Every year on October 31st I like to celebrate the macabre spirit of Halloween by sharing on this blog ten scary, gruesome and / or disturbing paintings and illustrations that I’ve discovered during my recent wanderings on the Internet. I have to admit, though, that in the putrid sewer of a year that’s been 2018, no deliberately-frightening picture from an artist’s imagination has been as stomach-churningly frightening as the real-life images I’ve seen on the news: accompanying stories about murderous hatred, and fascists taking control of countries, and plain old human ignorance, vileness and cruelty.
But anyway, let’s forget the horrors of reality for a few hours and get down to Halloween business.
Firstly, an eye-catching – and head-popping – cover illustration from a 1981 Fontana edition of Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death (1938) by American-born, UK-based artist Tom Adams, whose cover-artwork also includes books by John Fowles and Raymond Chandler. It’s for his Agatha Christie covers that he’s probably best-known; though while Christie’s work was frequently dark, it was never quite as nightmarish as this image of a cranium-dwelling trapdoor spider.
© Fontana / Tom Adams
Another artist known for illustrating book-covers and book-pages is Angela Barrett, who, I’ve read, learnt her craft at one point from the legendary Quentin Blake. A 2006 profile of her in the Guardian praised her work for its ‘stillness’ and ‘quiet atmospheric intensity’ and ‘poetic sense of melancholy’: qualities that are all present in this impressively fog-shrouded piece of Victoriana that’s an illustration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It comes from a limited (200-copy) edition of Jekyll and Hyde produced by Hand and Eye Editions in 2010.
© Hand and Eye Editions / Angela Barrett
And so onto another 19th century horror icon. This year has marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s massively popular and influential Frankenstein. I’d thought about including here the famous frontispiece of the 1831 edition, which apparently was the first visual representation of the creature. But actually, I’ll leap forward a century in time to a 1934 edition of Frankenstein that’s graced by the woodcut illustrations of the American artist and engraver Lynd Ward. His depictions of the creature are memorably paradoxical, combining the majestic and monstrous, the muscular and malformed. Here’s an example.
© New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas
Frankenstein has also been a theme for the modern-day Canadian / French illustrator Nicolas Delort, though for this entry I’ve chosen a picture of his based on a different but also influential work of literature. Horror tales are often described as ‘dark fairy stories’ and so it’s fascinating to see Delort’s intensely gothic take on Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (1900). The Wicked Witch of the West has virtually become a Goth priestess while her flying monkeys look indistinguishable from bats. Meanwhile, the gaudy colours we usually associate with the story are confined to a crystal ball in the foreground.
© Nicolas Delort
From witches and wizards to devils and demons. Here is a grotesque but strangely jolly – well, at least the little demon looks like he’s enjoying himself – illustration from Le Livre de la Vigne Nostre Seigneur, a medieval book produced in the mid-to-late 15th century. Among the Biblical events and places it depicts are the coming of the Antichrist, the Day of Judgement and Hell. Although French in origin, it resides now in the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford. The entirety of the book can be viewed digitally here, while for some larger-sized highlights check out the macabre art website Monster Brains, here.
From the Bodleian Libraries
Here’s another demon, courtesy of Rosaleen Norton, the remarkable Australian artist, practitioner of the occult and worshipper of Pan who, by the time she died in 1979 at the age of 62, had become known as the Witch of Kings Cross – that’s Kings Cross in Sydney, not Kings Cross in London. This picture, titled Fohat, pushed the envelope in conservative Australia, where practising witchcraft ceased to be a crime only in 1971; especially with how the goat-headed demon’s phallus is shown metamorphosising into a snake. The goat-head, according to Ms Norton, symbolised ‘energy and creativity’, whereas the snake lurking lower down symbolised ‘elemental force and eternity’. So this picture was wholly allegorical and not naughty at all, in other words.
I don’t know if the Russian artist Nikolai Kalmakoff was an active occultist like Rosaleen Norton, but he was certainly fascinated by the strange and esoteric. That the next painting, by Kalmakoff, is entitled Death and was painted in 1913 might make you expect something dark, muddy and bloody, prescient of the four years of carnage that were shortly to engulf Europe. Instead, however, Kalmakoff creates a work of art that’s baroque, Asian in tone and autumnally colourful. It’s only as you study it and take in its details, like the caterpillar-like sleeping old man and, stalking up on him almost playfully, the black shadow-figure with feathered angel’s wings, that it becomes sinister. I’m not sure what to make of the Angel of Death’s polka-dotted grey socks, though.
And now something else that’s Asian in tone – some ‘J-horror’courtesy of prolific Japanese cartoonist and illustrator Katsuya Terada. I believe this comes from the cover of the novel Psyche Diver: The Darkness written by Baku Yumemakura. The picture is a flesh-crawling combination of the sensuous and the hideous. Indeed, the contrast between the alluring feminine face above water and the fanged maw beneath it puts me in mind of Kuchisake Onna, that celebrated and nightmarish female character from Japanese urban myth.
© Bikoo / Katsuya Terada
More subtle is this striking picture by Massachusetts artist, print-maker and musician Daniel Danger, whose spindly black trees and dark sumptuous-blue sky evoke the creepy atmospheric phenomenon known as the Brocken Spectre, whereby a combination of clouds’ water droplets and backscatter sunlight turns an observer’s shadow into something gigantic and monstrous. I’m pretty certain, for example, that the Brocken Spectre phenomenon is responsible for the fearsome stories of the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui, said to haunt the highest summit in Scotland’s Cairngorm Mountains.
© Daniel Danger
Finally, although Halloween is limited to the evening of October 31st, the final day of October is also the starting point for the three-day-long and skeleton-crazy festival that is Mexico’s Dia de Muertos, i.e. Day of the Dead. So here’s a skeleton-themed picture by the versatile American artist Bill Mayer that neatly ties together the gruesomeness of Halloween with the skeletal exuberance of Day of the Dead. However, its title, Fragile Planet, suggests that the artist’s intention is really to give an environmental warning – a sadly topical warning, come to think of it, given that Brazil’s new fascist leader Bolsonaro looks set to declare open season on the Amazon.
© Bill Mayer
But never mind my gloom. Have a happy Halloween!