cute little Boohbah characters we first meet until they reach sexual maturity and develop more traditionally feminine features. Later, however, we learn of the monstrous and violent development of the male Mopuans – and the risks they then create for females within their environment. Without spoiling too much, a late reveal creates a conflict among the four women about the future of their mission as it pertains to the development of the natives – something that colors the already nuanced triangle forming between Sarai, Rhivka and mister Dean. Though the story is a slow burn, that mounting tension is exactly what makes the latter chapters so well wrought and interesting. Seriously, I don’t want to spoil things for you, so I’m treading lightly with story details, but if you’ve been on board with everything I’ve talked about above, you should be able to stick with the rest of this spoiler-free review.
One thing I can discuss is the artwork, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but works wonders for the story. Goldstein’s art is full of simple lines and heavy blacks, harkening back to Marjane Satrapi’s amazing and important Persepolis. Her design choices, meanwhile, feel ripped from the darker side of Adventure Time scribe Pendleton Ward’s sketchbooks. That duality doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does. The alien landscape of Mopu is both haunting and whimsical, as are the native Mopuans, whose blank eyes and misshapen bodies (be they adult or child) definitely leave an impression. Then there are a few scenes where Goldstein uses some sort of visual cue, whether it’s the framing of the scene or large swaths of marker across the margins, to convey delirium or screaming and it’s incredibly effective. There isn’t much as far as action is considered, but the suspenseful moments and dream sequences are similarly eerie and evocative, keeping readers in a welcome state of unease that makes you long to turn the page but trepidatious about what you’ll find. I don’t know if I’d call the end scary, but there’s definitely something for horror fans in the later stages of the story.
If there’s one complaint that I have about the book, it’s that there is a lot of mystery and Lore left unexplored. Admittedly, this is the first part of a trilogy, but given the end I don’t know if my questions about Mopu will be addressed in future installments. That’s a minor complaint, by the way, as I definitely plan to read future installments of this tale whether they explore the planet further or we pick up with stories of some other servants of the empire. Goldstein’s work may be divisive to some, but I found it to be a grand marriage between sci-fi and haunted house stories that deftly weaves a tale of madness and mystery all while tackling important topics of sexual identity in a new and interesting way. I’m really looking forward to book 2.