1(Originally posted in 2011 over at After Dark In The Playing Fields)

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?

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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!

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writing

Doing: For Hexmas, I was gifted with several books for writers–writing prompts, inspiration, that sort of thing.  I really only do a certain kind of writing, which is to say I blog. Mostly about personal things and the things that interest me.  I do this both for myself, and for whatever outlets want to feature some of my scribblings.  I don’t know that I ever want to do more than that, but it occurred to me that I am awfully one-note and it wouldn’t hurt to flex my writing muscles and challenge my creativity more, even if I am the only one who ever sees whatever these exercises produce or inspire.  For example, I am definitely not a writer of fictions!  But it might be fun to try.  We’ll see.   Pictured is A Year of Creative Writing Prompts, but I’ll also be delving into Ghost Stories and How to Write Them, and What It Is, by Lynda Barry (which was recommended to me by so many brilliant people, so I have high hopes!)

book stack

Reading: Speaking of books! My current bookstack:

The Darker Sex: Tales of the Supernatural and Macabre by Victorian Women Writers
You Have Never Been Here:  Stories by Mary Rickerts (“lush & alchemical”, say reviewers!)
The Book of Nightmares, poetry by Galway Kinnell
Ghostly A Collection of Ghost Stories by Audrey Niffenegger

LUNA

Face stuff! People, I am going to be 40 in a few months.  Am I freaked out about it? Not especially.  I still feel like a dorky 14 year old in my heart and bones and soul, and I suspect I’ll feel that way on my deathbed…so 40, 50, 80, whatever. Just numbers.

I am, however, trying to treat this year as a very special marker on my timeline, though;  everyone thinks of 40 as a “milestone” type of birthday, and I’m part of this world, so I am not immune to that type of thinking. I am tackling all of the projects that might have intimidated me (i.e. The Occult Activity Book–which sold out in three weeks time! Holy crap!) I am trying to tie up loose ends on things that have been hanging around too long, and I am definitely trying to take better care of this meat suit I’ve been shackled with during my tenure on Earth.

As part of that, I’m getting fancy with my face! Two of my favorite products right now are:

Sunday Riley’s Luna Sleeping Night Oil, which is a retinoid complex for calming and repairing damaged skin with blue tansy and chamomile and IS BLUE (I feel like a warrior goddess when I dab it on at night) and I wake up with the most amazing, velvety feeling skin. It’s definitely pricey, but it will last a good long while it looks good on my shelf! Ha, like anyone is looking at my shelves, I know.

Le Baume Lip and Dry Skin Balm; I recently ran out of my beloved Nivea lip balm, the kind that comes in the little tin, and which smells like vanilla.  I have been trying to replace it, and in doing so have found a lot of lip balms that I hate. Le Baume is the first one I have come across that I am thrilled with.  I have a list of no-nos for lip balms but at the very top is no mint, nothing mentholated.  Mint one of the grossest smelling/feeling/tasting things ever, like you just smeared toothpaste on your lips (I feel that way about mint-flavored foods, too. Mint is for toothpaste and that’s it.  End of story.) Anyway, non-minty lip products are tough to find!  I also like a product with a nice ratio of waxiness to slippiness. Le Baume fits the bill perfectly. It’s got a sort of…herbal(?) smell, which must be due to the high concentrations of Marula, Perilla and Calendula.  Anyway, I just love it.  I may have found a holy grail.  Plus the packaging is adorable.

Listening: I’m pretty predictable.  If it’s mopey or kind of haunted sounding, that’s most likely what I am listening to.  Ever since BBHMM though, I have been keenly interested in what Rhianna’s been up to, and I was surprised by how much I am enjoying Anti right now. I’ve read that this was an album that’s been in the works for a number of years and that everyone was expecting some sort of opus, and that’s not what they got with Anti…which doesn’t really mean much to me since I’ve never really listened to Rhianna.  Anyhow, I am not a great reviewer of things, but this seems to me a fairly self-reflective bunch of songs. I also hear that she had a lot of control here and made exactly the sort of album she wanted to make, and you can somehow hear that here.  There’s not very much in the way of radio-friendly type of stuff. It’s the sort of thing I’d want to turn off all of the lights and lay on the floor and listen to in the dark.  That’s my idea of a good time.

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Your late teens, very early 20s are such a strange bit of limbo, aren’t they?   Or…at least they were for me. Along with the angst of trying to figure out what you are going to do with the rest of your life, you are sometimes trying to figure out, quite literally, where you are doing these things from, where are they taking you…sometimes even trying to come to terms with where, exactly, your home is, anyway?  At that time I was living with my sister and my ex-step-father in one of his longtime friend’s home, and it was an awfully peculiar arrangement.

This friend had a fairly sizable house, and I believe he was going through a divorce, so it was empty, save for him.  And he needed help paying for it.  In the meantime, my mother was in rehab for her addiction and my grandparents were selling the house that we had grown up in.  Actually, why were they selling that house? My sister and I still needed a place to live! She was maybe 17 years old, I was about 19…we weren’t ready to move out and we didn’t have any place to go! This is really weird, now that I think on it.  Well, maybe they needed to sell the house to pay for my mother’s rehab.  Who knows?

So this guy needed help paying for his house and my sister and I and my ex-step-father needed a place to live, and it seemed to be a decent arrangement.  There were two extra bedrooms, which my ex-step-father insisted that we take, and he turned the living room into his bedroom.

At this time I was in my second year of community college and working pretty much full time at my first job, a local fast food chain. College was tough for me–while I like to learn, classroom settings made me terribly anxious and I resented being tested on what I was taught.  Often times I could not even drag myself out of bed to make it to my one or two morning classes.

I would lay under the covers, paralyzed, wondering if this is all there was to life. I couldn’t see beyond my immediate issues and neuroses to any sort of future that made any sense to me.  And then I would get out of bed and take a shower and wash my hair because that, at least seemed a good first step.

This was probably 1996ish; my hair was growing out after a hair dying catastrophe wherein we had to cut it very, very short.  My stylist convinced me that I needed a “Rachel” cut, and anyone who was of television watching age at that time knows precisely what that looks like. Of course my hair was coarse and puffy and frizzy and the cut looked less like Rachel and more like Rachel’s deranged cousin. I don’t have many physical photographs, but here is one with myself and that haircut, in that particular house, along with my sister who I think was trying to tickle me til I puked.

seestra

Revlon Outrageous was the drugstore brand shampoo and conditioner that I used at that time and it was the most splendid smelling thing I had encountered up until that point–sort of a sweet, musky floral? I’ve never been able to describe it accurately, but in any event, it was a very “perfumey” scent. Quite sophisticated smelling, at least for something in Walgreens that you were picking up for $3.99 a bottle. My sister once sniffed my head and delightedly told me that I smelled amazing and if she wasn’t my sister she’d want to be my girlfriend.  She claims now that she has no memory of saying this, but I know what I heard!

The shampoo eventually became very difficult to find and as I grew older, I’m afraid my tastes became a bit more expensive and so I stopped purchasing it…but I never forgot about that scent.

Many years later–just last autumn, actually!–I stumbled across a tiny store in Portland that had a few offerings from Library of Flowers, whose whimsical storybook packaging I had often admired online, but the scents I had never actually sampled.  And wouldn’t you know, the first one I sniffed, Willow & Water, smelled EXACTLY like my beloved Outrageous shampoo!

The notes are as follows, but don’t let them turn you off:
Top: Cut Greens    Middle: Flowering Lotus    Bottom: Watercress

…which doesn’t sound like it smells anything like what I’ve described, and yet it is.  It captures the worldly complexity of that cheap shampoo,  the existential crisis of figuring out my early twenties and tinge of sadness that goes along with remembering the last time I would ever live at “home” with one of my beautiful sisters.

Despite the uncertainty and instability of that time, Library of Flowers Willow & Water conjures such a lovely, nostalgia for me…although I suppose it is of the bittersweet sort.

Sometimes I wonder if there is really any other kind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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First, a little back story. Christie Shinn of HoraTora Studios and I became acquainted, through, of all things, my Skeletor is Love project that I did back in 2014 or 2015 or whenever that was. Turns out that a mutual love of that bone-headed weirdo and his journey toward positive mental health is a great thing to bond over and a lovely start for a friendship!

I loved her Personal Monsters book, which features the darker sides of human nature (often the ones we wish we could deny in ourselves) and was thrilled to learn of a new project wherein she and writer James Kelly partnered to tackle the subject of Roman Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, or Caligula.

A tale of cruelty, sadism, extravagance, and sexual perversity? Oh yes, please.

“Caligula was cruel, vicious, depraved, greedy, arrogant, narcissistic, cowardly, paranoid. But was he insane? Less than 4 years after the death of Christ, the burgeoning Roman Empire is rife with intrigue. A young boy from the Royal family of Caesars has seen his father, mother, and his two brothers killed before he was 13. Now, the young prince Gaius, known by his nickname of “Little Boots” or Caligula, has been given absolute power of the entire Roman Empire. How will the young man deal with managing such a massive empire with no political experience and a lifetime of trauma? Follow Caligula into the madness of the 1st Century of Rome.”

Caligula_Page24Not totally familiar with the history of Caligula, except, of course for that one notorious film–you know the one–I found James Kelly and Christie Shinn’s Caligula Imperatore Insanum a fascinating, horrific and yes, tragic peek into his story, as well as a fascinating study of the human psyche. And really, just an extraordinary history lesson! For those, that is,  who like their history liberally peppered with murder, incest, and lunacy–and let’s be real, who doesn’t?

To set the tone: In 37 AD, the young Gaius Caligula is the heir apparent to become the Emperor of Rome. Unfortunately, every single day may also be Caligula’s last. The old and paranoid Tiberius has wiped out Caligula’s family and has invited the young prince to his “Pleasure Palace”.

I love Christie Shinn’s art–the bold strokes and jagged edges really do add to the insanity and sometimes frenzied feel of the story…and what a story it is! I’ll admit a little confusion when trying to follow along at points, especially with the time jumps, but I honestly chalk that up to my own ignorance.  James Kelly’s strong voice and clear prose guide the narrative along just fine–and there’s certainly enough sexytimes business and violence to keep things interesting!

I found Caligula Imperatore Insanum Volume I to be an engaging and thoroughly compelling read and I am so excited to see the madness that ensues in Volume II.

If you are curious about the creators of Caligula Imperatore Insanum, here are two great interviews with Christie and James, over at FanGirlNation, and in the meantime, be certain to pick up a copy of the book for yourself.

Find Christie Shinn: 
https://www.HoraToraStudios.com
Instagram: @HoraToraStudios
Twitter: @HoraToraStudios

Find James Kelly:
Instagram: @Jamesthecomicswriter
Twitter: @SSVEGEROT4EVR 

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Life preserving coffin in doubtful cases of actual dead
Life preserving Eisenbrandt coffin in doubtful cases of actual death

A gathering of death related links that I have encountered in the past month or so. From somber to hilarious, from informative to creepy, here’s a snippet of things that have been reported on or journaled about in or related to the Death Industry recently.

Previous installments:
Links of the dead for January 2016
Links of the dead for December 2015
Links of the dead for November 2015
Links of the dead for September 2015
Links of the dead for August 2015

Oh For Goodness Sake – Stand At My Grave and Weep Already!

Coffins, Crape, and Other Victorian Omens of Death

The Wills Party

4 Ways To Think Outside The Box When Honoring A Loved One

A touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.

How to Transform Our Discomfort Around Death and Loss

Necrophiliacs Are People, Too: New Book Humanizes This Misunderstood Taboo

The living paths of the dead

The ‘Funeral Clothes Project’

5 books explore the ways that we are shaped by the knowledge of our mortality

Mysteries of Vernacular: Hearse

The Rebozo: Fashion, Feminism and Death

Our Strange, Unsettled History of Mourning

The Role of Death in Finding Meaning in Life

aromatherapy for grief & loss

Facing Mortality Through A Lens

The Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

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Coven’s Jinx Dawson performing
Coven’s Jinx Dawson performing

In 1969, Coven combined psychedelic rock with black magic and rose from the darkness of Chicago to pollute the minds of impressionable youth and panic puritanical sensibilities with their debut album, Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls–which included such songs as “The White Witch of Rose Hall” (based on the story of Annie Palmer), “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” and “Dignitaries of Hell.” The album concluded with a 13-minute track of chanting and Satanic prayers called “Satanic Mass.”

Led by the dark, feminine energies of Indiana native Jinx Dawson, who studied both opera and the occult in the late 1960s, each Coven concert began and ended with the sign of the horns, and the band was among the first to introduce this hand sign into rock pop culture.

According to Jinx, “The Satanic thing actually was something we were interested in and were studying at the time. When you’re younger, you’re looking for answers.”

Thanks to these pioneers of pagan soundscapes and occult rock evangelism, nearly 50 years later the “sonic iconography of the fantastic and satanic” still resonates; wicked women rock-n-rollers traversing the left-hand path continue the tradition of seeking, questioning, and thrilling audiences with their bewitching aural spells and diabolical anthems.

JEX THOTH


Jex Thoth, a trippy, hypnotic quintet named somewhat after the lead singer, Jessica Toth, calls their music “alchemical doom.” Their sound–a primal blend of swirling psychedelic rock and slow-burning, bygone vibes elevated by Jex’s sweet, soaring vocals–is undeniably transformative.

BLOOD CEREMONY


Mesmerizing mistress of ceremonies and front woman Alia O’Brien of Blood Ceremony notes that this “flute-tinged witch rock” band is “inspired by pockets of knowledge that exist outside of the realm of the mainstream.” Do tales of witch-cult gatherings in wooded glens and pacts made in torch-lit abbeys, accompanied by vintage-style hard rock riffs get your blood up? If the answer’s yes, you’re going to love Blood Ceremony.

PURSON


Purson, whose name has origins in demonology (a king of Hell who hooks you up with sweet treasures and who “brings good familiars”) is headed by front woman Rosalie Cunningham, who describes their sound as “vaudeville carny psych.” A cross between dusty ‘60s folk and ’70s heavy metal with a soupçon of classic prog influences, Purson brings their own eerie, whimsical aura into the mix and creates a listening experience that is giddy and intriguing and well, fun.

JESS AND THE ANCIENT ONES


Finland’s Jess and the Ancient Ones is equal parts acid rock and lo-fi ’70s metal interwoven with jazz, blues, and surf-rock–musically, I guess they sound all over the map, but their witchy lyrics are rooted in the exploration of magical realms beyond the mundane. That along with their memorable melodies and Jess’s passionate Grace Slick-esque vocals pull it all together for a very compelling, occult-flavored listen.

LUCIFER


Berlin-based heavy metal/doom blues manifestation Lucifer has all the retro vibes and Gothic atmosphere of its traditional classic occult rock roots. They could indulge in tired cliches or result in cartoony pastiche, but vocalist Johanna Sadonis’ (formerly of the short lived but much loved The Oath) tempestuous, intoxicating vocals weave a sultry, menacing spell that achieves a somber, sincere atmosphere of dark, tender delight.

(This article was originally posted at Dirge; the site is no longer active.)

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Jack Shear, artist’s rendering (Artist: Tenebrous Kate)

Ha!  I used a Gothic novel generator for the title of this interview, it’s pretty cheesy, but I kind of love it anyway.  As opposed to another one I picked out: The Bitter Vengeance of Professor Jack…which is maybe potentially slanderous?

Or …is it?

Read further and determine for yourselves my dear innocents, and learn more of this mysterious gentleman and his dark obsessions.  His fascinations align closely with many of my own, and, I suspect yours; I invite you to partake in the insights and secrets that he has been gracious enough to divulge today, and I pray that we do not live to regret this beautiful, terrible knowledge.

Jack and I began our correspondence in the winter of 2010.  It could have been any time during that year, but for dramatic purposes we will say that it was in bleak midwinter, the landscape treacherous, hardened by a killing frost;  a moonless night, an unexpected, brittle rap at the frozen windowpane…

(Except in this case, it was an unexpected email from an intriguing stranger who wanted to chat about a mutual love of music! It was actually a pleasant thing—and a welcome diversion,  and the beginning of a lovely friendship.)

Jack actually teaches Gothic and Decadence literature–that part was not just mentioned for drama and intrigue–and is also a published author of several RPG related materials. I had so many questions for him, and I am certain that the answers are of keen interest to the folks who read my ramblings here; if you have a love for Gothic tropes, for horror fantasy games, for dark music, film, and literature, you are certain to enjoy the following transcript.

Thanks, as always, for reading, and Jack–thank you for indulging me. You are a gem, and I am pleased to know you!

Jack Shear

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.

Gothic shelfie
Gothic shelfie

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.]

The Martyr’s Kiss from misterguignol on 8tracks Radio.

We first connected, I believe, through a mutual love of music over at 8tracks, wherein you note that you like music made by artists who “live in their own weird little worlds” and list preferred genres including “spectral folk, murderous americana, doom balladry, dustbowl country, fin de siecle cabaret…”. I’d love to pick your brain regarding your current favorites in this vein! I am also intensely curious as to your musical journey (as a listener and an appreciator) and how you came to listen to this type of music?
It’s funny, I think I went from not being interested in music to being utterly obsessive about it in my early teenage years. Part of it was that I discovered that there were alternatives to what I had been hearing on the radio. Finding bands like Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, and Bauhaus was a revelation—a revelation that turned me into the kind of questing fool who went looking for obscure records made by maniacs and who spent far too much time in dank goth clubs, but it was a revelation none the less.

As for current favorites, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Batushka’s Litourgiya, a startling debut that mixes black metal with Eastern Orthodox spiritual music. My girlfriend gave me a copy of an Anna & Elizabeth album that is really nice Appalachian folk. The new Hexvessel is captivating. Aside from newer stuff, I’ve also been revisiting Aghast’s Hexerei Im Zwielicht Der Finsternis, a dark ambient record that is about as soothing as the sounds of a witches’ sabbath.

The Hallow, poster design by ArtMachine
The Hallow, poster design by ArtMachine

We often correspond back and forth with film recommendations and such. Is there anything you’ve watched recently that you would suggest to like-minded folks? And what was it about them that appealed to you?
I love horror films, but I’m also extraordinarily hard to please when it comes to movies. According to a lot of people I quite like, It Follows is a modern classic of the form, but I have to admit that I thought it was amazingly mediocre and frequently silly. It feels like I have to watch a pile of movies before I finally strike on something that feels worthwhile. The last movie I really enjoyed without much reservation was The Hallow. I liked the way that The Hallow reworked the themes and imagery we usually associate with “folk horror.” It felt like a fresh take on that niche. The performances were strong, and I admired the creature design.

"Wraith", Jack Shear
“Wraith”, Jack Shear

Your Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque blog is a wonderful resource for fans of horror fantasy gaming and has been praised by bloggers as an “output of depraved creativity” and for your valuable insight. Can you talk to the circumstances under which the blog was originally created and it’s purpose/intended direction? What are some of your favorite topics to blog about over there?
I think most blogs are conceived out of boredom, and mine was no different. I had started reading a few gaming blogs and thought that it might be a nice gesture to put my Gothic-inflected game material out there in case anyone could find a use for it in their own games. It grew from there, but I can’t say it has ever had an intended purpose or direction.

If I had to nail down a motive, it would probably be that I wanted to show people that even an idiot like me could put their stuff out there with a minimum of fuss, that doing-it-yourself was actually viable, but mostly I just post things that interest me.

It’s odd; a lot of people who blog do so because they crave community: they want to be part of a conversation, they want to grow an audience and have fans, they want to find like-minded folks, they want to network, etc. Blogging can be a great venue for that, but I’m so antisocial that it’s never really factored into what I do. I put my stuff out there and if people like it—great!—but if not I’m just going to keep doing what pleases me. It is nice, though, when people go out of their way to tell me that they liked something I wrote.

"Midnight in Krevborna", Jack Shear
“Midnight in Krevborna”, Jack Shear

You have published a number of original titles under the umbrella of Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque Publications. Your first offering, I believe, was Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque itself, “a Gothic Fantasy Supplement for old-school fantasy role-playing games”, and which has expanded to include additional world building manuals, as well. I don’t want to presume that you love your Gothic baby best – what can you tell us about your other titles? Which is your personal favorite to play (or DM is your bag, I guess)? Have you had great successes with these offerings? Which seems to be other folks’ preferred fantasy setting?
My favorite is always the thing I’m playing or running right now—which, in this case, is Krevborna, a Bloodborne-inspired Gothic setting I wrote to get a sandbox game going using 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. I am absurdly proud that I did all the art in the pdf myself. I also really like the setting in Jonathan Harper’s Blades in the Dark game; I had a blast exploring the setting in a campaign ran by Andrew Shields and I’m really looking forward for that game to pick up where we left off.

As for other settings, I’ve done things inspired by post-apocalypse trash culture like Planet Motherfucker and my Gothic-in-Spaaaaaaaaaaaaace setting Colonial Ethersea. There’s a lot of unpublished setting work kicking around as well; someday I should do something with the Edward Gorey-esque Slithdale Hollow. Overall, I’ve had far more success with my publications than I would have ever suspected—I thought I would only sell a few copies to close friends, but I sell a small pile of them every month. I have a strange aversion to profiting off my hobby, though; the money I make on my game books gets donated to worthy causes. This is the saddest mark of my success: I’ve actually caught people ripping off my material and claiming it as their own. That’s when you know you’ve arrived.

I think the vast majority of gamers prefer a more standard fantasy approach when it comes to settings for their games. There’s a reason why Wizards of the Coast has really been pushing the Forgotten Realms (a very “vanilla,” semi-Tolkien-esque fantasy setting) as the backdrop for the new edition of D&D: it’s got the recognizable fantasy tropes and is appealingly neutral in tone and flavor. Frankly, it’s an easy setting to understand and fit fantasy ideas into. In contrast, the DIY D&D scene seems to go through cycles. “Gonzo” settings were all the rage for a while, but right now “Weird” crapsack settings (settings where everyone is miserable and everything is grimdark and soggy) seem to be on trend—which is funny because if everything is “weird,” nothing is actually weird. Also, I think those settings are more talked about than played when it gets down to it.

You are also a contributing editor over at Heretical Sexts, a micro-publisher of niche, print material focused on the dark and the bizarre. I hear tell that there is a fantastic Gothic ‘zine currently in the works, which, I imagine, you must have a heavy hand in. What can you tell is about it, what can we expect?
I’m not sure if I have an exact job title at Heretical Sexts, but I think we’ve joked around that my job is “Enabler” or something along those lines. Heretical Sexts is really Tenebrous Kate’s baby, but I’ve always made myself available to workshop ideas, give editorial assistance, and provide writing for some of the collaborative Heretical Sexts ‘zines. It has been wonderful watching Kate’s project grow; I adore seeing my friends develop their artistry and put their lovable weirdness out there into the world. I suppose that is what makes me an enabler.

I believe that the forthcoming Gothic ‘zine, Morbid Fantasies, is the first Heretical Sexts publication that has been wholly written by someone other than Kate. I’m beyond flattered that she offered to put out a lovingly-crafted book of my thoughts on Gothic literature.

Morbid Fantasies is a response to a problem I have with the way that Gothic literature is usually presented. At its inception, the Gothic was a popular genre—it was fiction meant to be read and enjoyed by anyone with an inclination to dark or mysterious content. But somewhere along the way the Gothic became a genre sequestered by scholarly study—talk about Gothic literature was relegated to obscure academic journals instead of it being a literary form for devoted readers. Morbid Fantasies aims to change that. It’s a book that wants to help you learn to love Gothic literature. It gives a brief history of this amazing aesthetic mode, suggestions for what books you should read and what you should be looking for as you read them, and an exploration of the conventions, tropes, and imagery most often found in the literature. It’s a reader’s guide to the Gothic, and I can promise you that it will help you on your way if you are totally new to the Gothic or deepen your love of dark, passionate fiction if you’re already exploring Gothic texts.

Are there any other upcoming projects you can share with us?
Well, I do have a bit of eldritch fun in the Occult Activity Book [Editor’s Note: This is sold out for the time being] that you and Becky Munich just put out! Other than that, I’ve been writing a thing (I’m not sure if it is a book or what yet) about horror and philosophy—something inspired by E. M. Cioran, the Graveyard Poets, and doom metal, mostly. It’s the kind of thing I might finish and then never show anyone.

Miss Vanessa Ives, as illustrated by Caitlin McCarthy
Miss Vanessa Ives, as illustrated by Caitlin McCarthy

Finally–Eva Green: Discuss.
We all need a muse, don’t we? Joking aside, Vanessa Ives is easily my favorite character on television at the moment, and I genuinely feel indebted to Eva Green for making that character possible! Season Three of Penny Dreadful can’t arrive soon enough for me.

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Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson

Literary Witches – A New Comic by Katy Horan and Taisia Kitaiskaia

 

Sand Magnified by Yanping Wang
Sand Magnified by Yanping Wang

Sand grains magnified 110-250 times reveal each grain is unique.

 

MapsBailey Henderson Sculpts Mythological Sea Monsters from Medieval Maps

 

margaine-1The Belle Epoque Body-con Dress that was too Sexy for Paris

 

wrinkleHow does A Wrinkle in Time look on a map?

 

Hagg Lake

Utterly enchanted by the works of Nightjar Illustration, aka Adam Burke

 

 

 

 

Simpsons Search Engine Matches the Perfect Screencap To a Quote

Chelsea Wolfe performs on NPR’s tiny desk concert

MCSWEENEY’S ALTERNATIVES TO RESTING BITCH FACE

Dark Crystal coming to POP! Funko!

Gravitational Waves Detected, Confirming Einstein’s Theory

AND LASTLY…!
There are still Occult Activity Books & Deluxe Activity Book packs available! Be certain to grab your copy before they have all disappeared!

 

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zoologistheader

As a human person who exists on this planet today, you no doubt have a love/hate relationship with that book of Faces and are logged in at all hours clicking through your friend’s feeds: avoiding spoilers, hurrying past your racist relatives and small town, small-minded high school acquaintances ignorant blather, and finally slowing your scroll to squee over the delightful antics of pandas frolicking in the season’s first snow and baby otters floating blissfully on their mother’s bellies. Give us all the animals! We’re even obsessed with that bizarro “water bear” micro-animal that resembles a friendly eight-legged butthole.

Man, humans are weird.

The vagaries of humanity’s strange predilections aside, if you’ve spent any time in a zoo or a farm or caring for animals, you are perhaps–for better or worse–acquainted with the pungent variety of scents associated with our beastly friends.  But have you ever found yourself wishing to smell like one of your favorite critters? (Okay, okay, maybe we are back in weirdo territory again.)

Well, Victor Wong of Zoologist perfumes has, and is exactly the kind of weirdo and visionary that we love. A wild dreamer who has a boundless fascination with the animal kingdom and its idiosyncrasies, Victor works with award-winning perfumers to capture the manifold delights of the natural world in fragrance form, and has created a line of eau de parfums that are “unusual, beautiful, fun, and even shocking.”  And, and I am thrilled to report, these scents do not even contain animal products! “We don’t want to harm animals so that we can smell good”, notes Victor. Awww!

zoologistfulllineup

Beaver

I’ll get this one out of the way first, because I can already hear you tittering like a bunch of 13-year-olds. Beaver, heh heh heh, right? Grow up, dorks. With a base of castoreum (synthetic beaver musk) and notes of linden blossom, iris, earth, and smoke, this opens on an outdoorsy, woodland aquatic vibe that quickly becomes an acrid, animalic musk. Despite the subtly sweet powderiness that keeps it from venturing into “unpleasant” territory, it isactually a kind of funky, moist scent. It’s pretty skanky, but in a really interesting and strangely comforting way. Beaver was designed by Chris Bartlett who describes his creations as, “fragrances that some people will love, rather than perfumes everyone will like.” Fair enough!

Rhinoceros 

Like its namesake, Rhinoceros is a massive fragrance which opens with an enormous blast of dry, boozy rum and tobacco. There’s leather here, as well as sage, and lavender–and it all makes for very interesting contrasts. The dark, raw, leatheriness and the lighter herbal aromatics both play off each other and then again come together to conjure the “heat shimmering on the still Savannah” as the product description suggests. The nose behind this fragrance is Paul Kiler and with Rhinoceros he has created something hugely remarkable.

Panda

Another fragrance created by Paul Kiler, Panda begins with an intense, dewy green accord and hints of peppery warmth that is soon followed by orange blossoms and lilies, and finally comes to rest at earthy roots and damp mosses. This is less the roly-poly panda himself and more a chronicle of his slow stroll as he journeys from mountain springs to bamboo groves, munching on stalks and leaves, and basically just living a very low-key, low-stress, serene Panda lifestyle.  Much later there is the barest whiff of sandalwood; perhaps the last stop in his travels is a shadowy temple at sunset, to light a stick of incense and thank the gods for his good fortune.

Hummingbird 

This is a lush, vivacious offering from nose Shelley Waddington. Brimming with a kaleidoscope of opulent fruits and honeyed florals, it calls to mind a tea party in a bright spring garden; effervescent personalities flit and flirt, while poetic dalliances occur amongst the softly blooming lilac and sweetly musky honeysuckle. Delicate nectars and sweet ambrosia is served, and later that night you dream of the sunlight glimmering through the season’s fleeting apple and plum blossoms.

Bat

Designed by award-winning perfumer Dr. Ellen Covey, Bat is undeniably, the strangest, most wonderfully unique perfume you will ever smell. Opening with a nearly overwhelming note of damp, primordial earth both vegetal and mineral in execution, this immediately conjures inky caverns and pitch-black, damp limestone caves. The scent then morphs into something I can only describe as “night air and velvet darkness”; I cannot say how she has done this, I only know that it is the very essence of the vast, temperate midnight sky, the glowing moon high overhead.  At this point it becomes something quite different, and–quite possibly–even more beautiful. Soft fruits, delicate musks, and resins lay at the heart of this enigmatic scent and combine to create a fragrance that lightly circles around the wearer to surprise them with a mysterious sweetness at the most surprising times. According to Dr. Covey who has spent a great deal of time researching and studying bats, with this quality the scent has succeeded pretty well in doing what she envisioned.

Full size 60ml bottles with charming illustrations by Daisy Chan can be purchased at Zoologist.com for $125, while generously sized 2.5ml spray samples can be had for $6 a piece.  A sampler set, containing all five scents, is available for $25.

(This article was originally posted at Dirge; the site is no longer active.)

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Henry Fuesli, The Nightmare
Henry Fuesli, The Nightmare

{This was originally written for After Dark In The Playing Fields,  in 2010.}

I struggle, but I am tied down by that dreadful feeling of helplessness that paralyzes us in our dreams. I want to cry out—but I can’t. I want to move——I can’t do it. I try, making terrible, strenuous efforts, gasping for breath, to turn on my side, to throw off this creature who is crushing me and choking me—but I can’t!

Then, suddenly, I wake up, panic-stricken, covered in sweat. I light a candle. I am alone. – Guy de Maupassant, Le Horla, 1887

When I was 11 years old, I shared a bedroom with my younger sister. We had a tiny, crowded room in a small ranch style house, on a quiet street in a little town on the east coast of Florida. Nothing much ever happened in our lives at that age – one day was very much like the day before and the one after that was not likely to be different.

In spite of our mundane existence, however, we were a very imaginative group of sisters; given to flights of fancy and outrageous story-telling, and if left to our own devices –which we often were – worked ourselves into quite a state in the absence of calming, more rational adult influences.

I do recall at that age I was enthralled with terribly lurid horror novels and more than likely regaled my sisters with gruesomely detailed synopses of the things I had read. We were also influenced by our mother’s gentleman friend who rented several horror films a week for us at the local video store, which we would gather round the television and watch, white knuckled and peeking over our pillows, late into the night during the summer months when there was no threat of school the next morning. I am sure that all of these things contributed to the particular evening’s events of which I am about to relay. Although this was not something I myself observed, I was party to the occurrence and to this day it perplexes me and causes me so small amount of unease.

The air conditioning was not working very well that summer; the ceiling fans did little more than stir the close, humid air of the hot bedroom, and we did not sleep with the windows open to let in a breeze from the outside. Our bedroom doors were always kept shut while we were sleeping, as well. Fire-prevention, my mother admonished, in the convincing-though-not-entirely-logical way that mothers do.

This night the room was stifling, though it was moonless and dark, and we eventually fell asleep. I am sure my sister and I talked about this, that, or the other thing before drifting off, as is the wont of two siblings very attached to one another. At that age, I was a very light sleeper; the slightest noise would stir me, and I was usually up and out of bed several times a night. I recall nothing unfamiliar of that night, no ominous, languid feeling stealing over me, if anything, it was heat-induced lethargy. I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep and did not wake again until it was light, my sister shaking me and crying piteously.

Even now, 20 years later, what she proceeded to impart to me chills the blood in my veins, and sends a shudder right through me “After I fell sleep” she said, “I had a bad dream which woke me up. I can’t remember what it was about. I tried to turn on the light, but I couldn’t move. I called your name over and over, but you wouldn’t wake up at all.”

She continued her tale, detailing how, as her eyes darted frantically around the room, she glanced at the door, which was standing wide open…despite the fact that this night, like every other, we had closed it tightly. In the darkened doorway she saw the shadowy outline of someone –- or something -– looming, standing stock still. As her gaze traveled upward, her terror reached a fever pitch when she saw that the intruder’s eyes -– a baleful, glowering red -– were fixed directly upon her own. At this point the story end, more or less. She cannot remember anything after that, and must have fallen back asleep.

Was she dreaming the entire time? Or was it perhaps a form of sleep paralysis with accompanying hallucinations? Or…was something sinister indeed lurking in the threshold of our childhood bedroom?

Nikolaj Abraham Abildgaard, The Nightmare
Nikolaj Abraham Abildgaard, The Nightmare

I’ve given this quite a bit of thought since then and I’ve come to the belief that she suffered an episode of sleep paralysis – a “brief state of being unable to move ones body upon either falling asleep or waking up,” and is “usually accompanied by an ominous feeling that there is some kind of ghost or demon in the room, or even visual or auditory hallucinations.”

Research indicates that sleep paralysis is a natural state of the body. In deeper states of sleep, the brain stems engage in processes that block out certain neurotransmitters in order to stop one from physically acting out their dreams. Occasionally an individual will wake up “before their brains have completely de-activated the induced paralysis, and experience hallucinations which are thought to be either vestigial dream fragments or attempts by the brain to reconcile the waking state with the otherwise unexplainable muscular paralysis.” This hallucinatory element makes it even more likely that someone will interpret the experience as a dream, since completely fanciful or dream-like objects may appear in the room alongside one’s normal vision. Some scientists have proposed this condition as an explanation for alien abductions and ghostly encounters.

J. Allan Cheyne of the University of Waterloo speaks thusly regarding initial studies on the phenomena and how we view it today “In 1876… an American Civil War surgeon, neurologist, and writer of historical fiction, Silas Weir Mitchell reported a curious malady, which he called –night palsy, during which soldiers reported a temporary but terrifying nocturnal paralysis. Although the phenomenon was subsequently reported in the medical literature under a number of different labels, the term coined in 1928 by Samuel Wilson, ―sleep paralysis, finally stuck.” It is worth noting that this was right around the same time Guy de Maupassant wrote Le Horla (see opening quote, above).

Nightmares and sleep paralysis, or nocturnal attacks have been closely connected to myths and monsters spanning across time and cultures, language and geography. Anecdotal reporting, shared stories, etc. shows how incidents of sleep paralysis seem to manifest itself in culturally-relevant terms and mythologies; whereas today we might attribute these occurrences to aliens or alien abduction, our grandparents might have seen ghosts, and their ancestors might have chalked it up to a demon attack or a witches hexing.

Cultures around the world have their own myths and folklore surrounding this phenomena. In Newfoundland & South Carolina, when one experiences waking with a feeling of terror and being crushed, and is unable to move, one is referred to as being “hag-ridden”. (The ‘Old Hag’ was a nightmare spirit in British and also Anglophone North American folklore.) In Chinese culture, sleep paralysis is widely known as “鬼壓身/鬼压身”, or “ghost pressing on body. In Vietnamese culture, sleep paralysis is referred to as “ma đè”, meaning “held down by a ghost” or “bóng đè”, meaning “held down by a shadow”. In African culture, isolated sleep paralysis is commonly referred to as “the witch riding your back”. In Malta, folk culture attributes a sleep paralysis incident to an entity in Maltese folk culture that haunts the individual in ways similar to a poltergeist. As believed in folk culture, to rid oneself of this one must place a piece of silverware or a knife under the pillow prior to sleep. (more examples of sleep paralysis across the world can be found via Wikipedia)

An interesting bit of information provided by J. Allan Cheyne through his research is that “first episodes of sleep paralysis typically occur to adolescents”; my sister would have been right around that age, maybe a year shy, when this occurred. But although his data indicates that many people have more than one episode – some report several times in a lifetime or several times a year, one large group reports monthly attack, but weekly or nightly attacks are rare – as far as I know, this never happened to my sister again.

That morning, as I listened to her tale and attempted to assuage her fears, I remember being terrified, myself. Whether or not it was real, I thought, it was awfully real to her, and if something like that could happen to her, well, couldn’t it happen to me too? Whether deeply slumbering and caught in the depths of a powerful nightmare, or trapped, immobile, by your own body and helpless against the tricks your own head is playing on you –- either way the shadowy intruder, or the ghost, or the alien is something conjured from the darker corners of your subconscious…and how can you possibly hope to escape that?

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