With dark, classic imagery that hearkens back to some of your favorite science-fantasy Heavy Metal Magazine art, or the pulpy, cosmic horror-tinged style of a particularly lurid used bookstore H.P. Lovecraft paperback — you know, the one with the eyeball we all have on our shelf — Burke’s art feels both deceptively familiar and fabulously strange.
Although raised in a restrictive religious environment where this type of subject matter was off-limits, Burke speaks of a childhood-and-beyond love for the excitement and visceral energy of those 20th century fantasy illustrations, and taps into that sense of passion and intensity for the custom, commissioned works he produces for musicians and bands. Burke, who acknowledges that this older fantasy-style art is oftentimes relegated to the realm of schlock and kitsch, admits that while he brings his own tongue-in-cheek approach to his creations, he also attempts to give them a sense of beauty, grace, and mystery.
“…FANTASY AND DARK SUBJECT MATTER,” BURKE REMARKS, “CAN ACCESS OUR DEEP FEARS AND MOTIVATIONS, AS WELL AS PRESENT A SENSE OF MYSTERY OR UNKNOWN IN A WORLD WHERE THE UNKNOWN SEEMS TO BE EVER-SHRINKING.”
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Adam Burke spent a great deal of time in the woods. As an adult he has come to find that is still where he prefers to be. A science nerd enthralled with plants, fungus, geology, and ecology, he believes that there is infinite inspiration in nature and natural processes.
This fascination with the myriad wonders of the natural world and the flora and fauna which inhabit within is expressed in the name of his website. According to Burke, Nightjars are birds in the genus Caprimulgus. They are beautiful, but seldom seen, mostly nocturnal birds that have gorgeous markings and a distinct flight pattern. His fascination is also glimpsed in his more personal works: dim-lit, moody landscapes of craggy cliffs and marshy bogs shrouded in mists, populated with woodland creatures and wanderers alike. All are seen through the vaporous veil of a haunting dream, perhaps an entirely different world, or another time.
Burke muses that this otherworldly quality stems from his tendency to be a daydreamer, and perhaps from a bit of a disconnect with the world of humans. Noting that, “I’m a humanist, and I think we’re capable of amazing things. I value my friends and family more than anything in life,” he then went on to say, “I think humankind’s presence in this world is increasingly destructive and meaningless. I use art as a form of escape; to create a place or feeling that I wish existed or where I wish I was.”
A musician himself, Burke reflects that as an adult, he started creating art again when he returned to playing music. After a period of time when his creativity was channeled into some more practical pursuits, his life began to fall apart in “some pretty major ways.” As a result, he found that his creativity, (his “art brain”), was much easier to access, and art and music became his comfort zone.
As to which medium he prefers–visual or sonic– he notes that while painting gives him the platform to explore his deepest interests and impulses, nothing compares to the thrill of playing music with people whom you love, to an audience who’s participating in that electrifying energy.
And so, Burke began playing music and making art for his band, Fellwoods. “I wanted to create nature-inspired fantasy pieces because we drew from ’60s/’70s psychedelic and heavy music, so I taught myself to paint,” Burke reveals. “Other bands saw the art I created for Fellwoods and started asking about commissioned work, so I just kept going with it. Now it’s my living.”
(This article was originally posted at Dirge; the site is no longer active.)
UK-based multidisciplinary artist and spooky doodler Lozzy Bones (Lauren Hellier) captures all manner of exquisitely deathly imagery in her stark, stylized monochromatic style. Taking inspiration from Victoriana, anatomical illustration, flora and fauna, and antique woodcuts, these illustrations–though morbid of subject matter and precise of blackened pen stroke–delight with a subtle, cheeky gallows humor.
A lover of the macabre with a penchant for the theatrical, Lozzy Bones has an infatuation with what she calls, “the aesthetic of older times when craftsmanship was valued and beauty was just a given.” If her works appear familiar to you, no doubt it is because you have peeped the design work she has created for many of Dirge’s favorite deathlings–among them the beautiful logo for Sarah Troop’s Death & The Maiden blog as well as the adorable fetal Cupid Skeleton for Carla Valentine’s Dead Meet site!
For more of this bloody talented lady’s wares, visit both her bigcartelshop, as well as her Instagram for the insanely beautiful brooches and jewelry she has created. Need to level up your creepy wardrobe? Maybe you would prefer to wear your anatomical heart specimen on your sleeve? Check out Lozzy Bones’ sinister swag over at Killstarfor an eerie ensemble to keep company with the skeletons in your closet.
(This article was originally posted at Dirge; the site is no longer active.)
On a day nearing the end of summer, during a violent late afternoon thunderstorm common to east coast FL that time of year, I took refuge in a dim corner of the library. I was 9 or 10 years of age at the time, and I had wandered away from the young adult section where I usually selected the books I would read for the week.
I distinctly recall finding a small, worn paperback nearly hidden between two rather bland tomes of adult literature; the cracked spine laced with embossed vines and thorns had caught my attention and I gingerly drew it forth for closer examination. The shadowy darkness of the tattered cover provided the backdrop for a beveled tower, back lit by the moon and away from which a pale faced and wan young woman fled, her ruffled peignoir trailing and tangling behind her.
Though my choice of reading material was never censored at home I instinctively felt that this mysterious book would prove to be not quite… wholesome – corrupt, even. That there was something inexplicably illicit contained in the tale told within. And with that, even before the first page was turned, before the first word was read – I had discovered a great literary love. I’ve long since forgotten the name of the book and the details of the story, but I will always remember how my heart pounded to see the sheer terror conveyed on that woman’s face and wonder breathlessly…what was she running away from?
Ghosts, phantoms and strange sinister spirits. Abandoned monasteries, isolated castles. Brooding, mysterious gentleman. Wild, turbulent love and bitter betrayals. Fearful family curses. Dreams, illusions, obsessions, murders.
This is just a small list from the top of my head of the themes I’ve since encountered in these gothic tales of romance and for all I remember, she could have been fleeing any number of them!
Sara over at My Love Haunted Heart is “crazy about vintage gothic romance”; she is a connoisseur and collector of lurid paperback novels and shares my passion for these torrid tales. When I found her blog with hundred of scans of bewitching, beguiling cover arts and detailed descriptions of the stories, I knew at once I would have to reach out and say hello. It is always intensely fascinating to run into someone who shares an obsession held dear to one’s heart – wouldn’t you agree?
Sara kindly agreed to answer some questions for After Dark in the Playing Fields which I have posted below, as I am sure many of our readers share a similar passion for these books. Included are several gorgeous scans of the books mentioned herein. Enjoy! And thank you Sara, for your time and indulgence.
Mlle Ghoul: As you’ve stated yourself, on your “about” page – these “small, usually unappealingly moldy smelling paperbacks” are a guilty pleasure for you. I imagine the same could be said for many people – why do you think that is, what is it about the Gothic romance that draws people in? Does the appeal have more to do with the bewitching covers, or the terrible deeds hinted at within?
Sara: True gothic romance is all about engaging the nightside of your brain, and the best gothics can’t help but fascinate. Who doesn’t like being frightened or love romance? So right there, having that blend of sexuality and suspense is irresistible – for me anyway.
And, certainly a good cover helps! Most of the gothics I write about come from the 60’s & 70’s when an explosion of mass produced paperback fiction hit the shelves, so I guess there was a lot of competition to attract readers. Many of these books are beautifully illustrated by some amazing artists. From the feedback I get on the blog, a lot of people collect these books for the covers.
On the other hand… writers such as Tania Modleski (Loving With A Vengeance, Mass Produced Fantasies For Women) and Joanna Russ (Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me and I Think It’s My Husband: The Modern Gothic), explore the appeal of gothics within the context of female paranoia and a woman’s ambivalent feelings towards marriage. Both cite Terry Carr, a former editor at Ace books, who is credited with explaining the popularity of these gothics as:
“The basic appeal… is to women who marry guys and then begin to discover that their husbands are strangers… so there’s a simultaneous attraction/repulsion, love/fear going on. Most of the “pure” Gothics tend to have a handsome, magnetic suitor or husband who may or may not be a lunatic and/or murderer…it remained for U.S. women to discover they were frightened of their husbands.”
I’m not so sure about this! I was hooked on gothics long before I even thought about getting married. But yeah, that love / fear combination is a pretty heady brew…
Tell me about how this fascination began?
Well I have always been interested in horror, the occult, witchcraft etc. Why? Who knows? My mum was a fan of historical / gothic romances penned by writers like Victoria Holt and Anya Seton and the first gothics I read were hers. I was lured in by the covers and by the shades of mystery and the occult that were alluded to in these works.
Though I read a lot of horror as a teenager, I didn’t read much fiction of any kind in my twenties. I was more into music. But I still collected my gothics – in particular the Dark Shadows books by Marilyn Ross. I think it was something about the covers and the almost chaste, low key approach to ‘nameless terrors’ or ‘unmentionable evil.’ They hinted rather than screamed and as such left more room for my own imagination to play.
What are the top 5 titles you would recommend for someone interested in reading these books? Are there any so awful, so atrocious that you would caution against reading them? Feel free to include those as well!
The best gothic romance writers are the ones who obviously love the genre themselves, or at least aren’t afraid to embrace all the tropes that make gothics so special. In particular, I’d recommend:
Virginia Coffman’s Moura, Victoria Holt’s On the Night of the Seventh Moon, Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree, Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, and Rona Randall’sKnight’s Keep.
The gothic romances that became very popular in the 1960‘s -1970’s were churned out in the thousands. Because so many were produced to meet the demands of the readers at the time, publishers became a little ‘creative’ with using the word gothic and it can be a bit of pot luck what you get – though this can be part of the appeal of collecting and reading them nowadays.
So, for books that stretch the definition ‘gothic romance’ to breaking point but are nevertheless fantastically weird and wonderfully twisted, I’d recommend: Seed of Evil by Petrina Crawford, The Black Dog by Georgena Goff, A Woman Possessed by Christine Randell and any of the Dr Holton series by Charlotte Hunt.
What are some of your most loved novels in this tradition? Some of your favorite covers? Do you find the cover influences/sways your opinion at all?
The gothics I keep coming back to tend to be the classics – Wuthering Heights, Uncle Silas, Jane Eyre. Unfortunately most publishers tend to reprint these with fairly boring covers – one welcome exception being the Paperback Library Gothic series, who published quite a few classic gothics with some gorgeous cover art. Their reprint ofUncle Silas is one of my favourites; another cherished gothic of mine is my Classic Pan version of Wuthering Heights.
In the 60’s & 70’s, the archetypal gothic romance cover featured the beautiful young woman in a filmy nightgown running from a foreboding house with a single lit window. It’s a combination many fans of the genre love and no wonder, as some of the artwork is breathtaking – in particular the houses! Diamonds may well be a girl’s best friend but the real love affair in a gothic is between a woman and her house and the detailing that goes into some of these ‘gloom-ridden’ mansions is superb! Without a Grave by Poppy Nottingham (artist unknown) and The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart (Dell 1969, cover art Hector Garrido) are just two examples.
I’m also a big fan of graveyard settings – The Yesteryear Phantom by W.E.D Ross (artwork Robert Maguire) and The Love of Lucifer by Daoma Winston (artist unknown) are both gorgeous.
Trees are another subject that makes for great gothic artwork – check out Lodge Sinister by Dana Ross (cover Hector Garrido) and the spooky hidden tree in To Seek Where Shadows Are by Miriam Benedict (artist unknown).
I imagine it must be difficult to track down the illustrators responsible for creating the cover art, but do you have any favorite artists?
Unfortunately, many of the artists just aren’t credited on the covers so it can be very difficult finding out who the artwork is by. I have spent a lot of time squinting at book covers trying to match indecipherable signatures to some sort of name via various internet search engines. I am very lucky that a lot of people who know far more than I do about this subject contact me via my blog with information, for which I am eternally grateful!
Victor Kalin is one of my favourite artists, again for the beautiful attention to detail and gorgeous recreation of mood and atmosphere. His daughter emailed me a link to a site of his artwork over at https://victorkalin.shutterfly.com
It appears from your site that the stories you favor are from a certain period of time –60’s, 70’s, early 80’s? Do you read much in the way of early Gothic/Victorian Romantic Literature? Do you read any contemporary Gothic fiction? How would you say the genre has changed or evolved through the years to suit a modern audience?
I constantly read and reread Poe. Others might disagree but for me, gothic romance begins and ends with Poe. Vernon Lee (Violet Paget) is another treasured writer of mine. I’m also a big fan of Victorian ghost stories, Dickens and just about anything from any of the Bronte sisters.
The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole is widely ascribed as being the first gothic ever written and for anyone new to the genre, you could do a lot worse than start with this since it’s very short, wonderfully bonkers and I’m pretty sure you can download it for free over at Project Gutenburg.
The classic gothic romance of old usually featured an imperiled young woman, recently married or working as a governess somewhere in the middle of nowhere – far from family, completely at the mercy of her tall, dark and brooding husband or employer. This was very relevant in the days the early gothic romances were written, as it was not unusual for women to end up marrying virtual strangers, setting up home miles from family, socially isolated and financially vulnerable.
Modern gothics recreate this sense of isolation and vulnerability in a variety of ways. It helps if the protagonist is an orphan and many a gothic heroine shares this fate – (a fair few also end up married to their cousins, interestingly enough). It could be that she needs to recover from a broken relationship or bereavement and so accepts a job as secretary on an isolated estate somewhere. Or simply that she has travelled abroad on holiday to an unfamiliar place and has stumbled into the wrong kind of trouble.
A common theme for many modern gothics is the one where the heroine suddenly inherits a huge old house from a distant relative, or is invited to stay with family she never even knew she had. Of course, these unexpected windfalls come at a price! One of my favourites of this type is A Touch of the Witch, by June Wetherell, in which our leading lady wakes up in the middle of her first night in her new mansion, only to discover a black magic coven hosting an orgy in the basement!
As for anything written this side of the millennium, well, I don’t read much contemporary fiction so I can’t really comment. That’s not to say there aren’t some great books with elements of gothic romance being published – The Thirteenth Tale by Dianne Setterfield, The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry, The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly,Affinity by Sarah Waters and The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon are a few that spring to mind.
Map out your ideal story for me, (let’s say you were going to try your hand at it) – from the heroine, to the villain, to the setting, the plot, etc. What part does evil play in a gothic story? Is the supernatural needed or desirable to enhance it?
A historical gothic romance would require far too much research, so ‘my’ gothic would be set in the here and now. I like damaged heroines, people with a bit of a past, so perhaps she’s just come out of prison or is on the run from someone. In any event she’s ended up in an isolated town, under an assumed identity, with no family or friends to fall back on.
I live by the sea in a place rumoured to be riddled with underground tunnels used by smugglers. I like this idea. Lots of gothics use disused tunnels and mines for people to fall down and get lost in. So my gothic would be set somewhere by the sea. The seacoast also makes an ideal setting for stormy sea-swept clinches – with the added advantage of having some treacherous cliffs for people to hurl themselves off of when it all goes horribly wrong.
My heroine would need a job and so would end up working in The Big House on the Hill. The really old, really crumbly big house peopled by characters who are all just a little bit strange… I love horses and all things equestrian so perhaps she ends up working in the stables there or something. (Unlike the house, the stables would not be old and decrepit but state of the art – like many aristocrats, my master of the house would indulge his horses far better than he does his own family).
Many gothics employ two leading men in their stories – a villain, with whom the heroine initially falls in love but who is all wrong for her – and a hero, striding in at the last chapter to save both her heart and her soul. I’m not such a fan of this. I prefer exploring the dynamics within twisted, tortuous relationships so my leading man would be both hero / villain with his own dilemmas and choices to make.
My leading man owns the big crumbly house on the hill and is irresistibly handsome of course, but sad. His twin sister died a few months back from a mysterious wasting disease – caused by an ancient family curse. He keeps her body embalmed in an upstairs bedroom and spends an inordinate amount of time in there, grieving over her beautiful corpse. When he isn’t locked away in the bedroom with his dead sister, he’s researching dusty old grimoires, reciting unholy incantations during depraved rituals in the family mausoleum, desperately trying to invoke a demon with the power to bring the dead back to life.
Sure enough, my romantic leads can’t help but become attracted to each other, growing closer and closer with each new chapter. But, as the demonic forces gather and swell around this accursed place, strange events start happening. I like the idea of my heroine being plagued by nightmarish visions so maybe the ghost of the dead sister is becoming restless and is haunting her.
Anyway, as Halloween draws nearer, we learn the ultimate sacrifice is needed to bring the dead twin back to life. So… just how far can our heroine trust the man she has come to love?
I have no idea how it would end but I tend to prefer the not so happy endings.
Where are your favourite haunts for searching out these titles?
I can’t walk past a charity shop or second hand book store without going in and having a look. And I’m lucky to have quite a few near where I live!
Rainbow Books in Brighton is a regular of mine, though it’s not the best place if you’re at all OCD about neat rows of books! The horror and romances are stashed in big piles in the basement and the romance pile in particular gets in a terrible state! I nearly got locked in one night – but for a stack of books falling on top of me and making enough noise to wake the dead, the owner had thought everyone had left and was just about to shut up shop for the day…
Thanks again, Sara for taking the time to answer all of my nosy questions and for sharing your love of the paperback gothic romance novel with us! Be certain to check in at My Love Haunted Heart for more reviews and Sara’s flickr page as well for a great deal more beautiful cover scans!
First, a little back story. Christie Shinn of HoraTora Studios and I became acquainted, through, of all things, my Skeletor is Love project that I did back in 2014 or 2015 or whenever that was. Turns out that a mutual love of that bone-headed weirdo and his journey toward positive mental health is a great thing to bond over and a lovely start for a friendship!
I loved her Personal Monsters book, which features the darker sides of human nature (often the ones we wish we could deny in ourselves) and was thrilled to learn of a new project wherein she and writer James Kelly partnered to tackle the subject of Roman Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, or Caligula.
A tale of cruelty, sadism, extravagance, and sexual perversity? Oh yes, please.
“Caligula was cruel, vicious, depraved, greedy, arrogant, narcissistic, cowardly, paranoid. But was he insane? Less than 4 years after the death of Christ, the burgeoning Roman Empire is rife with intrigue. A young boy from the Royal family of Caesars has seen his father, mother, and his two brothers killed before he was 13. Now, the young prince Gaius, known by his nickname of “Little Boots” or Caligula, has been given absolute power of the entire Roman Empire. How will the young man deal with managing such a massive empire with no political experience and a lifetime of trauma? Follow Caligula into the madness of the 1st Century of Rome.”
Not totally familiar with the history of Caligula, except, of course for that one notorious film–you know the one–I found James Kelly and Christie Shinn’s Caligula Imperatore Insanum a fascinating, horrific and yes, tragic peek into his story, as well as a fascinating study of the human psyche. And really, just an extraordinary history lesson! For those, that is, who like their history liberally peppered with murder, incest, and lunacy–and let’s be real, who doesn’t?
To set the tone: In 37 AD, the young Gaius Caligula is the heir apparent to become the Emperor of Rome. Unfortunately, every single day may also be Caligula’s last. The old and paranoid Tiberius has wiped out Caligula’s family and has invited the young prince to his “Pleasure Palace”.
I love Christie Shinn’s art–the bold strokes and jagged edges really do add to the insanity and sometimes frenzied feel of the story…and what a story it is! I’ll admit a little confusion when trying to follow along at points, especially with the time jumps, but I honestly chalk that up to my own ignorance. James Kelly’s strong voice and clear prose guide the narrative along just fine–and there’s certainly enough sexytimes business and violence to keep things interesting!
I found Caligula Imperatore Insanum Volume I to be an engaging and thoroughly compelling read and I am so excited to see the madness that ensues in Volume II.
If you are curious about the creators of Caligula Imperatore Insanum, here are two great interviews with Christie and James, over at FanGirlNation, and in the meantime, be certain to pick up a copy of the book for yourself.
A gathering of death related links that I have encountered in the past month or so. From somber to hilarious, from informative to creepy, here’s a snippet of things that have been reported on or journaled about in or related to the Death Industry recently.
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.
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.
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.
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 likePlanet 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.
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.
Once upon a time, dead and often festering mice were ground into paste and used for toothaches. Hemmorhoids were treated with hot irons. Trepanning and bloodletting were common practices. And surgery? You may as well write out your last will and testament and kiss your children goodbye because chances were that you weren’t coming out of that brutal, bloody business alive.
Thank god for modern medicine, yeah? We’ve made such advances! …Or have we?
Upon having a section of her leg removed as treatment for a rare and aggressive form of cancer, Cleveland-based artist Arabella Proffer began researching medical history and the treatments and techniques of centuries past, where it appeared the “cure” for her particular ailment had changed little. What she came to realize, though, is that the trauma she was enduring was nothing compared to those savage, superstitious old-timey remedies; “You could have been rich, important, or beautiful,” she says, “but if sick, you would still receive brutal or worthless treatment.”
Thus inspired, she began a series of surreal portraits exploring those gruesome curative practices of the past. Drawing upon her signature style with influences of punk rock, gothic divas, religious icons, and the decadence and decline of European aristocracy, “Ephemeral Antidotes” chronicles her subject’s afflictions alongside the horrors of traditional medieval “cures.”
In the following interview Arabella Proffer candidly speaks with us about her background and inspirations, as well as her illness and the fearless fascinations it inspired in her confessional body of work.
Tell us a little about your artistic background – What were your first inclinations that you had a strong creative instinct and how did you nurture that?
The story goes that when I was two years old I drew an eye with a landscape in the pupil. So it was kind of decided for me by my family that I was going to be an artist. I think it was their worst fear I’d grow up to become an accountant!
I was enrolled in classes early, but I didn’t really nurture it–in fact, I kind of gave up on it for a while. But even the times I tried to fight it, I realized art was the only thing I was good at. Going to art school in Los Angeles was decided upon already by the time I was 12. I also had a strong interest in film, so I did that, but came back around to painting when I moved to Laguna Beach at 16. In that town the “art scene” was a Wyland meets Thomas Kinkade nightmare! I had to do something! I actually got censored at a few galleries and at my high school because of the punk rock nudes I was painting. My boyfriend at the time got me my first uncensored show at Koo’s Art House in Santa Ana, and shortly after that I attended Art Center College of Design and then CalArts where I was in the art department, but mostly doing experimental film and animation.
I didn’t start painting in oils until I was maybe 23. I feel like there’s still so much to learn with it. But I never thought I’d be a gallery artist or doing what I do now; working in the film industry had been my primary goal for many years.
Your works might be described as Mannerist meets Pop Surrealism–what would you add to that for folks unfamiliar with your art? And what are some of your influences and inspirations in that vein?
I think a few others have called it magic realism and neorealism, but Tamara de Lempicka and Christian Schad were huge influences to be sure, as well as the early 20th century work in my parents’ art collection. They also collected contemporary Ukrainian and Russian art, and David Miretsky was a big influence mainly due to the sheer size and presence of his work in our home. I would actually call him a Pop Surrealist with that slight Christian Schad thing going on; his was the first art opening I ever attended when I was five years old in New York. He now owns two of my paintings and I’m still floored by that.
You’re also an author, as wonderfully evidenced by the stories and histories accompanying your National Portrait Gallery of Kessa series, documenting the lives of a fictional empire of punks, goths, and nobility behaving badly. I’ve been peeking in at the writings on your blog and finding it humorous, insightful, and a fascinating glimpse into the life and goings-on of an artist. Though, I imagine, your true heart lies with the art you create, what can you tell us about your background in writing and working with words as opposed to painting?
My parents ran a Russian literature publishing company, my dad was a writer, and my mom is a writer. They both juggled between serious academic biographies and secretly wrote pulp or regency romance novels on the side! Growing up I met a lot of famous authors, but to be honest I really didn’t like reading. At least not until later, and then only historical or biographical accounts of aristocrats and silly café society people.
I don’t know why but I have an aversion to fiction–which is funny since my husband is a fiction writer and I’ll edit his first drafts (really mean comments too, red pen and all). And to this day I have never read a single book that either of my parents have written. Probably should get on that. I used to make illustrated books as a kid with a weak story to tie images together, but that was all. I did okay in writing workshops and the classes I took in college, but the book I wrote came easy because it was short biographies I could pull out of my ass and it was about what I had already painted.
One of my jobs was to write artist bios for a fancy art gallery in L.A., so maybe this was how it began? I didn’t know if they were any good until people at shows thought they were real and I started getting emails from amateur historians asking me where I got my information on these “historical characters.” Fortunately, writing has been way easier than painting! In fact, all the artwork bios for my medical history series were written in a single day.
In 2010 you were diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer and subsequently experienced a botched surgery and suffered stage 3 kidney failure as a result. These occurrences had a huge impact on your art and inspired your Ephemeral Antidotes series and, I believe, your Biomorphic Garden Party series. Can you talk about your experience and how it transformed from the art you had been making into these newer series?
Sure, the cancer is called liposarcoma, and unfortunately the only famous poster child we have is the former crack-smoking mayor of Toronto. The series began when I did research into seeing the old ways of how it was treated, and I came to find out it hadn’t changed in centuries: amputation of the leg. I didn’t have a full amputation because it was caught in time, but I’ll never be able to run or do stairs normal, and I still need a cane on occasion.
Chemo doesn’t work on that type of cancer so I had a boatload of radiation which in turn fractured my bone, so I now have a titanium rod and other hardware inside. I can’t run or do other movements, but I can kick someone in the balls really hard now! I started the series as a way to be kind of like, “hey it could be worse, because treatment for the black plague sure looks like it sucked!” and that led me to the Dittrick Museum of Medical History here in Cleveland for research and to attend lectures. I was mostly focused on the eras between Medieval through the Regency–when things got only slightly more civilized. That first show was appropriately held at Loved to Death in San Francisco. As a result, medical humanities has become my hobby and I’ve met a whole community of cool people through it who are maybe a little into the morbid and macabre but are also historians and scientists.
Something is always going wrong with my health even in this wonder age of medicine, and I’m always thinking about what will be considered stupid and barbaric in the future. I believe chemo will be seen as a horror and the same goes for a lot of prescription drugs we have today. The kidney failure was a prime example of how modern medicine and robotic surgery isn’t always great; it was from a botched lady-parts surgery related to the cancer, and it nearly killed me. I actually finished painting for my second medical-themed solo show in Cleveland while I was recovering from it. The final two pieces, the veiled women I think, look very different from the rest of the series because that was when I finally broke down and couldn’t continue. Still, I attended the reception with my giant catheter bag in my purse–and everyone thought my purse was a Chanel–so that was pretty funny!
If anything, the ongoing experience has turned me into a bit of a nihilist. I don’t believe anything happens for a reason anymore, it just happens. I’ve never been afraid of death and was always fascinated by it, so the only beneficial thing that has come of it all is that I’m not scared of a damn thing anymore. Oh, and I have a handicapped parking sticker for getting awesome parking spots!
“What the patient says is truth might not be what the body reveals as the truth.” You wrote this regarding the importance of images for both medical professionals and patients. What truths are showing up in your art right now? And listening to your body the way that I am sure that you do now, what do you divine from them?
Oh God, I kind of don’t want to know! Luckily I’ve been doing nothing but commissions for the last year, so I’m hoping there is no correlation! Except painting a lot of cats; cats are awesome. That’s the truth.
What is life like in your workspace/studio? Do you have any routines or rituals that put you in the mood to create?
I share a studio in an old Templar car factory with my best friend, but I haven’t really used it since I went through two major surgeries last year. I use it for meetings and to varnish art these days but by spring I should be more active there. I kind of miss the routine of keeping “office hours” and the light with the huge factory windows. I work from home now and overlook Lake Erie, and I’m surrounded by a combination of medical books and fashion or art books. I’m on a second shift schedule so I don’t get going until about 3 p.m. Watching Judge Judy is usually my background noise because I love her! But I also have certain albums on loop: The Church, Priest = Aura; The Black Ryder, Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride; and the Velvet Tinmine compilation for the fun glam singles.
I might be a full-time artist but I’m also a Cleveland housewife, so there’s a lot of vacuuming of cat hair and blasting Sisters of Mercy while I re-line my shelves with scented drawer liners. The truth is that I am supremely lazy about my art if I have no deadline; I read about artists who say they spend 8-10 hours a day painting and I just can’t get down with that. Five hours is about all I can do before I need a cocktail, and I’m also not a typical introvert studio artist. I go out a lot and travel and socialize and see lectures and movies and bands. This is partly because I have spent so much time confined to bed against my will, and when I see people who just want to stay home and watch Netflix, it drives me crazy. I’ve done that for months at a time because I literally couldn’t use the bathroom without help, so I’ve had a lifetime’s worth of canceled social plans and staying home dorking around on the internet.
What’s the point of making work if you aren’t living a real life in-between? Do you have any first-hand experiences with anything? The first step is leaving the house!
What do you do enjoy doing when you’re not creating?
There’s a crazy stack of books I’m slowly getting through: currently it’s the Marlene Dietrich biography her daughter wrote and it’s quite nasty! Next is an English translation of The Eight Paradises by Princess Bibesco that I spent a stupid amount on tracking down at auction. I try to travel as much as I can; New Orleans is where I go most often but Dublin is my other favorite. I also am a teaching artist at the Cleveland Museum of Art and part of a program that promotes observational skills using the collection to medical students and medical professionals. It’s still a new thing but so far it has been really interesting and I get to do a crash course in learning about certain works.
Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I’ll be in a group show at the Crystal Palace in Aspen, Colorado called “Female Gaze” curated by Max Kauffman, that opens February 4. Aside from that I want to continue with more of the “Ephemeral Antidotes” series; I’m not done with it and I have piles of notes and ideas for more subjects to paint. I’m a deadline-driven person, so without one I’m all over the place and my laziness comes in waves. One day I’m doing a commission or an experimental piece, the next I’m doing commercial illustration work.
The activity book alone is $6 and for $10 you will receive a deluxe package including the activity book, two 5X7 prints by artist Becky Munich and one sticker created by EC Steiner. (Shipping is included for domestic orders. International friends, please reach out to us directly, and we’ll figure out shipping cost to your part of the world.)