New Valaam from Phronema perfumes is a fragrance inspired by the Alaskan Spruce Island hermitage of New Valaam, named so by holy man and clairvoyant wonderworker Father Herman, a monk who was eventually sainted in 1970. A scent celebrating wildlife and the fertility of nature, it opens with bitter, brittle greenery preserved in a bygone botanist’s notebook: a small curl of fern, fronds fanned into shrunken shadow against the page, crest crumbling into dry dust. But by some manner of perfumer’s alchemy, you can smell where that fern once furled: the dew dewdrops on wildflowers, lily of the valley and forget me nots, yarrow and aster, the faint, wild musk of a snowshoe hare streaking through lichen. In a strange but not entirely unpleasant twist, the scent dries a bit soapy and sour and yeasty, not entirely unlike wet dog ears. This is such an interesting and unique green scent, and though it’s not something I can see myself wearing, I do think it’s nice to just spray the sample and think about it.
Corfu Kumquat from Aedes de Venustas: In a small Greek village built on the slopes of the island’s highest mountain is a quietly atmospheric little ghost town with only two or three permanent inhabitants. One of them is a kumquat that never fully ripened, too sour and pithy for marmalade and liqueurs, too small and strange to be of much practical use. Perhaps it was overlooked. Perhaps it forged its own little path in life. It’s now the local guide for the village, steering tourists hither and yon along cobblestone roads, sharing historical anecdotes and eerie legends, and finally depositing them at the gift shop once the excursion has concluded. As the crowd disperses, it reaches into its pocket for a cigarette and lights up in the cool shade of an ancient stone cottage, exhaling smoke through its citrus peel pores, whirling and curling in satisfying vaporous salt-air swirls, while catching glimpses of the sun glinting on the sea through the undulating mountains.
So…Poivre Sacre, or Holy Pepper, from Parfums Caron. For some brief backstory as to why I’m sampling this right now, whenever a perfume is mentioned in a book I’m reading, if it’s something I’ve never heard of or that I haven’t tried before, I’m always keen to track it down. I recently read Leigh Bardugo’s Hell Bent, which I was wildly looking forward to after having finally read The Ninth House, and one of the characters was wearing Caron Poivre, described as smelling of “clove, tuberose, amber.” Unfortunately, I think even the reformulation of Poivre is discontinued. So, I got the samples of the next closest things on the Caron site: Poivre Imperial and Poivre Sacre. And here we are. This is a gorgeously dry scent: the bitter, bracing bite of black pepper that somehow runs both cool and hot, leathery, smoky woods that feel like a cross between palo santo and cedar, and hints of grassy, earthy, bittersweet saffron and the tiniest dash of sour, pungent cumin, to keep things interesting. This is a very close-to-the-skin scent that makes me think of candle flames and shadows and secrets, chasing the darkness to its depths, following a temptation –without succumbing– straight to its sinful, sulfurous source, and you, glowing, incandescent, a lit match in hell.
On one hand, I am clearly enjoying my sample of Liis Luciennne— it is all but sniffed through–on the other hand, I can’t really see myself wearing this fragrance. This is not a rose perfume, and yet it’s the most beautiful rose scent I’ve ever experienced. A bright, perfect citrusy midsummer afternoon rose when there’s not a cloud in the sky, and the sun is an explosion of lemonade-scented joy, and dipping your feet in the cold water sputtering from the sprinklers sends the most delirious shivers of delight up your spine. And the more you splash around, the more you are compelled to take a deep dive to the bottom of the pool or, better yet, the tranquil currents of the ocean. This rose has a lovely, serene aquatic aspect, a fresh marine musk, and it’s less rose at this point and more mermaid, swimming in peaceful tides while the sun beams a watery light through the warm, turquoise waves. So why can’t I see myself wearing it? Honestly, it’s too perfect. It’s like a rose who is a mermaid who is also a cheerleader and valedictorian and is a natural leader and is never awkward and always knows the right thing to say and would definitely never lock themselves in a bathroom and cry in a party because they were feeling overwhelmed and shy and just wanted to go home. This is a rose that is not even actually a rose and one that is also not me, and I’d feel like a giant fraud every time I wore it. I often think of the transformative power of fragrance and how a spritz of perfume is akin to slipping into another skin and magical and liberating that can be. So why can’t I pretend for a while? I think I’m just so set in my ways as a grimy little hermit-hearted gremlin that as much as I admire that immaculately rosy person I’ve described, I’ve long let go of wanting that for myself.
Jorum Spiritcask opens with notes that waver wildly between blithe, breezy, and aerated, as well as viscous, syrupy, and raisiny. Like stewed prunes gone parasailing through the fluffiest-tufted cumulus clouds. Unfortunately, their ultimate destination appears to be a cloying, claustrophobic rootbeer-filled oak-barrel hot tub orgy, and that’s a scene I’m just not into. If you ever thought, “boy I sure wish Hypnotic Poison were 1000% more potent and suffocatingly gaggy!” this may be for you.
Fraaagola Salaaata from Hilde Soliani is fun for a split second; it smells like strawberry Jello-scented lipgloss or a tiny bottle of effervescent summer berry eau de toilette that was sold alongside Angel Face Barbie in the 80s. Very sweet, no nuance or complexity (though I do think that’s sort of the point of a perfume like this.) BUT then it becomes this monstrous vision of a wild strawberry kiwi ice-breeze-whatever vape pen shoved up a half-melted red gummy bear’s butt, and even more horrifying still, a plume of vape juice smoke billows out of its squished little vape bro mouth, and oh my god I am gagging again you don’t even want to see the face I am making just now.
I don’t want to end on a sour note with those last two bummers, so here are four more silk flower perfume oil blends from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s Lupercalia Collection!
Blue Silk Rose, with notes of sugared violets and dried blackberry and elusive hints of citrusy rose and smoky musk, is a light, impish fruity floral that’s the olfactory equivalent of excellent advice from astrologist Rob Brezny, something fun about liberating our imaginations and encouraging us to visualize life as a mythic quest. It’s the playful poetry of the weightless, mid-air hops and skips between dodging the shadows or jumping over the cracks in the sidewalk, a bright pop of color on a grey day, a tiny reprieve from the everythingness of everything in a waft of fleeting sweetness.
Silk Tiger Lily very nearly gives me savory vibes when sniffed right out of the bottle–something like saffron and cumin mingled spice cupboard tendrils– and from there on, the evolution is just rapid-fire-revelatory. First, a briny ginger fire, a spicy salinity, as if the knobby little rhizome has been treated to an oceanic pickling; then, seamlessly, a warm, peppery floral with a nose-tickling lemon halo, beautiful, bracing, and buoyant.
Black Silk Orchid looms from the vase sweet and shadowy, summoning associations of a trio of BPALs I know and love: the dark brown sugared musks of Smut, the deeply vanilla-patchouli incense of Snake Oil, and Haunted‘s murky, mysterious amber glow. There’s a breezy element that runs through it, though, something that sets it apart, conjuring something wholly new. It’s a thin, weird wind, not brisk and autumnal and not of the gentle spring variety; it’s not outdoorsy at all. More like a draft from deep within your home that you can’t locate, a door that maybe you didn’t even know was there, ajar and inviting things from beyond. It’s full of darkness and a bit dusty, emanating from somewhere utterly, disturbingly unknown. A prickling shiver you feel when somewhere in the old house, in an unused, forgotten room, a vampire quietly steps out from inside a grandfather clock at the stroke of midnight.
Silk Daffodilis profoundly green and sticky sweet, a heady murmur of celadon syrup and crushed emerald honey, veined with dark whispers of woody-floral spice and a last gasp of jasmine-orange blossom-vanilla.
I first officially learned of Argentinian artist Hector Garrido when attempting to figure out the artist of the livid, crimson-shrouded book cover with an aggressive succubus hollering at a raven under a bright, glowing full moon. “Hey, bird! Fuck you, bird!” is what I imagine that she’s shouting for reasons of her own, none of my business, probably.
I had originally seen it posted on someone’s Instagram, and those images are more annoying to grab for reverse image search purposes, but not impossible, so I found it (on Will Erickson’s blog, of course!) and here we are–it’s Hector Garrido!
…and it turns out that I have been enjoying Garrido’s art for YEARS without realizing it.
Of course, the Nancy Drew mystery books that I read when I was much younger were the hardback editions with a more dated look from an earlier era and a different artist, but a few years later, when I was 9 or 10 or so, I definitely recall finding the newer paperbacks in the library and being gobsmacked that you were allowed to update and change the way the characters in these books looked! But a pretty, intrepid young detective creeping up a cobwebby dark staircase is dreamy to my eye rendered by any artist’s hand, and I got used to the changes and even found myself getting excited to see various artistic interpretations of the stories and series that I love–and I remain thrilled to this day.
Another book I was surprised to see displaying the work of Hector Garrido was The Ghost Belonged to Me, by Richard Peck, one of the eerie Blossom Culp stories I loved as a child. I’ve written before of another one in this series, Ghosts I Have Been with cover art by Rowena Morrill, and I’m always so tickled when my search for a cover artist inevitably leads me back to these beloved tales and characters.
Garrido also did a lot of G.I. Joe art, but eh. Not interested in that. I know, I know, iconic formative stuff for lots of folks! Just not my bag. However, he also did covers for several of the Avon Satanic Gothic titles in the 70s and that most definitely would have been my little ten-year-old jam!
Sadly, while looking into his life and work, I only learned today that Hector Garrido passed away in 2020. In his own words, here’s a bio on this prolific artist of the lurid and lovely, baleful and beautiful.
“As a young artist I immigrated to the United States. I was professionally active here beginning in the 1950s. Beginning around 2000, I went into semi-retirement, painting devotional subjects. I am now retired.
I am best known to fans of GI Joe and for such book series such as The Three Investigators (I painted all the Crimebusters covers), Danny Dunn, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, The Destroyer (Remo Williams), and the Baroness.
My original artwork for GI Joe was featured on the 1980s-era merchandise packaging. For book publishers, I painted the covers of numerous sci-fi, (gothic) romance, and thriller/horror books. Perhaps most notably in the horror genre, I painted the iconic covers for TM Wright’s “Strange Seed”/”Children” series. I was also a Time Magazine cover artist, and my 1969 cover, “Astronauts” is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.”
You’ll find several albums of original paintings in Garrido’s flickr account, and here is a list at ISFDB of much, much more cover art that he was responsible for– though I don’t believe it to be at all comprehensive.
Below I’ve shared some of my favorites among the gothic romance covers he did, brimming with ghostly damsels and their requisite candelabras, haunted castles looming and leering, and ridiculously sumptuous with atmosphere and tension.
Hello friends. I did a little binge and bought some things off of my Amazon wishlist. This was inspired, in part, by my blog from a week or so ago about my ten most frequently purchased items from Amazon.
Anyway, I know I am over-reliant on Amazon for my purchases, so this was a bit of a last hurrah!
If you are not a video-watching type, no worries; you don’t have to watch it! But maybe go over there and leave a like and comment, even if you don’t watch the whole thing or any of it at all! These videos are a lot of work!
Anyhow, below is a listing of the items and various things and people mentioned found in this video, Amazon or otherwise:
I’m afraid these reviews will be a bit shorter and to the point, much more so than my typical long-winded rambles. I am suffering from some wrist and thumb pain, and I don’t know if it is carpal tunnel badness or something to do with being a million years old, but it is, unfortunately, rendering typing quite excruciating. So I am challenging myself to an economy of words, in saying what needs to be said in as few characters as I can get away with. We’ll see how it goes with the following bakers’ dozen of Lupercalia scents from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab!
Green Silk Carnation (cypress-green carnation petals crushed into grass, hemp flowers, and weed) A sweet vegetal mustiness with a tiny amount of terpenic funk, which as it wears is, at turns, sweeter and greener, never committing to one or the other. It dries to a frosty-soapy pleasantness. It has a chilly, verdant vibe that calls to mind the greenhouses in a snowstorm from the first story in Kelly Link’s forthcoming collection White Cat, Black Dog.
Pink Silk Peony (cotton candy peonies, rose cream, and white cognac) Sweet, cold strawberry ice cream scented with lush, velvety rose petals; alternatively, if the entire cast of Rose Petal Place were whizzed up in your ice cream maker, with fresh cream and tons of sparkling sugar.
How Write The Beat Of Love (red musk, red mango, labdanum, black honey, black gardenia, Indonesian patchouli, and champaca blossom) A swoon and sweep of pulpy fruits, deeply jammy, wine-drunk on umbral honey.
Dalliance With A Comedian On Stage (sawdust and red musk, blueberries, black currant, plum blossom, sake, rose petals, and frankincense) A fruity-herbal tea, left to steep and steam in a porcelain cup, now fermenting in a jar. Berries and blossoms begin as a humble, wholesome tisane but somehow end up a tart, tipsy kombucha.
Chocolate Chypre (no notes listed) Cocoa butter incense smoke, the mysterious aura of scholarly studies late into the evening, accompanied by a chocolatey treat rummaged from deep within velvet peacoat pockets.
White Silk Chrysanthemum (vanilla floral aldehyde laced with spicy chrysanthemum) An enchantingly fizzy vanilla cream soda/ ebullient ginger ale hybrid, but not something you’d want to drink; rather, the scent of a strange, invisible bloom trailing up a trellis, something you walk by every day without really noticing, and then one day the breeze blows just so, bobbing its petals invitingly. Intrigued, entranced, you stop to sniff it, and in that small instance, with the slightest deviation from your path– everything changes forever. This is the scent of that singular, crystalline moment, tremulous and flickering, between the before and the after.
The Morning Star Among The Living (black fig encased in saffron-threaded amber) The scent of a honeyed, floral lozenge that began as a liqueur made from macerating figs –both the delicate, fresh fruit as well as their rich, dried, pruney counterparts–in two parts bourbon to one part vanilla. Mash the pulp and the liquid together, simmer until very thick and allow to set on cool, aromatic eucalyptus leaves. Administer these sweet drops as needed to individuals who pride themselves on their brutal honesty, but you suspect they enjoy the inherent cruelty of that sentiment more than the idea of actual truthfulness and sincerity.
An Oiran on New Year’s Day (polished mahogany, black tea, green cardamom, russet peppercorn, and ginger root) Dark, fruity woods, rich, rosy, and resinous. This is a scent that becomes darker and darker and begins to smell both rare and obscure and somehow a bit crafty and cunning, something you’d find on the black market from a dealer whose expertise lies in acquisition rather than provenance.
Contest of Colors, Pink Peach Blossoms and White Plum Flowers(pink peach blossoms, white plum flowers, carnation petals, labdanum, skin musk, and white amber) Reaching down into a barrel of vibrant fruit blossom flavored hard candies, just to feel all of those thousands of small, sweet treasures with your fingertips, pushing further down through their cool weight, sugared orbs clicking together like porcelain buttons, glass eyes, faceted gems, a plume of fragrance released, boiled syrup and dripping fruit flesh, and frothy clouds of frilled, perfumed petals.
Wandering Eye (blackcurrant, carrot seed, rose otto, immortelle, salt musk, violet leaf absolute, and lemon peel) First off, get a gander at that label art! Long-time readers of this blog will no doubt instantaneously recognize what I have come to think of as The Eyes of Becky Munich, as this artist’s eerie ocular renderings are truly things of eldritch beauty. And though I was not familiar with the particular sonnet that this fragrance was inspired by, there is no denying that the scent overall encapsulates the mournful lyricism that I associate with Edna St. Vincent Millay. For me, this is more a whispery, poetic feeling with an exquisitely elegiac quality–somewhere between gothic melodrama and tragic Victorian fairy poetry– than it is an actual smell that I can pinpoint …but envision this: a handful of sweet, dried chamomile brewed in a teacup of tears and pebbled with precious stones gathered from a reliquary; left as a graveside offering on a day when the sky is sullen, and the light is bruised and the descent of evening fog, milky, opaque, thick as wool, concludes the silent ceremony.
Courtiers and Cats(amber musk, cedarwood, agarwood, spikenard, black pepper, cacao, tobacco absolute, toasted cardamom, and cream) The biscuity warmth of musk and roasted cocoa beans, a sassy spike of black pepper, spikenard’s earthy, dirt-between-paws mustiness; between the woods and the amber and the hint of creaminess, this is a softly rumbling purr of comfort and coziness.
Aristocratic Warriors (gleaming tamahagane, polished leather, and auburn amber) A clan of juicy citrus samurai brandishing swift, shining steel swords and disco dancing; not a “lemon party” in popular parlance, but also, a lemon party is exactly what this is: a party of literal lemons, jubilant and joyful, bright, bouncy, and boogieing down. “Boogieing down”? Oh, Sarah. Are you Stephen King-old now? Also, there are no lemon notes in this scent, so maybe like King’s telepathic chef at that haunted hotel, I’m smelling something that’s not there right before I’m hit with the shinning.
Dark Chocolate, Blackcurrant, Rosewater, and Apricot (no notes listed) The most exquisite chocolate truffle, hand-piped with a velvety wild woodland brambleberry jam filling, enrobed with another layer of chocolate, embellished with freeze-dried bilberry pieces and rose petals. You’ll only find this treat deep in the forest at a pop-up stand run by hedgehogs with little purple jam-stained claws and sugar-crusted quills.
Need more Lupers? Have a peep at my Lupercalia reviews from 2022 // 2021 // 2020 // 2017. unfortunately, things between and before those years were written for other sites, and I wasn’t cross-posting to my own blog at that time. Lesson learned I can assure you!
And you might be wondering, “why don’t you ever post these reviews on the BPAL forums?” I was honestly just asking myself the same question the other day. I’ve been on the forums forever but never posted reviews there because, early on, I was just too self-conscious. And if you look at my profile at bpal.org, it says I’ve been a member since 2011, but that’s not true! I was a member under another name (ok, a few other names) since the forum opened in 2004 or 2005. I’ve been there since the beginning! And now, all these years later, I have a comfort level for writing about fragrance and have more or less found my voice, but I guess it would feel weird and somehow…. interloping? overstepping? who do I think I am-ing? to start posting my reviews there all of a sudden? Am I being dumb and precious about it? I don’t know!
Anyway…PSSSST! Did you know I have collected all of my BPAL reviews into one spot? I’m about a year behind with adding new stuff to the document, but as it stands, there are over 60 PAGES of my thoughts and rambles on various limited-edition scents from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab over the years: BPAL REVIEWS BY S. ELIZABETH (PDF download)
This interview was originally shared on Haute Macabre July 19, 2017.
San Diego, CA-based artist Ivonne Garcia’s enthusiastic penchant for blades might give one pause if one didn’t know the sort of slicing and slashing that she indulged in. No, this knife-wielding creator is not lurking around shadowy corners, chuckling low, awaiting the throat of an unsuspecting passer-by. No, indeed! Ivonne has instead translated this fondness for sharpened edges into an elegant artistic medium for emotive storytelling, with a current focus on paper-cutting and silhouettes – designed to “connect all things in the planar depths of simplicity and translating it into the emotional balance between the dark and the light.”
Still, I like to imagine her cackling softly as she deftly creates each small cut.
(With apologies to the artist–this intro is not intended to imply that Ivonne might cut a bitch.)
What twisty (or twisted!) artistic path led to this current focus on paper-cutting and silhouettes? From the time that she was a small child, Ivonne shares, she had a propensity for being fairly accident prone–always the one getting hurt, falling, sticking her hands where they didn’t belong. After a traumatic compound femur fracture as a child which landed her in doctors’ offices quite a bit, she gained a more than passing familiarity with the medical world– and was of course terrified of anything pointy and prickly. Then, she notes, tattooing and piercings in her 20s changed that all up! “That said,” she adds, “I have always had an interest in the medical realm but not as a career path, so I guess is this one way to scratch that itch.”
“Wielding something sharp, toying and creating with a fetishist undertone. Playing with danger.”
Silhouettes were of interest to her because she enjoys the idea of attempting to tell a story through shadows, texture, light or lack thereof. “There is much room for the imagination, leaving the idea open to interpretation of who is viewing it.”
Ivonne’s art is influenced by an interest in the kooky, spooky, occult and her Mexican heritage. In her pre-teen years, she relocated from Southern CA to Mazatlan, Mexico, with her family and lived there for nearly seven years. It was during her time there that she began to explore her interest in art and expose herself to a more culturally appropriate representation of Mexico and the art and traditions that are part of that culture. “I was always drawn to high contrast imagery such as lino block printing like the work of Jose Guadalupe Posada. Eventually I became exposed to the art of papel picado, and while it is done for many celebratory occasions, the ones that came around during Dia De Muertos always appealed to me the most.”
Also noting a profound love for religious iconography of all kinds, (one of the few things that stuck around from the Catholic influence she was raised with), Ivonne ruefully adds that “the rules that came with religion never really agreed with me and it bred a lot of defiance and push-back; it only made sense that I found myself swaying towards a darker inclination. It just feels more accepting and comfortable.”
Add all this to Ivonne’s never-ending love for “all things Halloween” and, she declares, “…it’s a tiki drink of spooky. You take it all in, and one mug later, you’re wasted on the awesome.”
I requested of Ivonne a virtual studio visit so that we might see the workspace where these delicate dissections and compositions take place, and if that weren’t pushy enough (you can’t take me anywhere) I asked if she might be moved to divulge any of her artistic routines and rituals as relates to her creativity and craft. Ivonne has kindly spilled a few secrets below (and no doubt has given us a few items to add to our collective wish-lists!)
“My ritual usually involves a pretty thorough cleaning of my desk because it eventually turns into paper scrap and confetti central. I usually set the tone by burning some incense of sorts. My personal favorites are: Vampire Blood (I know, cheesy as fuck but it smells so good), Papier d’Arménie, Palo Santo, and sage or copal resin I brought back from our travels in Guanajuato. Olfactory tone is so important to me so that not only will the room be fragrant but my personal fragrance will reflect my mood and headspace as well. I love all things Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, and my recent favorites are The Manuscript, Riding Crop Single Note, So Below, and Bulgarian Tobacco. When not doused in that precious, I usually wear By The Fireplace by Maison Margiela Replica, Oud Velvet Mood, or Baccarat Rouge 540 from Maison Francis Kurkdijian.
I am an absolute audiophile and cannot function without music in my life. Every part of my day involves music, and what I listen to depends on mood, emotion, and setting a tone. Creating art has to go hand in hand with music, 100%.
My taste is pretty broad, but most of what I listen to falls under the umbrella of IDM, shoegaze and electronic genres. Here are a few things I have listened to (read: played into the damn ground) while creating…”
I can keep going here…it sounds all snobby but I also love me a good session of pop, 80’s, His Purple Highness, and hair metal bands \m/”
Since we are on the subject of rituals, Ivonne recently created some splendidly witchy pieces for Ars Memoria’s Toil and Trouble show in April of this year. Regarding how this theme inspired her specific contributions, Ivonne explains that “Toil & Trouble was a lot of fun to work on because the subject just felt so comfortable. Working with Catherine Oleson as a curator was a breezy dream, and the other two artists involved, Bella Harris and Sophia Rapata – we all had a similar umbrella to work under. We agreed on a witchy and magical theme, and I took on the concept of the magical being and their familiar, their relationship, and connectivity. This was new for me, as most of my work has been incredibly human and feminine in nature… but this time around, I opened up to the incorporation of animal elements. This was my first time venturing into more three-dimensional work, and I couldn’t have been happier with the work produced and the manner in which it was received.”
Between the work she conjured for Toil & Trouble, and Reliquary, her duo show with Carrie Anne Hudson in October of 2016, Ivonne found herself requiring a small creative break. “Reliquary was very intimate in nature”, she observes, “and for me, personally, there is such thing as too much output, especially when you’re creating work as a form of personal therapy. I took a step back this year to continue doing more soul searching and really focus on quality over quantity.”
Aside from several group shows, she has lined up, and some potential collaborative work, she is taking the month of August off to spend in Japan with her family–and is very much looking forward to the inspiration that will come from it. After that, she concludes, “Fall and the Halloween season always bring on the most inspiration for me; it is, after all the most wonderful time of the year! I expect my shop to be filled with lots of goodies by then.”
I know, I know, Amazon is the devil. But I haven’t figured out how to quit them. I do love a place where you can buy all your shit in one go, and that’s really what holds me in its thrall.
From the “here’s a wee nosy peek into my life” files, here are the top ten things I have purchased most frequently from that site. There’s no real theme or anything, it’s a rather random assortment! And I know the featured photo of the vintage Barbie Dream Store isn’t really representative of the Amazon shopping experience, but I like looking at it.
Am I a little weepy? No…but that’s because I am outright SOBBING.
A million magical heartfelt thank yous to dearest Becky Munich for creating this weird, wondrous wedding portrait of Yvan and me based *somewhat* on an actual photo taken the afternoon we got married in February of last year.
We joked that ours was a sort of Ghibli-meets-Junji Ito aesthetic by way of Edward Gorey, and thus, an idea was born.
Look at all the little details! Eyeballs in the bouquet! A puppers with wings! I’M LEVITATING!
I had originally intended to commission Becky for this a year ago as a wedding gift, but I was slow in getting around to it, and it became an anniversary project instead.
Becky is a genius, and this is perfect. We are going to cherish it forever 🖤
A Sensitive Plant in a garden grew, And the young winds fed it with silver dew, And it opened its fan-like leaves to the light. And closed them beneath the kisses of Night.
And the Spring arose on the garden fair, Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere; And each flower and herb on Earth’s dark breast Rose from the dreams of its wintry rest.
But none ever trembled and panted with bliss In the garden, the field, or the wilderness, Like a doe in the noontide with love’s sweet want, As the companionless Sensitive Plant.
I first stumbled upon Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Sensitive Plant,” a lilting fairytale-poem with gorgeous, distinctive artwork by Golden Age illustrator Charles Robinson, when I was randomly searching for imagery from Robinson that I hadn’t seen before. I had just submitted my final edits to The Art of Fantasy (pub date September 7, 2023!) and I was feeling a bit bereft, the way you feel after a major project that has until that point, possessed all of your time and energy. A sort of “what now?” malaise.
Entranced by the lush, blooming, melancholic loveliness of the full-color plates, I lost a whole evening learning about this little book of “ephemeral beauty and the aspiration to follow dreams when the reality of the senses fails.” (Peppin, Brigid & Micklethwait, Lucy, “Book Illustrators of the Twentieth Century,” p. 265).
It follows the observance of a beautiful, boundless garden full of aromatic roses and narcissus, snowdrops and violet, jasmine and hyacinth–and, of course, the titular Sensitive Plant– all flowering joyously in concert under the airy, exquisite hand of a nameless caregiver. Alas, the gentle gardener dies, and winter descends upon the fair Eden; the poem then becomes an ode to death and decay, and it’s a bit of a bummer from that point on.
On the subject of that anonymous Sensitive Plant: a spell cast upon me by the idea of this book, I found an inexpensive copy (sadly, it’s missing three plates), and I descended upon it as soon as it arrived. In the preface, the literary critic Edmund Gosse speculates as to what sort of specimen it might be, having all manner of contradictory qualities. Apparently, he reached out to an old friend and Oxford professor to shed some light on the subject. The gentleman hilariously noted, “… the botany of poets is a source of deep anxiety to botanists,” and Gosse goes on to say, “Shelley’s flower-lore is no exception.” For what it’s worth, scholars and readers conjecture that this psychic little plant may be mimosa pudica.
I only paid $50 for my copy, which seems like a steal given its fabulous condition and despite the fact that it’s missing some imagery. I’ve seen it being sold for upwards of $900, though!
The Sensitive Plant has also been illustrated by playwright and illustrator Laurence Houseman in an eerie, intricate Art Nouveau style, which can be seen in this blog post. Below, however, you will find more of Charles Robinson’s accompanying imagery to The Sensitive Plant.
Lemon Blossom from TRNP is a wholly unexpected and immediate love for me, perhaps bordering on violent obsession. I’ve been fixated on the idea of it ever since sundaysmells mentioned it in her Instagram stories. I sought out a sample, and now there is no going back.I have a lemon tree and a lime tree, and I’ve spent most of my life in FL, surrounded by orange groves. Not literally, of course. I have pretty much always lived in the suburbs, but my point is that I’m keenly familiar with the deeply musky, honeyed, powdered sweetness of citrus blossoms…and this perfume is not even close to that. Which is fine. I’ve sniffed dozens of blossoming citrus fruit tree interpretations, and while so many of them are perfectly lovely, they are more or less all the same. This one, however, is a remarkably unconventional lemon blossom. It’s a heavy-metal music video glamazon duo of the brightest, zestiest lemon and most pungently incendiary, zingiest ginger in matching, metallic-threaded glinting-golden bodysuits, crowns of tresses teased to the heavens with sharp, acrid, patchouli-spiked hairspray and festooned with snowy, fragrant gardenias, and twinning extravagantly climactic guitar solos in a wild tangle of richly floral, fragrant yellow jasmine. This is an intense, sensational, bombastically glamorous lemon, and I have never smelled anything quite like it.
Lady Reading Poetry from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab is a fragrance inspired by Ishibashi Kazunori’s elegant oil painting. One of the things that I love about BPAL is that so many of their perfumes are based upon works of art–they even have a painting of the month scent, every month. And as someone for whom fragrance translates to visuals in my mind’s eye, I love this. Of course, my mind is a wily and uncooperative creature, and the inspiration for a perfume is not always the imagery that’s conjured on the canvas of my brain, but in this instance, it is spot on. With notes of whispery, tea-stained pages, dusty vanilla reminiscent of tatted lace doilies, satiny creamy sandalwood, and lilac’s pale, wistful floral, this is scent is a charmingly melancholic delicacy, strange and sad and full of longing.
Cartier’s Baiser Volé is a fragrance that I don’t have much to say about, but I do quite like it. This is a linen-y lily with some crisp, leafy green elements and a citrusy clean softness that reminds me of perfumery’s approximation of a bamboo note. It smells of a simulated freshness and synthetic florals, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. More like a 1995 hack the planet Acid Burn Angelina Jolie with a punk Vulcan haircut listening to Kruder & Dorfmeister kind of way. Like it began as something experimental and avant-garde, and then it was pared down to a no-frills, next-to-nothing version of itself–a singular lily–which, in turn, feels kind of edgy and pioneering for its complete lack of bells and whistles. It’s sleek and minimalist in that mid-90s techno sort of way, but also feels like someone you thought was too cool for school and super interesting but when you scratch the surface, there is nothing else going on. Just that one Orbital song, over and over and over.
Espirit d’Amour from Blocki is a fragrance that immediately transported me to childhood in a very specific way. The absolute relief and subsequent elation that school was out for the year. It smells like mornings that are dewy and warm, summer flowers that are just opening to the light of the sun. It smells like spending a weekend early in June with my grandmother, helping her fold a rickety wicker basket of freshly washed and dried bedlinens and towels, bubble baths in the evening with the windows open to the breeze and the call of nightbirds, and flannel nightgowns, and sweet dreams. As an adult, these feelings are even more precious because I recognize them and can put a name to them; Esprit d’Amour is a gently uplifting citrus blossom, delicate lily-lavender laundry musk perfume of freedom from fear, a loosening of that constant knot of dread filling your belly; it feels like a summoning of a safe place for a super nervous kid who grew up to be an enormously anxious adult.
Skylar Vanilla Sky smells like some creative team somewhere thought they should make Mugler’s Angel but for babies. Someone on legal raised their hand and said, “babies are too young for this; they’re boring and can’t handle their shit.” But then the sales team was like, “hey, shut up, this is happening.” The end product was ultimately that apricot-caramel-patchouli Angel blueprint but heavily watered down with Bath and Body Works’ discontinued Rice Flower and Shea body spray. The result is something profoundly and offputtingly creamy that smells like you accidentally mixed up your coconut hand cream with your vanilla pudding cup, slathering the wrong one and slurping the wronger one. Save your money, discerning babies. This stuff is pretty gross.
Fantôme Duende is a craggy, forested floral with entangled elements of tree sap, jagged rocky hills, and purple flowers. It calls to mind Backworld’s song, “The Devil’s Plaything“: As in a ruin where violets grow / In moss-covered fields / On cold marble stone… But it also makes me think of Mikey Bustos’ “Filipino Mythical Creatures Rap.” These, you will surely note, are two very different songs.
Accento Overdose from Xerjoff is a green, fruity floral: notes of vibrant, tropical pineapple and something apple-y, but not, maybe more like the delicate floral crispness of Asian pear, with underpinnings of soft, musky jasmine and blowsy late summer rose, elevated by balsamic pine and the aromatic sharpness of eucalyptus. It’s a fragrance with a distinctive personality, something I immediately recognize as a diva, lots of glamour, a real insistent “look at me!” vibe–but this one, she’s a real feisty, fiendish wicked queen. She’s Llanview’s legendary femme-fatale, Dorian Lord, whose list of crimes on soap central dot com is extensive and kind of hilarious. Accento Overdose evokes One Life To Live’s best, bitchiest, most iconic villain, but I’ll stop there because this is a $335 fragrance, and I’m not trying to convince anyone–least of all myself–that they need it. And yes, that is also a baby-faced Nathan Fillion in the photo that I linked to.
On the less expensive end, Death and Floral’s Famous Blue Raincoat offers a scent description of “old typewriter, weathered blue fabric, and static,” but what I smell is crushed violet pastilles, misted and mixed with honeyed, mineralic Gewürztraminer to create a runny pastel paste, which a dreaming artist paints onto a neoprene shower curtain, the image channeled by punk-poet voices from beyond. It is abstract art/spirit art/automatic writing rendered in bygone materials by a contemporary hand. It’s weird as hell but also strangely lovely, and I’m a little obsessed with it.
I first saw the art of Ed Emshwiller–though I didn’t know it was Ed Emshwiller–on the cover of William Hope Hodgson’s The House On The Borderland, a book described by a friend and kindred lover of weird writing as “a found manuscript, swine creatures and the swift passing of the universe…is the narrator sane or not?”
As a matter of fact, if you are keen to compile a list of strange stories and terrifying tales, see their list of suggestions in this oldie-but-goodie blog post.
I don’t know if I loved the book, but I was absolutely obsessed with the cover art. And I don’t know what your idea of fun looks like, but for me, I derive fantastic enjoyment in trying to figure out who creates the art that I love–whether that takes the form of hunting down the source of annoying uncredited artwork on Instagram or Facebook, or, in this case, tracking down the artist responsible for decade’s old marvelously lurid cover. But honestly, I don’t think there was much detective work involved here. I just did a browser search for “house on the borderland cover artist,” and it was maybe the fourth search result. Super easy! Barely an inconvenience! It also led me to this cover by Alan Aldridge for the book, which is a lot of silly fun, too.
An astonishingly prolific and relatively successful artist, Ed Emshwiller (1925-1990) painted over 400 illustrations for the covers of sci-fi magazines, including Galaxy, Infinity, and Astounding Science Fiction, as well as many novels by the likes of Philip K. Dick, Leigh Brackett, and Samuel R. Delany. Apparently, some months his art counted for a third of all those included in the pulpy science fiction publications.
Not just a colorful renderer of menacing brain-controlling alien monsters, secret agent spacemen exploring the cosmos, and chic, futuristic goddesses from other dimensions–his works spanned abstract expressionist painting, commercial illustration, avant-garde film, video and computer art, and collaborations with dancers, choreographers, and composers.
You can see find an extensive listing of his covers at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, which is the resource I used to match the images I found below, to their respective book titles or or magazines.