Jack Shear, artist’s rendering (Artist: Tenebrous Kate)
Ha! I used a Gothic novel generator for the title of this interview, it’s pretty cheesy, but I kind of love it anyway. As opposed to another one I picked out: The Bitter Vengeance of Professor Jack…which is maybe potentially slanderous?
Or …is it?
Read further and determine for yourselves my dear innocents, and learn more of this mysterious gentleman and his dark obsessions. His fascinations align closely with many of my own, and, I suspect yours; I invite you to partake in the insights and secrets that he has been gracious enough to divulge today, and I pray that we do not live to regret this beautiful, terrible knowledge.
Jack and I began our correspondence in the winter of 2010. It could have been any time during that year, but for dramatic purposes we will say that it was in bleak midwinter, the landscape treacherous, hardened by a killing frost; a moonless night, an unexpected, brittle rap at the frozen windowpane…
(Except in this case, it was an unexpected email from an intriguing stranger who wanted to chat about a mutual love of music! It was actually a pleasant thing—and a welcome diversion, and the beginning of a lovely friendship.)
Jack actually teaches Gothic and Decadence literature–that part was not just mentioned for drama and intrigue–and is also a published author of several RPG related materials. I had so many questions for him, and I am certain that the answers are of keen interest to the folks who read my ramblings here; if you have a love for Gothic tropes, for horror fantasy games, for dark music, film, and literature, you are certain to enjoy the following transcript.
Thanks, as always, for reading, and Jack–thank you for indulging me. You are a gem, and I am pleased to know you!
Mlle Ghoul: Your answer to what is best in life differs slightly from that of our favorite barbarian: “What is best in life? To drink poisonous liqueurs, hallucinate fabulously about dancing girls, and engage in triumphant saber duels with your enemies!” I’d love to know what you get up to in your spare time and how closely it mirrors the duels and dancing girls that I like to envision.
Prof. Jack: Credit where credit is due: that bit of “biography” was written for me by my longtime friend and frequent collaborator Tenebrous Kate. She knows me far too well; I think she really captured the main points of my personality and predilections there. To be honest, I used to get out a lot more in my younger years, but these days I prefer a quieter kind of decadence: a nice intoxicating beverage, a beautiful bit of prose or cinema to get lost in, and a night in with my charming companion is my current preference.
As for saber duels, it’s probably fair warning to anyone who makes an enemy of me to note that I always triumph in the end.
I am intensely curious (read: nosy as hell. I am very nosy) about young Jack! Can you pinpoint a time in your childhood wherein you developed a fascination for the Gothic novel or gothic tropes/conventions? Can you talk about how it led to your current career path and the other writings that you do?
I actually remember my first exposure to the Gothic: my aunt bought me a couple issues of the comic book The House of Mystery, and by some stroke of fortune those issues featured J. M. DeMatteis’s ongoing “I…Vampire” story. “I…Vampire“ had Gothic conventions written into the plot an characterization as flavor, and the covers of those issues were rich in the Gothic aesthetic; it was all candelabras and crumbling castles. I could not get enough of it.
As for how that early exposure to the Gothic shaped by current career path and the kind of creative work I do, I can tell you that when I find pleasure in an aesthetic I get absolutely fixated on it. I don’t just want to indulge in it, I want to overindulge in it! I moved on from those early Gothic comics to checking out Poe, Stoker, and Shelley from the library; from there I delved into the lesser known Gothics. I never burnt out this fascination I have for the genre. If anything, over the years it has only intensified.
When I started taking academia seriously, I knew I wanted to share my passion for the literature with young, impressionable minds who maybe hadn’t dove into those dark waters yet. And so here I am, teaching an introductory course on Gothic fiction, as well as similar classes on the literary impact of the Jack the Ripper murders, the recent (and archly Gothic) television series Penny Dreadful, and Decadent literature.
Can you speak to your favorite elements of a good gothic tale? And for those reading who have been hesitant to jump in to this particular genre, can you recommend a reading list of few decent “starter” gothic tales? (Perhaps a few advanced for those whom this is old hat?) Are there any so awful, so atrocious that you would caution against reading them? Feel free to include those as well!
My favorite elements of any Gothic tale are the moments of absurdity. Horror tales are a dime a dozen, but what sets the Gothic apart is its propensity to get really weird, to skirt the line between sublime terror and overwrought, and potentially laughable, excesses.
If someone were new to the Gothic, I’d recommend Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Everyone thinks the story will be familiar, but Shelley’s novel has depths that are often missing from our “pop-culture” version of the Frankenstein story. Following that, I’d point people to a few Poe short stories (“The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat,” especially) or Oscar Wilde’s peerless The Picture of Dorian Gray.
I’m always pushing people who are already familiar with the main Gothic texts to read Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Wieland. It is amazing and like nothing else written. All I’m going to say is this: the plot revolves around religious mania and ventriloquism. You want to read that, right? James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is another Gothic novel that too many people sleep on.
As for Gothic texts I’d warn people away from, there is a reason that the more obscure Gothic novels remain obscure. For example, Valancourt Press does tremendous work bring forgotten Gothic novels back into print, but I generally wouldn’t recommend them except to other fanatics who share my tastes. There are good books in their catalog, but a lot of them are fairly derivative. [Editor’s note: Valancourt Press brings many more recent horror titles back into print as well, and is definitely worth checking out if you have a love of Gothic or Horror. I have an entire shelf dedicated to beautiful Valancourt editions.]
We first connected, I believe, through a mutual love of music over at 8tracks, wherein you note that you like music made by artists who “live in their own weird little worlds” and list preferred genres including “spectral folk, murderous americana, doom balladry, dustbowl country, fin de siecle cabaret…”. I’d love to pick your brain regarding your current favorites in this vein! I am also intensely curious as to your musical journey (as a listener and an appreciator) and how you came to listen to this type of music?
It’s funny, I think I went from not being interested in music to being utterly obsessive about it in my early teenage years. Part of it was that I discovered that there were alternatives to what I had been hearing on the radio. Finding bands like Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, and Bauhaus was a revelation—a revelation that turned me into the kind of questing fool who went looking for obscure records made by maniacs and who spent far too much time in dank goth clubs, but it was a revelation none the less.
As for current favorites, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Batushka’s Litourgiya, a startling debut that mixes black metal with Eastern Orthodox spiritual music. My girlfriend gave me a copy of an Anna & Elizabeth album that is really nice Appalachian folk. The new Hexvessel is captivating. Aside from newer stuff, I’ve also been revisiting Aghast’s Hexerei Im Zwielicht Der Finsternis, a dark ambient record that is about as soothing as the sounds of a witches’ sabbath.
The Hallow, poster design by ArtMachine
We often correspond back and forth with film recommendations and such. Is there anything you’ve watched recently that you would suggest to like-minded folks? And what was it about them that appealed to you?
I love horror films, but I’m also extraordinarily hard to please when it comes to movies. According to a lot of people I quite like, It Follows is a modern classic of the form, but I have to admit that I thought it was amazingly mediocre and frequently silly. It feels like I have to watch a pile of movies before I finally strike on something that feels worthwhile. The last movie I really enjoyed without much reservation was The Hallow. I liked the way that The Hallow reworked the themes and imagery we usually associate with “folk horror.” It felt like a fresh take on that niche. The performances were strong, and I admired the creature design.
“Wraith”, Jack Shear
Your Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque blog is a wonderful resource for fans of horror fantasy gaming and has been praised by bloggers as an “output of depraved creativity” and for your valuable insight. Can you talk to the circumstances under which the blog was originally created and it’s purpose/intended direction? What are some of your favorite topics to blog about over there?
I think most blogs are conceived out of boredom, and mine was no different. I had started reading a few gaming blogs and thought that it might be a nice gesture to put my Gothic-inflected game material out there in case anyone could find a use for it in their own games. It grew from there, but I can’t say it has ever had an intended purpose or direction.
If I had to nail down a motive, it would probably be that I wanted to show people that even an idiot like me could put their stuff out there with a minimum of fuss, that doing-it-yourself was actually viable, but mostly I just post things that interest me.
It’s odd; a lot of people who blog do so because they crave community: they want to be part of a conversation, they want to grow an audience and have fans, they want to find like-minded folks, they want to network, etc. Blogging can be a great venue for that, but I’m so antisocial that it’s never really factored into what I do. I put my stuff out there and if people like it—great!—but if not I’m just going to keep doing what pleases me. It is nice, though, when people go out of their way to tell me that they liked something I wrote.
“Midnight in Krevborna”, Jack Shear
You have published a number of original titles under the umbrella of Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque Publications. Your first offering, I believe, was Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque itself, “a Gothic Fantasy Supplement for old-school fantasy role-playing games”, and which has expanded to include additional world building manuals, as well. I don’t want to presume that you love your Gothic baby best – what can you tell us about your other titles? Which is your personal favorite to play (or DM is your bag, I guess)? Have you had great successes with these offerings? Which seems to be other folks’ preferred fantasy setting?
My favorite is always the thing I’m playing or running right now—which, in this case, is Krevborna, a Bloodborne-inspired Gothic setting I wrote to get a sandbox game going using 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. I am absurdly proud that I did all the art in the pdf myself. I also really like the setting in Jonathan Harper’s Blades in the Dark game; I had a blast exploring the setting in a campaign ran by Andrew Shields and I’m really looking forward for that game to pick up where we left off.
As for other settings, I’ve done things inspired by post-apocalypse trash culture like Planet Motherfucker and my Gothic-in-Spaaaaaaaaaaaaace setting Colonial Ethersea. There’s a lot of unpublished setting work kicking around as well; someday I should do something with the Edward Gorey-esque Slithdale Hollow. Overall, I’ve had far more success with my publications than I would have ever suspected—I thought I would only sell a few copies to close friends, but I sell a small pile of them every month. I have a strange aversion to profiting off my hobby, though; the money I make on my game books gets donated to worthy causes. This is the saddest mark of my success: I’ve actually caught people ripping off my material and claiming it as their own. That’s when you know you’ve arrived.
I think the vast majority of gamers prefer a more standard fantasy approach when it comes to settings for their games. There’s a reason why Wizards of the Coast has really been pushing the Forgotten Realms (a very “vanilla,” semi-Tolkien-esque fantasy setting) as the backdrop for the new edition of D&D: it’s got the recognizable fantasy tropes and is appealingly neutral in tone and flavor. Frankly, it’s an easy setting to understand and fit fantasy ideas into. In contrast, the DIY D&D scene seems to go through cycles. “Gonzo” settings were all the rage for a while, but right now “Weird” crapsack settings (settings where everyone is miserable and everything is grimdark and soggy) seem to be on trend—which is funny because if everything is “weird,” nothing is actually weird. Also, I think those settings are more talked about than played when it gets down to it.
You are also a contributing editor over at Heretical Sexts, a micro-publisher of niche, print material focused on the dark and the bizarre. I hear tell that there is a fantastic Gothic ‘zine currently in the works, which, I imagine, you must have a heavy hand in. What can you tell is about it, what can we expect?
I’m not sure if I have an exact job title at Heretical Sexts, but I think we’ve joked around that my job is “Enabler” or something along those lines. Heretical Sexts is really Tenebrous Kate’s baby, but I’ve always made myself available to workshop ideas, give editorial assistance, and provide writing for some of the collaborative Heretical Sexts ‘zines. It has been wonderful watching Kate’s project grow; I adore seeing my friends develop their artistry and put their lovable weirdness out there into the world. I suppose that is what makes me an enabler.
I believe that the forthcoming Gothic ‘zine, Morbid Fantasies, is the first Heretical Sexts publication that has been wholly written by someone other than Kate. I’m beyond flattered that she offered to put out a lovingly-crafted book of my thoughts on Gothic literature.
Morbid Fantasies is a response to a problem I have with the way that Gothic literature is usually presented. At its inception, the Gothic was a popular genre—it was fiction meant to be read and enjoyed by anyone with an inclination to dark or mysterious content. But somewhere along the way the Gothic became a genre sequestered by scholarly study—talk about Gothic literature was relegated to obscure academic journals instead of it being a literary form for devoted readers. Morbid Fantasies aims to change that. It’s a book that wants to help you learn to love Gothic literature. It gives a brief history of this amazing aesthetic mode, suggestions for what books you should read and what you should be looking for as you read them, and an exploration of the conventions, tropes, and imagery most often found in the literature. It’s a reader’s guide to the Gothic, and I can promise you that it will help you on your way if you are totally new to the Gothic or deepen your love of dark, passionate fiction if you’re already exploring Gothic texts.
Are there any other upcoming projects you can share with us?
Well, I do have a bit of eldritch fun in the Occult Activity Book [Editor’s Note: This is sold out for the time being] that you and Becky Munich just put out! Other than that, I’ve been writing a thing (I’m not sure if it is a book or what yet) about horror and philosophy—something inspired by E. M. Cioran, the Graveyard Poets, and doom metal, mostly. It’s the kind of thing I might finish and then never show anyone.
Miss Vanessa Ives, as illustrated by Caitlin McCarthy
Finally–Eva Green: Discuss.
We all need a muse, don’t we? Joking aside, Vanessa Ives is easily my favorite character on television at the moment, and I genuinely feel indebted to Eva Green for making that character possible! Season Three of Penny Dreadful can’t arrive soon enough for me.