Dazed, as if waking from a trance, I closed my copy of What Is A Witch and allowed it to rest gently on my lap. I slowly exhaled and noted that the sun had gone down, my small reading room now awash in shadows. So enrapt was I that the afternoon had slipped into evening without my notice. Time had stilled, as it does oftentimes for readers engrossed in wondrous wor(l)ds, and I had been suspended in a moment between breaths. All had gone silent, solitary, and strange.
I roused and stretched, shook out my limbs, thrilled in the memory of the magics I had glimpsed in those pages and the subtle but unmistakable shift inside from absorbing all that I had read. And I despaired.
“How,” I asked myself, “how on earth am I going to talk to people about this? How am I going to write of the enchantment and wonder that I have just experienced?”
I worried, fretting that I would not find the words, I would not know where to begin looking, and even if I did string a few coherent sentences together, I came to the conclusion that these words will be inadequate; they won’t convey the magic, mystery, mischief, and bright, silver-tipped revelations contained within this book. They might likely mean nothing to anyone at all.
What Is A Witch is an extraordinary elucidation, an imaginative exploration, and an incandescent creation that one must experience firsthand, for one’s self. An individual must hold this book in their own hands, study the images by candlelight, trace their fingers along the words, speak aloud the lines in a darkened room.
But I’m afraid I’m getting ahead of myself.
What Is A Witch is the collaborative conjuring of Pam Grossman, a writer, curator, and teacher of magical practice and history, and Tin Can Forest–Pat Shewchuk and Marek Colek, Canadian artists based in Toronto, Ontario, and it is a lovingly-crafted celebration of the world’s most magical icon:
CONJURE AN IMAGE OF A WITCH IN YOUR MIND’S EYE, AND YOU’LL FIND S/HE CAN TAKE MANY DIFFERENT SHAPES. EVIL, BEAUTIFUL, HIDEOUS, HOLY, A SINNER WHO JUST MIGHT SAVE US ALL – THIS MULTIFACETED ARCHETYPE IS A DARK LAYER-CAKE OF LEGENDS AND ASSOCIATIONS.
Equal parts storybook, grimoire, comic book, and illuminated manuscript, What Is A Witch explores the many guises and archetypes of the witch–that ultimate icon of feminine power.
Illustrated in Tin Can Forest’s distinctive style, drawing inspiration from the forests of Canada, Slavic art, and occult folklore, the mood is one of fantastical half-lit glooms populated by witches and their surreal familiars, as well as their uncanny sistren who guide us along and narrate our journey. Each page is a multi-layered marvel, interwoven with secretive symbolism, esoteric emblems, and magical motifs.
“I know that you have heard of my kind,” a grey owl sagely informs as we begin to read. Trompe-l’œil, night-cloaked witches roam solemnly through the trees, entering a darkened home.
“They call us witches,” we learn next, via a pointy witch hat-crowned speech bubble, formed from the lips of a female silhouette whose shadow is cast by every woman you’ve ever known.”….bitches, hags and whores. Harpies, vixens, sluts and more”.
“THEY TRY TO BURN ME, DROWN ME, WEIGH ME DOWN. STAKE ME, BREAK ME, TAKE MY CROWN.”
What Is A Witch‘s lyrical language of night-song and half-rhymes, when given voice, becomes a wild, witty, wondrous invocation, threaded throughout with fanciful visions, whimsical allegory, and magical truths. Calling upon the the wisdom of roots, the romance of plants, the four elements, the five senses, all of those iconic witch-women who came before–who wielded a wand, a brush, a pen, or word–and who paved the path for us that we now tread, these words, once uttered, will transport you, transform you.
“The archetype of the witch is long overdue for celebration,” Grossman noted in 2013. “Daughters, mothers, queens, virgins, wives, et al. derive meaning from their relation to another person. Witches, on the other hand, have power on their own terms.” She has also observed that, while the witch draws power from nature, her power comes mainly from within, not from an outside source, and that is precisely how I felt while reading this book. I engaged with its mesmerizing imagery and the poetic spell it cast, and immediately it awoke something within me. I felt it rise within myself, something fierce and surprising and nearly frightening in its power. Though the book may have been catalyst, I know that what it called forth was always there, and is mine alone.
Don’t be alarmed if you are moved to strangeness in the reading of What Is A Witch. I found myself furiously scribbling, illegibly filling the margins of a tangle of neon pink post-its without even realizing it. I thought that I was making notes for myself but in reading them now they are most certainly not of my hand–not that I recognize, anyway–and I am not sure that I could tell you what any of it means. They’re my secrets, I think. And I will hang onto them for now, hold them dear.
If you feel yourself similarly compelled, don’t fight it. Go where this book takes you. See what you draw forth from yourself. Don’t be alarmed. Let it change you. This is magic, after all, and we are witches.
You knew all of this once. You have always known. You will remember what you have forgotten, these dark trembling parts of you, and the torch in your core. You will believe what you read in What Is A Witch, and in believing, you will become.
(This article was originally posted at Dirge; the site is no longer active.)
Amongst my acquaintances it would seem that we all appear to have a similar predicament with regard to the printed word: that is to say, an intense, almost obsessive acquisition of books. Whether for pleasure, research, or keeping up our nerdy/witchy Instagram appearances, we acquire stacks and piles of bound, printed matter much faster than we actually read through them.
No doubt if I were to quiz one of these friends at random they will admit, with a strange sort of embarrassed pride, that they have shelves upon shelves of unread novels–and yet there is an Amazon Prime parcel on their doorstep, a small press delivery on the way, and their virtual cart is brimming with another order ready to be placed. Oh, and they’ve just come back from a stroll through the musty, dim-lit shelves of a local used bookstore, and hey look, what a surprise–here’s a few more books.
What if I told you that you could use these mountains of books as more than doorstops and spider-squashers? What if I revealed to you a use for that collection of charming, old-timey ghost stories that has been gathering dust and cobwebs on your nightstand? Yes, yes, I know–you are going to read it eventually, and I do appreciate that sentiment: I’ve got the same book next to my bed that I’ve been too sleepy or too busy looking at my Twitter feed to actually pick up and peruse.
You are no doubt familiar with the practice of divination, or, the seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means. One can foretell the future through cards, clouds, drops of mercury, even a pile of steaming entrails. Today, however, we are hitting the books for our divinatory purposes! Divination from books or verse is an ancient process known as bibliomancy and is sometimes used synonymously with the terms stichomancy (divination from lines) or rhapsodomancy (divination through a random passage of a poem).
There are, of course, different schools of thought as to how bibliomancy works. Originally, it was a means of seeking divine answers, and the most popular book used for this practice was American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (just kidding! It’s the Bible)–though this is not the only text that’s been used for this purpose. Other popular texts included the Aeneid of Virgil, the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, and The I Ching has also been used in a similar manner. Seekers of illumination would meditate upon their questions and blindly select a passage in the book, which supposedly would impart to them the divine wisdom they needed for the solution to their problem. In this theory, it is believed that one is led deliberately to their answers by some sort of higher power, or perhaps an angel, spirit guide, or aliens.
Other folks see it as more of a psychological enterprise—a means of communicating with your own damn higher self. Meaning, we most likely already contain the answers to our problems, we just can’t always easily tap into them due to all of the “mental filters” that we have built up through our lives and experiences, clouding our ability to see the issues clearly. By this ideology, it’s not really the book that contains any special or wondrous answers; you already know the solutions you seek, and the chosen passage just acts as a tool to help you access them.
But back to the books– you mustn’t feel compelled to use one of those “sacred” texts to practice bibliomancy. All that’s required is a book that speaks to you at that moment. This could be from the library, a new book you’ve purchased for this inaugural divinatory occasion, or something from your own bogged-down shelves. It could be a spiritual book, fiction, nonfiction, that smutty romance novel that sits on the back of your toilet, or even your beloved, dog-eared, 30-year-old stolen library copy of Harriet The Spy. The books you adore will have had an enormous influence on who you are and your beliefs. These beloved writings will have caused you to examine your own depths, encourage you to think in new ways, and eventually become part of who you are, which is why they are great vehicles for shedding light on the questions to which you are seeking answers.
Let’s get started, shall we? In preparation for a bibliomantic ritual, give some thought as to the kind of question you want to ask: are you seeking romantic resolution or perhaps repairing a relationship? Or maybe you’re all like,”Love? Fuck that horseshit! Where did my great-great-grandpa bury that hidden treasure?” Perhaps you just want guidance on what to make for dinner tonight, but somehow opening an actual cookbook seems too mundane. Words taken out of their larger context could trigger something deeper than you imagine is possible. This could be the most amazing Monday night supper you’ve ever made!
Focus your question and find your book. Trail your fingertips along the spines of those lonely, mostly unread books (again, no judgment) and see what calls to you. The titles themselves can often reflect how you are feeling, or coincide with a situation you have been dealing with. Maybe the embossed detailing tickles your fancy. Maybe the cracked, faded lettering on your dear copy of The Complete Grimoire of Pope Honorius makes your innards go all cozy and it just feels right. Go with it!
Sit with your chosen book in a quiet space and close your eyes. Clear your mind and try to not focus overly much on the emotions attached to the question you need help in answering. What you are aiming for is a state of “calm expectation.” When you feel comfortable, relaxed, and emotionally and spiritually in a good place, ask your question– out loud if you don’t feel too weird about it, or quietly in your mind, if you prefer. Take a few seconds to allow your question to be heard and absorbed. Then pick up the book.
Close your eyes and let your fingers meander through the book’s pages, lingering over the paper wherever you may feel compelled. At some point while doing so, you will intuitively feel the “right” place to stop (or your finger will get tired, that’s a good place to stop, too.) Place your finger on the spot you are drawn to.
Read from where you finger is resting, be it for a few words, a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire passage if you’re into it. At first glance, the words may have no bearing on your question. “What the fuck is this nonsense?” you may wonder, “I asked if my girlfriend is cheating on me and this asshole is talking about cherry blossoms. Thanks a lot, Basho!” Give it some time. Look at the words you are reading: what do they have to tell you about your situation? Do they offer any guidance or inspiration? Do you connect emotionally with what you have just read–did it leave you gleeful, frightened, peevish? Repeat the passage aloud or write it down by hand–your higher mind has deliberately selected these words to help you in some way and eventually you will understand their importance and meaning.
Some mystics suggest for this exercise that if you’re left even more confused than when you started and you require more clarity, try it again from the start. Pick a book that seems to fit your question, and then merge your chosen answer with the last passage. It is said that sooner or later you will be able to see what the words are trying to get through to you. Or you’ll go crazy. Because I’ll be honest, at this point I am thinking of a freaky Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel scenario involving infinite permutations of all these passages mashed together and it’s sort of creeping me out.
There you have it, bookworms! Since you’re clearly not ever going to read anything from those dangerously teetering, towering book stacks, why not harness the power and the magic of those beautiful, potent words contained within to get some questions answered and get your shit together?
Okay, okay, I poke fun, but I get it. I am one of you, truly! I just checked out eight books from the library but I’m still plowing through a pile of books I bought two years ago. And yet, somehow I just purchased four more books for Summer Reading 2019? How does this even happen? It’s a sickness.
So let’s do this for a start. Read through the above thoroughly, and as your first foray into the arcane art of bibliomancy, I want you to think long and hard on this question. Meditate, roll it around in your mind, choose your title from your shelf and ask aloud of the angels, aliens, your intuitive brain-meats, and who/whatever else…
I cannot believe it is almost the end of May already! I guess I’ve been busy, although I sincerely couldn’t even say what I have been up to, it’s all been a bit of a blur, really. I read some things, knit some things, had a bit of a milestone birthday and did some fun stuff, and today happens to be the birthday of my youngest sister. Happy birthday to you, little toaster-mouth!
Speaking of knitting, it was my goal this year to tackle again those projects that gave me troubles in 2015. Strangely enough, both of these patterns were by the same author, and the part that is really odd is that I normally love her designs and have no issues with them! I reached the conclusion that clearly, the problem here is me–my evidence being that when I slowed down, paid attention, and stopped being so careless and lackadaisical about things, they came together wonderfully. Featured above is the Chinquapin Wrap by Romi Hill and for those interested it was knit in Knitpicks Palette, a wool, fingering weight yarn. The color is “Briar Heather” and I think it was knit on size 5 or 6 needles. The previously finished problem knit was Terpsichore Street, also by Romi Hill. Both of these have been gifted away.
Our garden is growing things! Approximately 50 different kinds of kale, to be precise! Ok, let’s not exaggerate, it’s maybe three different kinds of kale. A few lettuces, some collards, peppers, green onions, eggplants, and even the cutest tangling green tendrils from the pea plants have begun to shoot up from the dirt. I am basically just going to put kale in everything this summer, I guess.
Taking a page from Eaumg’s book, I’m trying to keep better track of my empties; that is, the products that I end up actually using completely, thus emptying the package or container. I’m very guilty of jumping on bandwagons and collecting beauty products that sit on the shelf, never being used–and that’s dumb. I’m wasting money and not reaping the (probably dubious) benefits of these potions and elixirs! So, no more of that. Last month I used up two masks and some various samples. I really liked the Tony Moly broccoli mask, it was cooling and soothing…even though the boyfriend suggested that it made my face feel weird and clammy afterward. Ha! The rest of it was ….meh. Nothing I would purchase for myself, though if I stumble across another sample of the Tatcha cleansing oil, I’d give it one more try. In the meantime, I’ve gathered up all my samples in an adorably tiny basket and placed them strategically in my bathroom so that I will actually remember to use them.
I’ve picked up this weird habit lately where I am reading three things at once + knitting on a thing. A Sunday afternoon basically looks like this: read a few poems from a slim book of poetry, read a chapter from a larger novel, read book one in whatever volume of whatever graphic novel, knit four or five rows, repeat. Then I get up and hop around a lot because my butt has usually fallen asleep by this point.
I recently finished You Can’t Pick Your Genre by Emily O’Neill, which was inspired by the Scream movies, and are described as “warnings, testimonials, declarations”. One reviewer describes it thusly: “These poems are not tropes, but triumphs. Instead of running up the stairs, they are charging towards the killer and digging a pair of scissors through the eyehole of his shitty patriarchal creep mask”. YES! I loved this book and these poems immensely.
Also: The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis by Mark Gluth. Themes of loss and grief and daydreams and stories within stories within stories. A series of vignettes, a chain of lives connected by death. Spare yet dreamy prose. SO many reasons to recommend this to so many people, and yet, I feel that I must warn you. Steel your sweet hearts. This is a rough one for sensitive readers.
To be honest, I’m a bit off my music game lately. I’ve been listening to the same things for months now, which is fairly unusual for me because I’m constantly amassing new sounds, never listening to the same thing twice. My current obsession is Ruby The Hatchet, a hypnotic, hallucinogenic, headbanging blend of compelling psych rock energy and thunderous melodies. For fans of Jex Thoth, Purson and the like.
What are you into now? What amazing things are you reading or doing or listening to?
Perhaps a month or so ago whilst puttering around on the internet late at night, a memory, unbidden, came to mind. A book I had read when I was younger. Though I could not recall much of the plot (except that it was a riveting combination of almost-unacceptably-unbelievable and strangely compelling), or the story details, or even the names of the characters – the cover, and the title were for some reason burned indelibly into my brain.
On a whim, I thought I might poke around to see if what, if anything, other readers had to say about The Manitou, and it was then that I stumbled onto Will Errickson’s Too Much Horror Fiction blog. Will’s sharp, smart, and endlessly amusing synopsis of the story and review of the book compelled me to dig deeper into his site, and in doing so I came across many strange, moldering titles that I had not thought of or seen in years…some I barely remembered and some which were so bizarre that I actually thought I had dreamed them up. Before I knew it several hours had passed and it was 2:00 AM in the morning; I was exhausted but full of a sort of demented exultation – I think it is safe to say that I have never in my life been excited to stumble across a corner of the internet as I was when I discovered Will’s blog, which is dedicated to “reviewing and collecting horror literature and celebrating its resplendent paperback cover art”.
Will graciously agreed to do a bit of a Q&A with us over at After Dark in the Playing Fields; read on for, among other things, his thoughts on terror in the formative years, his picks for a compellingly horrifying read and a top ten list of his favourite deranged horror fiction book covers!
Mlleghoul: To quote you, paraphrasing Poe and Lovecraft: “Horror… is that singular frisson of terror itself”. Can you hearken back to the time when you first experienced that dread feeling and share with us the details surrounding that, and the myriad ways it has manifested in your life up to this point?
Will Errickson: I’ve tried before to nail down early moments of fear and horror from when I was a kid, and I just can’t. All I can really say is that growing up in the 1970s and early ‘80s there was no lack of spooky stuff on TV that you couldn’t avoid, whether it was IN SEARCH OF… or a commercial for movies like SILENT SCREAM, THE PROPHECY, THE SHINING and ALIEN. I remember finding a horror movie magazine that a teenage relative had that completely freaked me out; I couldn’t even look at the cover. Christopher Lee’s Dracula was pretty impressively scary at that age. Of course JAWS was inescapable, but once I actually *saw* the movie when I was 8 or 9 I became obsessed with it. Can’t quite remember how I began reading horror, because those trashy old paperbacks with skulls on the covers unsettled me. Think I just picked up one of my mom’s Stephen King novels when I was about 13 or so. So ever since I was a kid I’ve been into horror as well as the people who create it.
Back to the above referenced paraphrasing – what are some of your favourite books or stories that evoke such a feeling for you? I believe I culled the quote from your post on The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy, so I imagine that might be one of them?
Several of Ellroy’s novels have been disturbing, not just BLACK DAHLIA but also L.A. CONFIDENTIAL–the parts that *didn’t* make it into the movie version. Books such as DRACULA and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR were perhaps the first scary things I read; later Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” and various stories/novels by King (especially “The Mist”) and Peter Straub. SONG OF KALI by Dan Simmons, THE CIPHER by Kathe Koja, FINISHING TOUCHES by Thomas Tessier, THE SEARCH FOR JOSEPH TULLY by William Hallahan. I read tons and tons of short stories in different anthologies as a teen and in my early ’20s; some of my favorites from that era are “Night They Missed the Horror Show” by Joe Lansdale; “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood” and “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves” by Poppy Z. Brite; “Dread” by Clive Barker; “Old Man and the Dead” by Mort Castle; “Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner; “Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” by David Morrell; “The Answer Tree” by Steven Boyett; various Shirley Jackson and Thomas Ligotti tales. It’s difficult to pin some down. Rereading them now is cool because many hold up and are still effective. I’m slowly making my way through the two-volume Library of America’s AMERICAN FANTASTIC TALES… Short stories really show the horror genre in its best light. There are great novels, of course, but short stories… yeah. I’m sure I’m forgetting some right now.
In this vein, what is your general criteria for a satisfying read? Can you give some examples of the books which might fit this criteria? And this may be a silly question, but how much does the cover art play into this for you?
Pacing is probably the single most important aspect. Atmosphere is great too. I don’t need great writing but it does have to be good. A lot of ’70s horror novels, and even going back further, had a real professionalism about them; you knew you were in the hands of masters. But by the ’80s more horror glutted the shelves so many, many books were very poorly written and edited and conceived. You can forgive a lot if the author is sure of himself, which is the case with Graham Masterton’s THE MANITOU. It was rather ridiculous but his conviction carried it. THE AUCTIONEER by Joan Samson is a wonderful example of strong writing and story, as are Michael McDowell’s works. You can’t ever go wrong with Shirley Jackson. I loved THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR by Anne Rivers Siddons. Fritz Leiber’s OUR LADY OF DARKNESS was excellent as well. ALL HEADS TURN AS THE HUNT GOES BY by John Farris. THE RATS by James Herbert. As for supernatural violence and the like, I like a quiet chiller as much as a gory thriller. Joe Lansdale’s THE NIGHTRUNNERS blew me away back in the day but I haven’t read it since. As for cover art, it doesn’t play into my interest in reading a book; I’ve gotten past that these days and if the books has a truly terrible cover, I try to imagine I’m reading it in manuscript form! So yes, I guess cover art can color your imagination as you read.
You reference John Farris’ Son of the Endless Night as a quintessential 80’s horror novel, with its “blurb from Stephen King and a review quote comparing it to The Exorcist, and its artwork of both a scary-looking young girl as well as a black-winged demon” –I’d be interested in hearing more about this idea of a quintessential 80’s horror novel. Also, do you feel there are elements of the story itself that make it a prime example of the decade’s horror offerings? So…what would be a quintessential 90’s horror novel? 70’s? 60’s? Ok, I’ll stop there.
1980s horror to me is big and badass, influenced by more graphic horror movies. Huge set pieces of bizarre horror carnage, lots of characters, a go-for-broke attitude. Another cool ’80s novel is THE SCREAM by Skipp and Spector: big, bold, vivid, outrageous, energetic. A bit dated in a fun way. Let’s see… for the ’60s I’d say ROSEMARY’S BABY by Ira Levin: ironic, cool, blackly comic, lightly satirizing modern mores. The ’70s quintessential horror would probably be ’SALEM’S LOT, but I think an argument could be made for HARVEST HOME or THE OTHER by Thomas Tryon. Quieter and more reserved than King, but still creepy; a mainstream bestseller kind of vibe before the paperback horror boom of the ’80s fractioned off the audience. For the ’90s, that’s tougher, because I stopped reading contemporary horror in about 1993 or ’94. Kathe Koja’s THE CIPHER turned horror around by taking the focus off “regular folks” as it’d been in the ’80s and made it about artists, slackers, young people on the fringes of society. What can I say, I identified!
For as long as you’ve been running your blog, what would you say are the top 10 most ridiculous/absurd/batshit insane horror novel covers you’ve featured?
But there are still many, many more out there! I will always be on the lookout to feature them on my blog…
What is your opinion of “pulp” and what purpose it serves–what can we learn from it about our culture that isn’t a part of canonical literature? “Pulp” novels are considered low-end and sort of disdained, but obviously they are popular to read. What about the lurid themes found in them resonates with the reader?
When it comes to the worth of any kind of pulp or genre fiction and its status, I like to turn it around and posit that lots of literature, the high-end, culturally-sanctioned stuff, isn’t nearly as profound or insightful as some people like to think it is. There is just as much cliche, lack of imagination, and poor–as in pretentious–writing in that kind of fiction as in pulp or genre fiction. Writers who began in the pulp fields are now considered major American authors, crime writers like Raymond Chandler as well as a horror writer like H.P. Lovecraft. Horror fiction deals with the same themes as any other kind of fiction: families, history, love, sex, death, violence, grief, guilt, etc. Sure, a horror novel might accentuate the less savory aspects of these themes, but I’d say a classic writer like Dostoevsky, for instance, is also exploiting them as well. I *think* that literary critics these days are little more amenable to that idea, anyway.
Behold the stack of poetry that I have been working through for over a year now! Some of them are more recent acquisitions, some recommendations from friends, a few were purchased on a whim and tucked away for another time. Perhaps to forget about, and then stumble upon sometime in the future, on a rainy afternoon. Or a sunny afternoon during which I will dim the lights and draw the shades and pretend like the intermittent cycles of the dishwasher are the onslaught of a summer sudden storm.
The Moon Is Always Femaleis perhaps best left for another time; months later I am still digesting the potent, revelatory lessons I squirreled away whilst reading it. Piercy, in a voice earthy and strong and brimming with joyful humor, writes of longings, warnings, and dreams–and with a sense of absolute, empowering conviction that made me want to rejoice in laughter and song, scream in triumph. Someone on the internet commented that they thought this collection seemed “dated” (it was published in 1980) and I must disagree with every fiber of my being. It’s an intensely energizing read that I foresee engaging and inspiring women 50 years from now.
Much like my favorite volume of poetry last year, Bluets was initially suggested to me by Pam Grossman, and I am so grateful that she shared the recommendation with me.
I am, however, sad to say that in thumbing through Bluets now I am disappointed to see that I did not mark pages or underline passages; nothing to indicate that there was something that struck me as profound or which gave me pause for reflection that I’d like to revisit and re-read. Though I know marking up books in such a way is frowned upon by some people, I personally have no problem with it. They’re my books aren’t they? I’ll underline and asterisk and highlight as I please! I personally find pristine books highly suspect. Regardless, my unblemished copy of Bluets remains a rare treat. Perhaps the lack of scribbled notes and underlined text is because there was so much in it to love and I could not isolate and elevate any particular passage over the others.
It is written as a series of small vignettes–numbered lists, really–exploring reflections upon the color blue and the connections that Nelson draws between those collected observations and her own experiences.
“1. Suppose I were to tell you that I had fallen in love with a color”, she begins.
From a reader’s perspective, it presents as a collector’s secret diary of sorts, whose pages offer glimpses of morbid heartbreak, pervasive loneliness, pain both artistic and physical, ecstatic grief, and deep sadness, as well as compassion, beauty, and fleeting joy. These confessions are collaged together with all manner of scraps and detritus relating to every blue in the spectrum, consulting numerous writers, artists and thinkers along the way.
156. Why is the sky blue? -A fair enough question, and one I have learned the answer to several times. Yet every time I try to explain it to someone or remember it to myself, it eludes me. Now I like to remember the question alone, as it reminds me that my mind is essentially a sieve, that I am mortal.
157. The part I do remember: that the blue of the sky depends on the darkness of empty space behind it. As one optics journal puts it, “The color of any planetary atmosphere viewed against the black of space and illuminated by a sunlike star will also be blue.” In which case blue is something of an ecstatic accident produced by void and fire.”
I read a review of Bluets wherein Nelson is accused of indulgent navel-gazing, and my response to that is: “…and? So?”. That’s what poets do, isn’t it? A poet, I think, is its own favorite subject, and that’s precisely as it should be. Evan J. Peterson writes “The poet is stereotyped as a different kind of pervert, one who enjoys the depths of his own navel and the taste of his own toes, and furthermore, one who wants everyone to know this about him.” Just so!
A handful of readers have noted that they are able to pick this book up and peruse these pages willy-nilly, in no particular order, but I think you are doing yourself a disservice to treat it like that sort of a read. These writings have a flow, wherein one thought or recollection or recounting of facts leads into the next and though sometimes the connections between them are fragile, tenuous–they still exist. To skip around is to lose the link, and I believe that’s where precisely where the magic, the blue-tinged marrow is found. Not in the bittersweet experiences she shares, and not in the facets or features or characteristics of the color, but in how she links all of these things together.
“238. I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.
239. But now you are talking as if love were a consolation. Simone Weil warned otherwise. “Love is not consolation,” she wrote. “It is light.”
240. All right then, let me try to rephrase. When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing but of light.”
Thanks again for everyone who read and commented with your favorite scents and beloved rituals. In the meantime, perhaps you were wondering how to outfit yourself for reading these magical, transformative poems? Ok, so maybe that’s just me? That’s ok, I will share my ideas anyway. See below, and if you are curious as to the items used, click through the image for a detailed listing.
A few weekends ago, on a trip up to North Florida on a rainy Saturday morning, we ended up on the side of the highway, sinking into a ditch. A massive white pickup truck (I have dreamed about this truck multiple times since then, and I always see it when I close my eyes now) began to merge into our middle lane without looking or realizing we were there. In avoiding a collision with him, we shifted back to an empty lane on the right, but began to hydroplane on the wet roads. At that point, I closed my eyes and began to brace myself for impact. I don’t know exactly what happened after that, but we were basically all over the road–facing oncoming traffic at one point–and seconds later we ran into a small copse of trees and a swampy ditch in the median between the north and southbound traffic.
I remember looking at the branches scraping at the windshield, noticing our miraculously unspilled coffees and thinking How are we even still alive?
In some parallel universe where my partner keeps a less cool head, this situation could have ended quite differently. The alternate reality us may have ceased to exist that day.
I don’t care to dwell on that overmuch.
My art gallery is ever expanding. I could lie and tell you that I purchased these things as balm for my fractured soul after the above-mentioned incident, but the truth is that I ordered these things before that. I have long admired Carisa Swenson of Goblinfruit Studio’s works–her curious creatures and aberrant animals have been delighting me for years! I decided it was the right time to provide a home for one of them, and so in the top photo we have Giles in his jaunty blue waistcoat keeping company with other various treasures
In the second photo is Alholomesse by Robert Kraiza. I consider myself a person of hushed passions, silent desires, but I’ll admit, gazing upon these wildly ecstatic women whips me into a bit of a maelstrom. I am so thrilled to have these witches dancing on my walls! Well, eventually. We all know how long it will take for this to happen.
It’s summer wardrobe time! And summer wardrobes, as we all know, consist of interesting, dark-themed tee shirts. Right? Well, that’s what mine consist of, anyhow. Much….like the rest of the year, I guess. Hm.
The very excellent Sabbat Magazine’s Maiden Issue, which is full of magics from some of my favorite artists, writers and visionaries. A++ 5 stars would be ensorcelled again.
X’s For Eyes by Laird Barron. This took a chapter or two to catch my attention, but I’m glad that I stuck with it, because X’s For Eyes is a lot of fun. I am about two-thirds of the way through (it’s only about 100 pages or so) and it’s like…a pulp-cosmic-noir adventure with Hank and Dean Venture except less incompetent and more demented.
Giant Days Vol 2. I’ll just come out and say that I will always support anything John Allison has a hand in. His webcomic Bad Machinery (formerly Scary Go Round and Bobbins) is the only webcomic I still read…and it’s the one that I actually started reading many years ago that got me into webcomics in the first place. I even got to interview him once! That was a total dream come true. And once he mentioned my polyvore stuff on his blog, or in the comments of his blog, as inspiration for some of his character’s fashions! Which…that makes me sound totally stalkery, so we’ll move on. Anyway, Giant Days is also a lot of fun, following Esther, Susan, and Daisy through weird, slice-of-life college life adventures.
The Beauty: I haven’t actually started this one yet, but doesn’t this sound intriguing? “Modern society is obsessed with outward beauty. What if there was a way to guarantee you could become more and more beautiful every day? What if it was a sexually transmitted disease? In the world of The Beauty, physical perfection is only one sexual encounter away.”
Listening to Mamiffer’s The World Unseen. I’ve loved this experimental duo since discovering them quite by accident back in 2010 or so. This new effort flickers with loss and light and is described as an “exploration of subconscious and psychic bonds between the past and present” and an “eight-song aural lexicon that vacillates between Arvo Pärt’s delicate minimalist beauty, Thomas Köner’s narcotic pulses of noise, and Richard Pinhas’ sublime textural patterns.”
Watching: The Fly and Angel Heart. Can you believe I had never seen either one of those movies? I enjoyed them both immensely. That was obviously the role Jeff Goldblum was born to play and it was nice to see Mickey Rourke looking like a dream boat before his face became the unfortunate plate of wet cat food that it is now. (Sorry, Mickey Rourke).
Doing: Saw a live taping of NPR’s Ask Me Another, attended a They Might Be Giant’s show, gardening, and knitting all of the things that gave me trouble last year.
What about you all? What have you been up to lately? Seen anything fun? Reading anything interesting? Had any near-death experiences? Fill me in!
Sonya Vatomsky, lovely new friend, and author of Salt Is for Curing, has been interviewed previously by some very smart people who have asked some excellent questions of this ghostly poet of the witchy and intense. I am not one of those people.
In my initial spurt of nosiness about this exquisite creature, I uncovered a handful of informative, well-written and wonderfully interesting interviews with our subject today. And my conclusion is that there’s not much I can ask Sonya Vatomsky about poetry and the writing process that another more intelligent and more articulate person has not already shared with us. And as a matter of fact, I encourage you all to read these previous interviews when you can, because they offer fantastic insight into Sonya’s works.
I am, however going to ask some fun questions, which I have shared below, and we are offering a giveaway consisting of a signed copy of Salt Is For Curing, –so I hope you will continue reading!
I became acquainted with Sonya in early 2016 when I noticed that a user on Instagram calling themselves @coolniceghost started following my account. Normally I don’t pay a lot of attention to new followers on social media but an interesting username always piques my interest. And come on…. COOL + NICE + GHOST! That sounded too good to be true–I wanted to believe this mystery internet person is all of these things!
I discovered, with just a little bit of poking around on the internet, that this indeed all true. @coolniceghost turned out to be a poet named Sonya Vatomsky, (A POET! You know my heart exploded with this knowledge) whom I found on facebook and reached out right away to say hello. And here we are.
Sonya has written two collections, My Heart In Aspic, a book of :”sensory-rich poetry investigating the body, decay/fracture, rich marrow, salted flesh, and breathing in all the dark things”, as well as the more recent Salt Is For Curing, which is described deliciously by author Ariana Reines as “a feast, a grimoire, a fairy tale world, the real world. It’s also too smart for bullshit and too graceful to be mean about the bullshit”.
In my reading of Salt Is For Curing, it took all that I had not to devour this small book of spooky delights in one greedy instant. I feared that to do so, to ingest all of these potent magics at once, would give me a terribly heartsick sort of heartburn and yet leave me with the very worst sort of emptiness, knowing there is no more to be had. I drew it out for as long as I could stand.
Anyway, I do go on, don’t I? We are going to talk about stuff and things and I trust that you will read further and enjoy. After having done so, please leave a comment to be included for the giveaway of one copy of Salt Is For Curing, signed by Sonya Vatomsky. Do you have a favorite collection of poetry? A beloved fragrance? Maybe a strange ritual you’d like to share? Tell us all about it in the comments and a random winner will be divined by esoteric methods exactly one week from today.
Mlle Ghoul: The other night I had a dream that I peeled back the onion skin of my toes to uncover chocolate bonbons, which I plucked and ate with relish (I knew they’d grow back). What have you been dreaming about lately? What sort of stock do you put in dreams, if any? Are they signs, guide-posts for you? Or just brain-blips? Do they ever make their way into your poetry?
Sonya Vatomsky: Honestly, I kind of just have a lot of nightmares. I always have. They range from the basic psychopath-on-a-rampage kind to the crueler twists of, say, killing someone while blacked out and then having to explain that you’re a murderer to your parents who, against all mounting evidence, are maintaining your innocence during the trial because they know you, you would never. Because of this, I learned how to wake myself up from dreams when I was very young.When I’m really scared, I reach a sort of lucidity where if I force my eyes open really wide in the dream-state I’ll wake up. Besides the waking up trick, my lucid dreams are pretty useless. There’s a sort of misconception in lucid dreaming tutorials where people equate them with control over your dreams, which is just not accurate. Being self-aware doesn’t automatically make you God.
Speaking of dreams and sleep, you mentioned that you suffer from sleep paralysis. Can you talk a little bit about your experience with that?
Sure! It first happened in my late teens — scared the shit out of me, but I figured it was a freaky one-off nightmare. Then it occurred every few months for several years. I have an “all the toppings” version of sleep paralysis: aural hallucinations, visual hallucinations, and the cherry on top is an overpowering sense that there’s a demon in the room. I first read about sleep paralysis when I was 24 — 6 years ago — and since then it hasn’t happened much. Reading about it was very surreal. I was going through the Wikipedia pages of Japanese horror movies and reading the synopses and clicking links and ended up reading a medical paper on kanashibari. Having this frightening, seemingly-inexplicable, and deeply-personal thing medically explained (and experienced by other people!) was such a relief. In terms of the impact on my daily life, sleep paralysis was far more isolating than terrifying… or, rather, don’t we all have a very visceral fear that our mind has chosen an utterly unique kind of madness? That we’re somehow inherently blocked from ever being understood by another?
In Salt Is For Curing, the thread that ties so much of it together is food, but I get that it’s not really about food. You’ve said, and I am paraphrasing, that at the very root of these themes you write on– women, and bodies, and autonomy, and trauma, and power– it’s you exorcising your demons while “making people think they’re reading a witchy little book of folklore.” Which I think is fantastic and I loved that aspect of it. The role of food in folklore is such an interesting subject, though, and not one that I’ve thought on overmuch until now. I guess what I want to ask is how did you make these connections in relation to your own personal mythology and go about incorporating it into your poetry?
I think food and folklore both fall into my writing through the simple fact of me being Russian. Specifically a Russian immigrant, so my sense of culture has basically been distilled into those two things, partially because they’re such cultural building blocks but also because food and folklore are all you really have awareness of when you’re a child. I was six when I moved.
… but I am also obsessed with food, so we have to come back to that. Would you consider food/cooking a fascination for you, and has that been a constant fixation throughout your life or something that developed around the writing of these particular poems? What do you like to cook for yourself? What do you like to cook and serve to other people?
I’m impatient and busy so I usually cook things that can be done in 30 minutes, ideally with most of that time away from the stove. Baked fish with lemon, rosemary lamb, duck breast, tuna steak, that sort of thing. Also sandwiches. Always sandwiches. My current favorite is some kind of nice bread, gravlax, sliced hardboiled egg, tomato, mayonnaise, and hot sweet mustard. I’ll usually make the same type of dish for other people, because hosting means I’m a) stressed from accepting too much responsibility for the personal happiness of my dinner guest and b) drinking a lot, though I might upgrade my put-it-in-the-oven entree to cornish game hen. I can do piroshky and vareniki and pelmeni and borsch and all of that too but would need a third party to mind the guests because I’m very leave-me-the-fuck-alone in the kitchen.
Another thing you mentioned in an interview and I am taking it totally out of context here so that you can expand upon and play with it however you like, is: “I’m interested in myself quite a lot.” I cannot tell you how refreshing that was to read, and how excited, and well, RELIEVED I was to hear someone actually say that. You know, as a writer, I am extremely interested in myself, as well (I’m my favorite subject!)…but that’s not always something people are comfortable expressing, I don’t think. I was hoping that you could talk a little more about this.
My coolness and my writing ability have just never been things I questioned. Which doesn’t mean I assume everyone will adore me (why would it?) or anything; I’m just stressed out by starvation economies. Impostor syndrome is a thing I deal with, as are various insecurities about success, but I don’t conflate feelings about my movement through the world with my intrinsic sense of self, I guess? I think I’m super fucking interesting, and I get chills re-reading my own work, but that ego also frees me up to feel joy at the genius of others. There’s not a finite amount of coolness. I find books all the time that reduce me to Facebook-messaging incoherent “omg… you are disgustingly amazing”s to people and that’s a real pleasure.
Onto lighter things! One of the things we initially bonded over was our huge goth-y tee shirt collection–do you have any favorites right now?
I don’t want to assume you are a fellow perfume enthusiast, but I sort of get the feeling that you might be. What sort of scents do you find yourself drawn to? Do you have a particular beloved fragrance?
Ha! I am definitely a perfume enthusiast. Except I find the alcohol in alcohol-based perfumes really overpowering so I mostly wear oils. My everyday stink is Sugar & Spite’s Brewster (buttercream frosting, candied violets, vanilla cake) with Common Brimstone’s Petite Mort (caraway, cardamom, leather, honey, rose) on top. I also really love BPAL’s Vixen (orange blossom, ginger, patchouli) but I’ve had it forever so it kind of just smells like the summer I was 21 at this point. My gotta-have-it oils are anything that mention campfires, dirt, or cardamom, and lately I’m really enjoying rose as well. Oh! Another always-favorite is Debaucherous Bath, though I purchase more lotions than perfumes from that shop. The Queen Bee (milk, honey, cardamom) is delightful.
I did read your post about perfumes the other day and am thinking of treating myself to Norne or De Profundis (though for those prices maybe I’ll just come over for a weekend and smell you a lot).
I think you and I have something else in common, too–that you don’t really love showering, because you don’t like getting wet. Me too, I hate it! I sort of have to trick myself into the shower, make a ritual of it with fluffy towels, fancy soaps and potions and unguents. This made me start thinking about our own individual, personal rituals. I was wondering if you had any that you might like to share? Whether with regard to getting your hair wet, or writing, or …whatever, really.
Showering is the worst. I exercise every morning and that does make me more inclined to shower, though I soaps and potions help as well. I like to have a creepy soap (gunsmoke, seaweed, rotting wood) and a sweet lotion. An off-putting handsoap is nice, too. Blackbird used to do a really strong, salty licorice one but since they discontinued it I’ve been using Nevermore Body Company’s Sacred Ground (chamomile, oak, black currant, dried leaves).
My other rituals are secret, for now.
You just traveled to Iceland! What did you love about it? Did you find any inspiration there? Anything that you might recommend to a fellow traveler on a whirlwind journey?
Iceland! The best thing we did was go to the Secret Lagoon which, first off, has a Facebook page so how secret is it really? The lagoon is an hour or so outside Reykjavik, and we did a night excursion where we got there around 9 or 10pm — it’s dark and freezing cold and next to the lagoon is this scary-looking cement shack structure and there’s a reddish light coming from somewhere that makes the entire scene look like the first result of when you go to a website of free desktop wallpapers and search for “creepy shit”. It was incredible! You get little floaties and float in the water, which is really warm, and there are these underwater speakers playing fucking Sigur Ros, and you can drink wine and then get a massage. Someone also brought a dog so I was petting this giant fluffer while drinking wine and being up to my waist in a hot lagoon.
Perfect. Then when you’re done soaking you get to have a little meal of cucumbers and tomatoes and black bread and schnapps and softboiled egg and the rotting piss shark thing which, I don’t know, definitely needs a lot of schnapps after it.
I am led to believe that you may have some great poetry recommendations. If one loved Salt Is For Curing, for example, what else might you suggest?
I HAVE SO MANY POETRY RECOMMENDATIONS. Recently I have read and loved:
Finally, closing on a more serious note– elsewhere, you referenced a J.G. Ballard quote:
“’I wanted to / rub the human face in its own vomit / and then force it to look in the mirror’—and that’s basically what I’m trying to do. Except with my vomit. In a nice way.” I know that our motivations and inspirations are constantly in flux, so I am wondering if this is still what you are trying to do? Or has this changed?
No, that still sounds about right.
Thanks again, Sonya, for entertaining my curiosity and indulging my nosy nature. And readers, remember to leave a comment below in order to be eligible for our giveaway of one signed copy of Salt Is For Curing.
If Christie Shinn’s name sounds familiar to you, no doubt you are recalling my brief review last month of the bloody, demented Caligula Imperatore Insanum, for which she was the illustrator. Today I am pleased to be taking a look at another one of her offerings, Sepulchre Volume 1. I won’t call this a review, per se, because I don’t want to give away the story or any plot points!
Gorgeously stark and atmospheric, a violent tale of deliberate betrayal, personal tragedy , and vengeance, Sepulchre takes place “In a world of swords, bullets and blood” where our main character, Lady Jaye Hawke, is “betrayed by the one she loved the most, and seeks to avenge that treachery.”
Some time back I had the opportunity and distinct pleasure to view the first few pages and what I saw piqued my interest tremendously–when I tell you it was both a gut punch that rendered me breathless and left an unforgettable vision seared into my retinas, I am not exaggerating. Without a doubt it left me trembling, intrigued and yearning for the rest of the story. The beginning of this tale grips you instantaneously, and I’ll say no more than that.
Lady Jaye Hawke has a story to tell, that we know for certain. However due to tragic and an as-of-yet not entirely explained backstory and circumstances, she is left without a voice to do so. Instead, her narrative unfolds through her actions and expressions. Her emotions, fraught with sorrow and fury, hysteria and despair, are passionately illustrated by Shinn in dramatic blacks, whites, and red, and convey to the reader more than mere words ever could.
This is going to be a tale of revenge, we can see that’s where this is heading, and I am all about enthusiastically meting out punishment to monsters who betray us… but I am hoping there are moments of redemption, as well. It is rare that I fall so completely in love with a character that I know so little about, but I’ve glimpsed enough to see that Lady Jaye Hawke is empathetic and has kindness in her heart, so I want to see this play out in a way that doesn’t leave her brutish or monstrous, herself.
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!