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.
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.
Austin-based Chase & Scout creates beautifully crafted jewelry for those for those who walk a path between the dark and the light. Blending ancient symbology, natural objects, and modern design aesthetics, designer and creator Elle Greene creates jewelry for kindred spirits, pieces that she hopes will resonate deeply with the wearer. Inspired by meditations on nature and the possibilities of unseen realms, these adornments are designed with an appreciation for the past while always looking forward.
Today I am thrilled to be sharing a recent interview with the lovely Elle Greene of Chase & Scout and hosting a giveaway over on Instagram for one of her gorgeous pieces, a stunning oxidized, sterling silver and labradorite pendant.
Read on to learn more about Elle and her creations and a chance to win!
…and P.S. there’s a 20% discount code for Unquiet Things readers at the bottom of the page, as well!
Mlle Ghoul: Tell us about Chase & Scout – the company, the aesthetic, and the vision.
Elle Greene: Chase and Scout was created in 2008, and is based out of my studio in Austin Texas. It’s a bit of a one woman operation. I conjure up, design, and hand craft every piece in the C&S collections. It’s very important to me that each component of my work be made from raw materials and by hand. There is a certain coldness to machine manufactured jewelry that is cranked out by the 100’s. I want the people who wear my work to feel its depth. Each piece has been in my hands, on my bench–it’s a closeness that I hope resonates with anyone who holds or wears my jewelry.
Aesthetically, I’m naturally drawn to the dark, but I let a little light in, as well. The mystique of ancient symbology, botanicals, and modern design are all aspects of my inspiration. I tend to steer clear of obvious inconology so that each wearer can ascribe their own meaning. A little mystery can be very powerful.
When you look back at the primitive roots of jewelry, it was used not only for physical adornment, but to announce tribal affiliation or provide spiritual protection. I see much of my work in this way. I am creating amulets and talismans that are charged, not only with what I have put into them, but also with what the owner brings to it. My vision is that these pieces become fixtures in their wardrobe and part of their daily armor.
You mention that your jewelry is “with a bit of light and a bit of dark”, and that in your pieces you like to “ explore the duality of our own nature” – these are fascinating concepts and I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this and how it relates to the adornments that you create.
For me, it’s about the depth and breadth of the personality I am designing for. Personally, I like quirky and weird; I dig dark humor but not gore. I lean more towards a Victorian Gothic sensibility over graphic horror films. I think that the people who gravitate towards my jewelry have that same broad sense of attraction to all facets of this style. The term “Gothic” is too often dismissed as “all gloom, all the time”, and that’s simply not the case.
You also refer to an appreciation for the past and an interest in ancient symbology with regard to your jewels – what are your influences and inspirations in this vein and can you give us an example of how you might incorporate them into a design?
I was really fortunate to grow up in an artistic family. My father was an archaeologist and we always had a museum’s worth of cultural relics around the house.
I gravitate towards items used in funerary rites and burial customs. All cultures have a series of mystical rites that need to be performed and objects ascribed solely for funerary use. One of the attractions to ancient cultures is that almost every object created contains decorative elements of form and function.
Ceremonial knives are quite beautiful, every tribe has at least one style that is specific to the region or era and I find a lot of inspiration in them. In New Guinea the warriors would carry these elaborate fighting clubs with shark teeth embedded along its edges: a seriously evil-looking object. The shape of that club, combined with the shape of the federal shield (iconic during the US Civil War and Victorian era) came together in my Skull and Shield earrings.
The Frida earrings from the same collection are derived from the Incan tumi axe. The tumi was used for ritual use in burials, and was also used in sun worship ceremonies. Your average passerby will simply see a pair of cool feathered earrings, but the owner knows they’re wearing an interpretation of a 2,000 year old sacrificial knife.
I know that you’re getting ready to release a new mini collection -what can we look forward to with this?
Mini collections are a lot of fun for me! It’s less pressure than a full line, which allows me to play and try out new ideas. Right now, I’m creating a small group of orchids and flora, just in time for the spring. For me, orchids carry a real presence that tiny flowers just can’t convey. Capturing something as fleeting and fragile as a flower in metal is definitely a technical challenge. I’ve found a Japanese alloy that allows me to achieve a deep patina in the metal. This Black Flower collection currently consists of pendants and earrings. I’m really excited to bring this collection to life!
Where can we find your creations for purchase?
My website is the best place to find my current designs and collections. Anyone can visit Chaseandscout.com and purchase their favorite pieces directly from the site. Should you find yourself in Austin, stop by Blackmail Boutique on South Congress Ave. to see a selection of C&S jewelry in person.
Follow me on Instagram (@ChaseandScout) for a peek into studio life at the bench and my daily inspiration.
Thank you Elle, for graciously answering my questions, and for offering this generous giveaway! Be certain to follow, tag, and repost for a chance to win!
P.S. Get 20% off of everything at Chase & Scout with code: UNQUIET now thru 3/20.
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!
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.
One of my favorite pieces from Morph Knitwear is the huge, open knit Shapeshifter shawl. (And come to think of it, I probably should add that to my winter uniform!) Curious as to how one might style this wooly behemoth? I’ve a few suggestions for you, below. As always, click on the image to find more details on the items within each ensemble.
I have a weird habit wherein every time I write something, I feel compelled to design an outfit around it. Obviously in the virtual sense – my wallet could not possibly withstand this peculiar compulsion!
Below are 15 (okay, it’s actually probably more like 20-30) ensembles created in 2015, including links back to the articles, essays, or ramblings that inspired their creation. As always, click through the image to find details on the items included.
Today I am going to write at length about one of my favorite humans on the planet.
But first, some backstory:
2009-ish, I guess that’s 6 years ago now – that was a strange, awful year for me. It had actually been a strange and awful number of years. I was floundering and feeling like a desperate mess. I had moved to New Jersey from Florida five years previously and things were not working out at all, which was some kind of bullshit, I can assure you. I had left everything I’d known behind for this opportunity and it was turning out to be the worst kind of hell. It was to get worse, and then get better, but I did not know that then.
Everyone’s got their coping mechanisms. For some it’s a kitten video binge on youtube, for others, it’s a tall glass of something cold and intoxicatingly potent; for me, at that time, it was obsessively seeking out horrors beyond my comprehension in the form of obscure cinema. I was fascinated with bizarre horror films at that time – well, I had been for as long as I could remember, but now it was so much easier to seek out and find these strange cinematic gems, and to connect with the like-minded souls who enjoyed them.
It was a Friday night, probably February. I view my time in New Jersey through the lens of a perpetual February -dull grey skies, relentless cold, dirty sidewalk slush that appears as if its been piled by the curb since the dawn of man and will never fully melt, even sometime in the future when the stars have all died. At the end times, there would still be a pile of pissed-on slush next to a dumpster, with an old boot next to it, somewhere in New Jersey. February in that place was the worst month to be a lonely person.
The hour had struck midnight and I was wide awake, and, of course- alone. Due to the unfortunate circumstances I had gotten myself into, all of my weekends were spent in my own company, which I don’t mind telling you, was pretty bleak. I was searching for reviews on a certain film and I unwittingly stumbled across the blog of one Tenebrous Kate, Love Train For The Tenebrous Empire. “Lurid. Weird. Fantastique.” promised the header, and after several feverish hours of devouring every entry and every lurid, weird, fantastic review I concluded that it was indeed all that and more.Occult nonsense and gothic horror? Women in prison? Necrophilia and Nunsploitation? Check, check and check. Cheeky kink? You betcha. Did she bring the weirdness, as promised? Fuck yeah, she did.
Brimming with wry humor, marvelously keen insight, and more knowledgeable on all my favorite subjects than perhaps any mortal has any right to be (because she’s actually a wizard, I suspect), Kate, I was to find, was more than just a damn good writer – she’s a talented artist as well, across several mediums. For years she’s consistently wowed me with her wicked Halloween costume prowess, she’s an illustrator and painter, as well as, a sometimes public speaker – which I believe is an art form into itself – and a wrangler of artists and writers for her mico-publishing imprint, Heretical Sexts. I would learn these things as they unfolded over the next several years, but at that specific point in time, I knew I had discovered a remarkable human woman and my life would never be the same.
I’m certain it took me at least a year to work up the nerve to even leave a comment on her blog, and yet somehow here we are, years later and you are about to read an interview that she graciously agreed to do with me. How did the stars align to even make this happen? I still don’t rightly know, but I am honored and privileged to have gotten to know Kate and I hope you will enjoy reading further and learning more about her background and her weird and fantastical projects as well.
S. Elizabeth :Lurid. Weird. Fantastique. That’s been tagline on your blog header for as long as I’ve been stalking you. (I sort of think of it as a mantra or an incantation now, ha!) Tell us about what those themes/concepts mean to you and how they translate to the various projects you summon forth to share with the world.
T’Kate:You know, I’ve always struggled with defining the “stuff” I enjoy, because I feel like genre labels tend to restrict discovery of interesting things instead of assisting after a certain point. I chose “Lurid, Weird, Fantastique” because my favorite things combine a bit of sexiness, plenty of strangeness, and an element of imagination, whether it’s psychedelia, fantasy, or decadence. That tagline wound up being a good match because, though I initially began writing strictly about movies, it also lets me play with art, books, and music without feeling like I’m veering off topic!
I’d love to know Tenebrous Kate’s origin story! I imagine a little 5 year old T’Kate toddling around in enormously oversized Black Sabbath tees alternately peeping at dirty magazines and staying up late to watch lesbian nazi exploitation flicks. How far off am I? When did your strange fascinations begin to take hold? And how did you come to channel them into your art and writing?
I was an extremely sensitive child (like, creepy, Poe protagonist levels of nervousness and sensitivity to stimulus), plus I was the first kid in my “generation” of the family. What this meant is that I was sheltered from a lot of media, plus I socialized exclusively with adults for the first several years of my life. My parents are both former English teachers, so I read a lot–early exposure to Tolkien and those Time Life Enchanted World books had a huge impact on me. There was definitely forbidden media, and it’s hilariously tame in retrospect: I wasn’t allowed to watch MTV after my mother decided that Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film” video went far beyond the limits of good taste. It took me to age twelve to get up the nerve to sneak downstairs after everyone had gone to bed and taste a few delicious minutes of “Headbangers Ball.” I didn’t start seeking out more extreme movies until my love of heavy metal and goth pointed me in that direction in my teens. What started as a way to test my adolescent nerves turned into a real passion after I recognized that there was more to some of these films than one might guess from the “gore checklist” mode of appreciation that was the norm in the 90s. Involvement in AOL chatrooms connected me with Scott Gabbey, who was developing what would become Ultra Violent Magazine, and that solidified my involvement in the world of “writing my thoughts about weird stuff.”
I think I found your blog through – of all things – a search for reviews on the film Hostel II (and was surprised to see someone give it a decent review!) – but it was your referencing and reviewing of gloomy, decadent occult artists, films, and music that really drew me in. I would love to talk about your interests in this vein – whether they are spiritual, literary-minded, aesthetic or whatever – and what are some of your beloved favorites that you’ve either reviewed for Love Train or that you’d recommend for a like-minded weirdo?
Oh boy–this is difficult for me! My favorites shift in focus over time, and I love different books, movies, art, and music for different reasons. I just seek out art (we’ll lump all creative output into this word for now) that resonates with me, and I feel like this shared creative vibration links all of the disparate things I enjoy. A great example of movies that really hit me where I live would be Tinto Brass’ historical epics–I think Salon Kitty and Caligula are absolutely captivating because there’s this combination of lush beauty, historical fiction, theatrical violence, melancholy, and taboo that just makes my brain and my eyes leap around, not knowing where to land. That’s the experience I’m looking for in art. Maybe the most perfect movie that captures this mindset, though, is Ken Russell’s “The Devils.” It’s so perfect that I’ve never written about because it’s just so vast in its imagery and implications, and it’s better if one just experiences it without vivisecting and destroying through over-analysis.
Delving into your various endeavors -your latest project, Die Mensur, “an exploration of the secretive world of German fencing fraternities” and a collaborative effort with with Gilles de Rais of the band Porta Nigra – Secret German fencing fraternities! Who knew such a thing even existed? Please tell us about how you stumbled upon this secret society of swordsmen and how you brought this amazing thing into being. How did it end up as the beautifully bound booklet that it is today instead of oh, say, working it into a blog post…or a painting, or even including in story arc for Super Coven?
I first became aware of Mensur (which is a form of non-sport/non-honor-duel fencing that has been practiced by student fraternities in Central Europe since the mid-1800s) from my long-time partner, whose family is of German descent. The powerful image of two men standing perfectly still while waving a blade towards one another’s faces had this combination of posture discipline, severity, and ritual that fascinated me. There are photographs of the aftermath of the Mensur that show these handsome young men with completely bloody faces and it’s really unforgettable. As a person who’s into body modification, I was intrigued by the dueling scars that were worn as a badge of honor. There’s not a lot of information in English on the Mensur since it’s an entirely oral tradition passed down through the fraternities, but it’s popped up on my radar over time (the mondo movie Ecco features what I’ve since learned is an accurate re-enactment of the Mensur, for example).
I read a review of the German decadent metal band Porta Nigra’s 2015 record Kaiserschnitt that included a photo of the band wearing Mensur protective gear and that’s what made me stop and listen to their music. Kaiserschnitt is an incredible record, and Gilles de Rais, the lyricist, is clearly a person who knows a lot about history and literature. After I wrote about the record on my blog, I wound up connecting with Gilles, who put me in touch with his contacts at a fencing fraternity in Cologne. I was honestly shocked that the fraternity brothers were willing to speak to me! Talk about being an outsider–I’m an American woman artist, and these are pretty conservative young men who are part of what’s essentially a male-only secret society
As to why I chose to make a book on the topic, it’s very important to me that, when I speak to people who clearly take their beliefs and passions seriously, I take those things equally seriously even if they’re different from my personal world view. Mensur is just such an interesting topic on its face that I felt anything other than a direct, documentary approach would have been doing it (and the people who were generous and candid enough to speak to me) a disservice.
Die Mensur is just one of several projects published by Heretical Sexts, the micro-niche publisher focusing on the dark and the bizarre that you founded in 2014. Billed as “Weird Words on Dead Trees” and giving a platform to “those outside the status quo”, you’ve published ‘zines chronicling fictional dream dates with villains (two volumes to date!), explorations of femininity and the occult, as well as your own personal collections of essay and arts in Forever Doomed. Why do you think there is a need right now for these kind of publications? Why is it important to give these discerning creeps a voice, and who is it that you imagine your audience to be? And if you can share, what are some topics or themes that you hope to tackle going forward?
Honestly? It started with a desire to create more valuable work while controlling the context of some of the topics I wanted to discuss. I don’t really like genre labels and I’m not much of a joiner, so the “orthodoxies” of certain internet conversations bum me out tremendously. By creating printed pieces, it means a couple of things: 1) readers are demonstrating a real desire to read what’s on the page, which means their minds are probably more open already and 2) the act of reading on paper (or eReader–I fully cop to reading on a Kindle sometimes) creates the kind of immersion you just don’t get from internet reading. I want to offer an experience where people aren’t getting upset by the comments or distracted by social media or whatever. Like, just sit and think about what you’re reading and looking at in an open-minded way.
I am also lucky enough to know a lot of incredibly talented, intelligent people, and I feel that combining their voices and viewpoints can elevate everyone involved. Collaborative work just feeds my soul in an amazing way, and those that have agreed to work with me really commit to the concept and deliver remarkable art and writing that, in turn, inspires me. I think it’s important to publish humorous work (like the My Dream Date with a Villain zines) alongside more serious pieces (like Die Mensur or certain pieces in Witch Women), because life is complicated and our human brains are messy and contain multitudes. I’ve got a bunch of stuff in the pipeline right now! Jack Shear, who has had a hand in every single piece I’ve done with Heretical Sexts and who has been an amazing sounding-board for ideas, is developing a piece on Gothic fiction, and I’ve been pitched some great ideas on a very grown-up activity book that I’m pretty stoked to help bring to life.
Getting back to Super Coven, your web comic about friends and bandmates Andy, Jess and Red and the “monsters, heavy music, and all manner of occult nonsense”, that makes up their day to day goings-on – I know you’ve had to step back with the updates due to general busyness and other projects, but can you talk a little bit about where we left off? Without giving away any spoilers, we’ve encountered everything from bigfoots to nazi vampires to a burlesque dancer in a relationship with her motorcycle – what’s next for our intrepid stoner friends? And I have to ask -these characters seem so relatable, I feel like I could know these guys, maybe I AM these guys… – I have had so many of these weird, late-night, bar closing conversations about crazy monster theories and conspiracies and god knows what else. How much of this is pure imagination and how much can you attribute to actual real-life stuff? (Please tell me this motorcycle loving Lorna is based upon a real person!)
Oh sure! I still love Super Coven, and it’s been a really important project for me because it got me into the habit of producing (and sharing) my creative work on a regular schedule. I have the whole storyline laid out for this arc (which Jack Shear co-authored with me), plus there’s another story I’ve got a half-baked idea for that involves the character of “Draculigula” because most of my best Super Coven ideas are basically just portmanteaus.
As to how the comic developed, I really loved Scooby Doo and Dark Shadows as a kid, so I nicked the “pals solving mysteries” concept from the former and the “everything AND the kitchen sink” approach from the latter and blended it with my own worldview. I wanted a concept that would support all of the things I’m interested in (occult matters, history, folklore, gothic/decadent literature, various kinds of music, witty banter…) in a universe where those things could conceivably be blended. I’d like to think there’s an audience that likes monster fights and Huysmans references, anyway.
Writing and illustrating a long-form, serialized piece has been challenging, and I realize in hindsight that “conversations in a bar” do not make for scintillating visuals, but I’ve amped up some of the action stuff in this most current story (which I do intend to complete!). I’d like to think that occasional werewolf fights and motorcycle love-making offer enough to keep people reading.
This makes me wince as I type it, but I’ve been going to weird shows, bars, and clubs in New York for well over two decades now, so yes–there’s a good deal of “slice of life” stuff in Super Coven. The whole “real vampyre” thing is definitely drawn from my personal interactions. Sadly, I’ve never encountered an objectum sexual as fashionable and enchanting as Lorna.
You have got so many irons in the fire – if you’re not webcomicing, you’re working on a new book for Heretical Sexts, or you’re blogging a fantastic review on an obscure giallo film teeming with blood and bare breasts, or you are writing for various other publications – Ultra Violent Magazine, Occult Rock Magazine, Slutist, and most recently Dirge Magazine, OR you are making live speaking appearances at pop culture variety shows in NYC. Damn, lady! What do you do in your downtime? Do you have any downtime? What are some current loves and favorite things that you’re enjoying?
That IS what I do in my down-time! I’ve just cut out most of the aspects of what I was doing that I didn’t really enjoy. There was a time in about 2010 or so where I felt compelled to write about EVERY movie I watched or to “give a chance” to a lot of things I really knew I wasn’t going to dig. Now I write only about the things that inspire me and have given myself permission to stop reading or watching at the point where I’m no longer engaged with a thing. I’m also kinder to myself when I need to shift my focus from project to project, or if I need a break. I only work with people I like on projects that excite me–I’m just fortunate enough to know a lot of great people with exciting concepts. In fact, I have a wishlist of people I’d love to work with, so we’ll see!
I know I’ve asked this with regard to various projects above, but on the whole – what is next for Tenebrous Kate? What is left to conquer? I am hoping it is some sort of crazy-kinky memoir, but that’s just me. Any thoughts?
I’m always cooking up something! I really love working on the Historical Sluttery series that I’ve been doing for Slutist so I plan on continuing that, plus Dirge has been the kind of place that lets me write lengthy pieces where I get to showcase GIFs from silent films so I dig working with them. In addition to the couple of projects I mentioned above for Heretical Sexts, I’m writing some really lurid historical fiction that I plan to illustrate and bind in way that mimics early 20th Century pornography. I just like ambitious things that shouldn’t have an audience, whether I’m seeking them out or making them myself!
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Bill Crisafi;in addition being a marvelous, magical artist, he is one of the nicest humans I have ever had the opportunity to chat with. Thanks so much, Bill! This interview was originally published at Dirge Magazine.
An artist’s ability to not only move with ease between mediums, but to transcend them, is a rare talent. Illustrator, photographer, and sculptor Bill Crisafi is adept in this regard. In summoning his uncanny inner narrative and powerful visions, Crisafi draws inspiration from nature, feminine strength and energies, and the, “remaining echoes of the Victorian era that haunt the landscape” of his native New England.
He shares this otherworldly imagery with the viewer through a variety of lenses, both literal and figurative. Feral witches and their familiars frolic, mystical woodland rituals are illumined, and the deeply dreaming, fog-shrouded forest holds sway over all in his starkly surreal, whimsical illustrations and eerie woodland photography. These themes can also be found in the earthy mysticism of the jewelry he creates for Burial Ground, with long-time friend and collaborator Jamie Mooers.
I recently caught up with Crisafi and chatted about his melancholic art and dark obsessions, the eternal autumn otherworld he inhabits, and his deep love for the magical New England landscape.
As an illustrator, photographer, sculptor, and jeweler – and soon to be a tattoo artist – you’re very much a visual storyteller. Where do you conjure the dark tales that you share with the world from – can you talk about your influences and inspirations in this vein?
Yes! I am apprenticing with my good friends who own The Black Veil Studio, that’s opening very soon. I am beyond lucky to be learning the trade from these guys.
I think I am most directly influenced by, but not limited to, film & folklore. When I was in college at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, I substituted all of my art history courses for film history. Among those courses, I was able to study the work of Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, as well as take a course on German film & the Grimm Brothers, where we compared films to the tales. These courses fueled my obsessions with darker themes. I loved learning about the uncanny and German Expressionism and it has stuck with me.
It’s hard to say where my true heart is. I love all mediums for different reasons.
I’ve read that you attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in NY for a time but the call of the wild brought you back to the woods of your native New England. Can you talk about how this woodland yearning shaped your path as an artist? Do you feel any influences from your time in the city and with FIT creeping into your work – how do you reconcile those two somewhat opposing influences?
A lot of my work at FIT was directly influenced by the New England landscapes I left behind. I have one clothing collection in particular that I illustrated which was heavily influenced by my walks through Maudslay State Park in Newbury, MA. Among my ‘fabric swatch page’ was an assortment of specimens from the park: milkweed, twigs, dead flowers, etc.
I think the aching I had to be home, in the woodland environment, made me obsessively keep it alive and breathing through my work when I had to be in the city. This theme lives on today in Burial Ground. All of the twigs & natural elements used are found in places that are sacred to Jamie and me.
I was never keen on illustrating as I was instructed to at FIT. I’ll never forget a project where we had to draw a collection for J. Crew and it resulted in big headed models with frizzy orange hair that had deer antlers jutting out of their heads.
Your illustrative work focuses quite a bit on witches, ritual, and all manner of creatures/familiars/shapeshifters haunting both land and air – spiders, bats, wolves, etc. It’s all imbued with this sense of feral mysticism. Can you talk about these obsessions ?
There is a drawing at my parents house I did in 2nd grade that is a book of “What I liked doing the most during the year” and one page says, “I liked it when we worked on the witches,” and my drawing to accompany that is a naked hag with white hair, standing over a bubbling cauldron
I remember as a child rolling around the forest in the fallen leaves by myself wearing a cloak, mixing potions at the kitchen sink, and making frequent trips to Laurie Cabot’s store in Salem to beg my parents to buy me a book, a wand, or something that I could use to conjure magic. Those are some of the best memories I have and feel like there is a dialogue between myself and nature that magic helps me communicate.
I also see a connection with these ideas and my mother. She is honestly the hardest working and strongest person I know. I see the presence of female strength, sacrifice, and wisdom in witchcraft and it is really comforting to me.
It wasn’t until I was 19 or 20 that I did really start to address it in my work and use it as a tool for communicating my beliefs.
What can you share with us regarding your work space where you create and cultivate these mythic, melancholic narratives? What sorts of objects do you surround yourself with? What’s the most vital, invaluable item in your studio?
I was spending my days in the upstairs corner of the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem drawing on a couch that had a window overlooking the grand ballroom. I love it there and will probably still utilize that space from time to time to get work done. I finally purchased a desk so now I can draw right in my bedroom.
My space is very important to me and directly determines my drive to make work. I hope to turn my room into a mixture of a Sabbath scene from the film Haxan and a Victorian treehouse, then I’ll never have to leave! I will forever be obsessed with Victorian objects, particularly mourning ones. The most invaluable item would probably be the human skull Jamie’s grandmother gifted me on my birthday some years ago. She is also an artist and used to use it as a reference when drawing. I do think it may be a close second when I pick up the taxidermy still-born goat I have been making payments on.
As you can tell, my priorities are in order.
In 2014 you and longtime friend and collaborator, Jamie Mooers, relaunched Burial Ground with “The Way of The Mystic” collection, which, as you state, “reflects our shared path and the symbols that captivate us.” Brimming with earthy mysticism, these pieces wonderfully echo the motifs seen and felt in your other works. As your paths forge forward, what can we expect to see in future collections from Burial Ground?
We have a small collection of jewelry set to debut in just a few weeks. Our first collection focuses on familiar symbols with concrete meanings that are easy to resonate with.
As we move forward from that, we are still working with casting twigs from areas that are sacred to us, but trying to create a dialogue between the wooded sculptures and the stones we set in them. Some pieces transform from twig into limb, referencing our connection to nature. We are also branching out – we will be offering photographic prints, illustrations, patches, and even some really exciting housewares.
There are also some collaborations in the works that we have been dying to get started as well.
Speaking of collaborations and collections, you work with some really fantastic artists who are relatively well-known in their own right. Courtney Brooke of Lightwitch, for example, is the first who comes to mind. She shot the look book for The Way of the Mystic and quite frequently shows up in some of your own photography. Can you tell us about your relationships in this community and the almost collective vision that you seem to share?
I feel like I am a chip off of the same block as Courtney. She is one of the most inspiring and true humans I have the pleasure of knowing. There are some people that you meet who don’t even really need to be given an explanation of what you’re going for creatively and they already get it. Courtney is that person.
The Way of the Mystic lookbook is a prime example of a dream collaboration day. It was our first time working with the makeup talent, Steffanie Strazzere (@sstrazzere), and the combined skillset she has with our art direction, Courtney’s vision, and Kris Hatch’s modeling was the most magical thing I’ve ever seen.
I think there is an understanding for artists from New England that are into similar things as us. It goes back to the rich and haunting history of Massachusetts, and although it resonates differently in each of us, I think there is a bond from that we share. I wouldn’t trade New England or its people for anything.
Divining with shadows and dreams, tears and blood:
Revelations from otherworldly conjurer JL Schnabel of bloodmilk
In dreams we travel instinctively to places we’ve never seen but already know: still landscapes of dim corners, hushed collections of shadows, overwhelming and powerful darkness. Mysteries are slowly revealed and forgotten, and surface later as foggy instances of déjà vu. We awaken with tears drying on our cheeks and a feeling of loss for worlds the doors of which are open only for fleeting instants. Beyond these doors, filaments of memories and past lives spin idly in un-accessed portions of our brains like mechanical toys in dusty attics. And one night when these obscure recollections and neglected reincarnations are finally unlocked and spill about us in pools of nonsense and surreal stories, we attribute them to overactive imaginations and snippets from tales told when we were young.
Thoughtful and enigmatic, and perhaps part mystic or seer, JL Schnabel travels with ease between these impossible dream worlds of shadows and half-light. From these etherous realms she conjures into existence and immortalizes dark memories and strange sorrows, the results of which are items delicate and powerful, graceful and grotesque, and exquisitely, painfully personal. These singular adornments which she refers to as “psychic armor” are the foundation of her line of hand-crafted jewelry, bloodmilk: “supernatural jewels for surrealist darlings”.
Not only a time traveler, world straddler, and collector of tears, of bone, of teeth, and words – JL Schnabel, in addition to continuously creating new baubles for bloodmilk, is also a staff writer for Hi-Fructose Magazine. And if her creative energies were not already stretched vaporously thin, she has also just this evening – 11.11.11 – released an immense and immensely stunning lookbook for her current collection, which can be seen in spellbinding detail here. Despite all of this on her very full plate, she granted the following interview which parted the veil and revealed a glimpse into the process of her conjurings and consequential creations, and guided me through the strange splendor of her own alternate worlds.
S. Elizabeth: In the past you’ve spoken about the surrealist spirit of “objective chance” – the ‘curious joining of objects/images that are seemingly unrelated but are in truth secretly connected’ and further note that is how the name “Blood Milk” came about “…taking two potent potions and conjoining them forever beneath the same banner.” I find this notion of objective chance intensely fascinating. Are there any other instances where you can cite the presence of this spirit in your life? Is this sort of an everyday thing that you have always been aware of, or is it more prevalent now because of your work as bloodmilk?
JL Schnabel: For the surrealists, ‘objective chance’ was applied to an interest in the “marvelous encounter”. Beauty was convulsive. To react to art / writings / dreams / love & desire/ life with both repulsion and attraction, especially when experienced simultaneously, was a goal of the surrealists, the ultimate state of being. These reactions mirrored the anxiety of the everyday, the ordinary. To see beyond what is objective by joining a word that’s quite its opposite is already an illustration of what it means.
I think everyone’s life is freckled with these instances. It’s as abundant as synchronicity. Sometimes hard to recognize, but always there if you have the eye or spirit to really look. For me though, objective chance lives in my world of “making” while synchronicity has lately been occurring so often in my waking life that it doesn’t startle me as much anymore. These are strange times we live in.
The themes of light/darkness, horror/beauty, sacred/profane are pervasive throughout your body of work I’d love to get a peek into your cerebral machinations– to see how you take a grotesque notion and forge it into a wondrous thing of eternal beauty. Talk to me about your process – how a small, gnarled crow’s claw, for example, comes to be clutching a quartz crystal, and is reincarnated into“the messenger”? Or how a boa constrictor snake rib bone is transformed into “forget me not”
I had a tarot reading recently and was told, with the forewarning of “I’m someone who would understand,” that I “have an intimate relationship with death”. When I was a kid, I had a potent brush with my mortality and since then, steadily, my feelings / visions / & reactions to death have transformed. I think this kind of spectral intimacy lends itself to seeing both the beauty and horror in life, in art, in those around me, maybe most importantly, within myself. I’m connected to my jewels, they reveal my secrets, my darkness, my lightness. I think the only way to describe how these physical objects materialize is that they represent my turbulent emotions and ideas on mourning and spirituality. They are immensely personal.
As for my process, I always carry around a palm sized hardbound sketchbook that I flood with notes and scratchy drawings. I work in a stream of consciousness style, without limiting myself with seasonal deadlines. I’m always filled with ideas for new pieces. I wish there was two of me !
I like to think that I’ve created a language with some of the objects I’ve molded and work with within this language to create new narratives. Sometimes I’ll already have an object that I’ll use as the starting point, such as bit of bone, and other times, I’ll find things at antique sales or on the street or in the woods that I think would be good to add into the collection. There is a lot of mining involved. Friends gift me bits that they think I could use. Somehow I’ve become the girl people give dead things to. It’s terrible, and really great.
Nearly everything I make incorporates an object that has already existed, whether it’s a natural one such as a pair of rattlesnake fangs or something with a history, like a skeleton key or a shard of phantom quartz. In this way, I consider most of my work to be in the spirit of surrealist assemblage. Max Ernst is one of my muses, I love his collage work and in a way, I try to emulate his seamless technique and bizarre narratives with my jewels.
“Consider a girl who keeps slipping off, arms limp as old carrots, into the hypnotist’s trance, into a spirit world speaking with the gift of tongues.” -Anne Sexton
You have this quote currently both on your blog profile and in the “about section” of your etsy store –can you explain for us what it is about those words that speak to you, and why you would use it to describe yourself?
Anne Sexton has been an inspiration of mine since I was in high school. The way she conjures a stunningly searing image kills me. She can knock the wind out of you with one line! I even have her initials tattooed on my right wrist for good luck when writing.
This quote is extracted from ‘Briar Rose’ and is part of a longer series named ‘Transformations.’ They are her re-imagined fairy tales. I like how Anne imagines Briar Rose, not as a ‘sleeping beauty’ waiting for her prince, but as a woman who exists between worlds, with a gift of speaking the languages of both of these worlds. I like to think this quote sums up how I feel that I’m straddling different worlds in life with my work and how I feel connected to the ‘spirit world.’ I think it also speaks to how I probably live too much of my life in my inner world. I’m a hopeless dreamer, walking into traffic.
The descriptions accompanying the items in your shop are always so fantastically detailed, so rife with symbolism; one almost feels as if you could be creating your own personal mythology.
Thank you for the compliments about my writing!
In theory, I’m imbuing objects that already exist / tales that have already been written, with my own emotional / spiritual history. Sometimes this is a slight inclusion and other times it takes over the narrative of the piece, as in ‘the crystal tomb’ series.
Speaking of writing…I know that you also write for Hi-Fructose, covering contemporary art. I am struck by how, between the jewels you create for bloodmilk with their emphasis on the ancient, the esoteric and arcane, and articles you write/ interviews that you conduct regarding on the latest offerings from emerging artists …you have to strike a balance between excavating the bones and relics of the past and being “on trend” and future seeking. Either way, you are a bit of a time traveling nomad aren’t you? Thoughts?
I suppose there is a bit of time traveling involved in what I do, but I don’t notice it. Though, a lot of the art I’m connected to deals with these same esoteric and antiquated bits, whether in imagery, medium or style.
I don’t think of being ‘on trend’ with my written reviews. I like to have intuitive reactions to art and am blessed with the opportunity to write about what I’m attracted to 98% of the time.
Back to your writing, which, apparently through a thesis you were working on, turned to painting as a sort of research, and then to jewelry design? Among which of these mediums can we find the authentic you? Which of these artistic avenues feels most natural to you as a means of creative expression? Which is your dream job, and how does that translate in the work that you do with any of them?
I’ve been a writer since I was a little kid. I can not not write. Despite all my schooling, I find it’s the hardest thing for me to share. I fill journals and scraps of paper with snips of conversations, fleeting thoughts, wishes, my manic unrest etc. (though I would love to learn how to be a great recorder of my dreams as you are.)
Jewelry feels like fate to me. I didn’t feel exactly like I was making this conscious choice, it just happened. I can’t quite pin point the locus of its origin. In that same tarot reading I mentioned earlier, The Hermit card was pulled, suggesting I’m headed the right way with designing jewels and writing reviews. I like this idea, but I’m also a believer in the winds of change. I’m a bit restless.
I believe I put myself in everything I do. Sometimes I think this is my great fault because I leave very little left to protect.
A dream job would be to never have to worry about the real life and to live near the sea but still close to the city, making things that people love and feel connected to. This is really close to what I have now, I’m insanely lucky.
Your jewelry often references divinatory and alchemical motifs, as well as dreams and saints, etc – you are obviously well read on these subjects and are able to translate and transmute their tenets and philosophies into your work. I would love to take a peek at your bookcase, or at least some of your favourite texts in this vein!
I went to a Christian boarding high school. We were required to be well versed in the Bible, but were never taught about the particulars of the weird and scary bits, the prophets rising bones, beastly angels, demons, the Rapture. I think, despite the vast differences between the two faiths, that this study renewed my early exposure to Catholicism. My father’s mother was intensely Catholic and would take me to church with her when I visited. I remember laying in the pews and staring at the ceiling, wishing I had wings to be able to fly to the top and touch all the angels pictured there. I remember being awed at her fevered faith. I was convinced that when she passed away, she’d become a Saint. She took me on trips to visit places that were blessed with supernatural occurrences, a church that had a crying statue, a field where the Holy Mother had materialized in a cloud. She had a pin that had a saint relic inside of it. Looking back now, it was really strange, but it marked me for life. I miss her.
With regard to all manner of esoteric knowledge and symbolism, to what do you attribute its (relatively)recent resurgence in fashion, almost to a point in which it seems “mainstream”? I know it is not exactly a new thing to see, for example, a pentagram on a t-shirt ( I had one on a Motley crew t-shirt when I was 15! And that was…a long time ago) but in this case we are talking heavy weight designers of considerable prestige…which of course trickles down. What is it about this sort of symbolism that lends to sartorial influence, and how does your work fit into this?
People have always been drawn to powerful symbols, even if they don’t fully understand them or why they are attracted to them. Right now occult and esoteric symbols are “popular”, and I feel part of this has to do with a sense of national, perhaps even worldwide, unrest. Our generation, the one just before us and the one coming up now, hasn’t put much faith into the government and subsequently its religion as much as past generations have. This has caused a ‘seeking’ for an otherness to fill this void. It seems natural to me to find comfort or expression in these symbols considering we have a generalized sense of fear and instability these days. The unknown is powerful in its mystery. Artists will always be the mouthpieces for such large, fantastic theories.
As for me, I’m just happy I can wear some of these symbols without people trying to burn me at the stake. In high school, we were taught, in intense detail, the horrors of Hell and how very real it could be for those of us who did not convert. This early brush with supernatural terror and people with cult like yet deep- rooted faith both repelled and fascinated me. To them, limbo, which was notion that had comforted me as a child, does not exist. You either are or aren’t going to Heaven.
And since we are on the subject of fashion, a subject on which from glancing through your tumblr I am sure you have at least some modicum of interest -who are some of your favourite designers, and what is it about their aesthetic that appeals to you? What could we find in your own wardrobe? What would a daily bloodmilk ensemble look like?
Like most other things, I’m attracted to fashion in an intuitive sense. Aside from a couple of big name designers like the late Alexander McQueen, I really don’t know who is doing what. I don’t follow it, I just collect it from the vast, flawed, yet wonderful abyss that is Tumblr. I do love fashion though. How it requires a certain braveness.
As for independent designers, I love Audrey Cantwell’s work. Her most recent incarnation, Ovate, plays a large role in my lookbook. I also really admire Zana Bayne. She’s created this subversive collection of harnesses that people are going wild for. I own a few and wear them obsessively.
I like the idea of creating a personal aesthetic. My own fashion reference point is Beetlejuice. I wear a lot of witchy blacks and a lot of bold black and white striped pieces. I’m attracted to the idea of clothing and jewelry serving as psychic armor. I think I wind up looking a bit Goth as I have long dark hair but I don’t really see myself this way. To avoid this label, I often wear electric coral lipstick. I don’t think this tactic works as well as I hope it does though……
Last year you had a show, “Darker, My Love”, resulting in a series of vignettes which questioned “if it were possible to commune between this world and the next”, and which was partially inspired by your pilgrimage to lilydale, an intensely personal experience for you, one which you are still trying to understand. And yet, you continue to be inspired by and create from it, as evidenced by your “seance” pieces. I realize you are still trying to work through and process the visit, but is there anything you can tell us at all about your trip to that victorian spiritualist community?
The pilgrimage to Lily Dale was immensely inspiring. My father had been accidentally killed the early autumn of 2008 & I was left in an emotional and psychic fissure. It was the first time I encountered deep- rooted grief. It was destructive and terrifying. I wanted answers .I started to question everything I knew about the afterlife and mourning. Things I had learned in boarding school, things different members of my family thought or didn’t think about what happened after one died. I ask nearly everyone I encounter what their thoughts are of how the afterlife looks, what or who they believe is there waiting for them. I still never seem to feel comforted.
Lily Dale offers an interesting promise of proof. It’s a strange and beautiful town, filled with ghosts and hopeful people, most of them far more “normal” than I had imagined them to be. All the mediums live in these olde houses within the small town that resides near Cassadaga lake and a true haunted forest, the Leoyln woods, which has spirits and elementals beneath its stunning canopy. It also marks the only other time and place I have seen a hummingbird after my very first encounter the previous autumn in SF.
It is a gated community, fiercely protective. Sometimes there are picketers at the edges of this gate., but I don’t remember if we encountered any. You have to pay to get in and pay each day just to be there, though you can stay on the grounds. We stayed in the Maplewood hotel where a visiting medium from Erie was staying. The sound of her voice in the halls was an odd sensation, but in truth I was slight afraid of her.
During the day, if you don’t have an appointment with a medium there a various things to do, visit the healing temple, visit the small museum, walk through the woods. This is punctuated by 2 groups sessions held in the Leoyln woods. People gather near the ‘inspiration stump’ to hear various mediums give public readings to select people in the crowd. Some people break down during this, and others are clearly skeptical, giving the mediums short responses. I found this part to be the most interesting, this communal gathering of those looking to connect with the dead, and therefore, in a way, death itself. There is a braveness to this, but it is also rooted in sadness.
Though I didn’t get any messages from the other side as I had wanted, it cemented my interest in investigating how I felt about the afterlife. It’s an ongoing quest and I hope to find real peace in the future. How I deal with all this information and conflicting feelings is by making jewelry. In a sense bloodmilk was born out of this untimely tragedy, out of my grief.
Insofar as your paintings, what can we expect on that front? Is that something you are constantly working on, that we may not be aware of…or are the paintings the sort of project that occurs when the moods strikes or an opportunity arises?
I may or may not be making secret plans with amazing artist Sienna Freeman based around our mutual love of doubles / shadow selves … 😉
What direction do you foresee for bloodmilk? Spending so much time ruminating upon oracles and prophecies, surely you must have become somewhat of a seer yourself…of what does that foggy crystal ball upon that gloomy grey oxidised metal speak to us? What jeweled dreams are being currently cast / being forged in the future for all of your surrealist, supernatural darlings?
Those are bold adjectives! I wish I could see the future more clearly!
I think for now, that bloodmilk will remain as self -contained as I can keep it. In terms of exciting projects, I have a bunch of collaborations in the works with other artists and talented photographers. I also have a lookbook, ‘The Conjurer’ debuting today in honor of 11/ 11 / 11….
In December, there will be an exhibition at 309 Gallery here in Philly centered on ‘The Conjurer’. I’ll be showing my personal collection of my jewelry alongside Christina Brown’s photographs and Paul Romano’s design. I might never sleep again.
Your lookbook, ’The Conjurer’, looks to be a fantastical coming together of like-minded people with a shared vision, and is clearly a labor of love, from start to finish. How, and why was it conceived? How did it grow? Tell me about the experience as a whole.
‘The Conjurer’ was born from my need to have the work photographed on a model. So many times I’ll meet someone in person and they marvel at how much bigger or smaller a piece of bloodmilk seems when they see it in real life. To remedy this, I wanted to build a sort of bridge between how these objects/ jewels appear on the internet and how they appear in real life. The resulting lookbook has far exceeded my expectations and might not truly help people realize the size and scale of the pieces, but I absolutely love it. Everyone involved in this project has helped me to conjure this sorrowful yet beautiful world for the jewels.
The images were all shot in mid August in my great friend Paul Romano’s home. He is an exceptional artist and maker of incredible paintings and objects. His massive home is a reflection of the otherworldly beauty he captures in his work, filled with curiosities and strange splendors in every nook. Also living with him is another talented artist, Jeremy Hush, who also has a sizeable collection of strange things he’s acquired from traveling the world.
Jacci, the model I choose to represent the conjurer, is stunning. Her eyes have such an intense, potent power. She has also has this quiet grace I found inspiring.
In addition, another great and talented friend, Amber Lynn, composed a series of incredible still vignettes of the work coupled with some of the objects we found in their home and others I had brought with me, such as an old stone mortar that was my father’s.
Christina Brown, another great friend whom I met when she worked for me at my now defunct gallery, started shooting the lookbook in the fourth floor attic where Jeremy lives, in the room he uses for a studio. The light had a strange quality that high up, in the eye of summer, kind of like being caught in a bell jar half shrouded in shadow. The narrative is built up around the conjurer’s slow descent into the foyer of the house, with images having been shot in the hallways and in the living room. The transitional feel of it represents a kind of psychological turbulence. At the end of the shoot there was this absence of atmosphere and objects, it’s just Jacci and the jewels and a vivid, summer light. Though you can’t tell, it’s the closet she is to the doorway than at any other time in the series. Looking on it now, I think this is symbolic of my own need / desire to be able to open the door of my grief and to be able to step outside of it. To find peace.
The resulting experience was a wonderful merging of people, ideas and objects that I believe really illuminated not only the jewelry, but my ideas and beliefs behind them.