Today is October 31st – or as it’s known in the Christian calendar, All Hallow’s Eve. Or in the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain Or to pretty much everyone on the planet these days, Halloween.
Halloween is the time of year when, to quote Vincent Price in the Michael Jackson song Thriller, “darkness falls across the land… creatures crawl in search of blood… demons squeal in sheer delight…” and – yikes! – “grizzly ghouls from every tomb are closing in to seal your doom”. And it’s also the time of year when, on this blog, I like to present a selection of creepy paintings and illustrations that, during the previous year, have caught my fancy.
To set the scene this Halloween is an etching called The Lonely Tower by the 19th-century artist Samuel Palmer (www.vam.ac.uk/users/node/1506), which can be seen at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric piece that conveys both the bleakness and the mystery of the nocturnal world.
On to a picture of a terrifying monster – one of the most ancient and awe-inspiring monsters in English-speaking culture. It’s Grendel in Beowulf. However, painted by the Italian twins Anna and Elena Balbusso (http://www.balbusso.com/), it mixes to disconcerting effect the simplicity of a children’s-book illustration with the gory savagery of the oldest surviving poem in the English language.
Meanwhile, here’s a spooky item from the Scottish artist Fiona Michie, whose work can be viewed at http://www.fionamichie.com/. It reminds me very much of the short story The Company of Wolves by one of my all-time favourite authors, Angela Carter – which in 1984 was made into one of British cinema’s most phantasmagorical movies by writer-director Neil Jordan.
Halloween wouldn’t be Halloween without mention of horror fiction’s supreme writer, Edgar Allan Poe. And if you’re talking about Poe, you can’t ignore the great Irish stained-glass and literary artist Harry Clarke, who was surely Poe’s greatest illustrator (http://50watts.com/Harry-Clarke-Illustrations-for-E-A-Poe). Here’s one of his most chilling pictures, a depiction of the luckless Madeline Usher after she’s escaped from her entombment in The Fall of the House of Usher.
If Poe was the horror-fiction king of the 19th century, then his equivalent in the 20th century was the retiring Rhode Island writer H.P. Lovecraft, whose tales of cosmic and existentialist horror also inspired an array of artists. For instance, here’s a work by the English artist Ian Miller (http://www.ian-miller.org/). It adorned the cover of a cheap paperback edition of Lovecraft’s fiction many years ago, but it perfectly conveys Lovecraft’s obsession with the idea of horrid and nightmarishly-incomprehensible things lurking just beyond the parameters of human experience.
And here’s another Lovecraft-inspired picture from the great French artist Philippe Druillet (http://www.druillet.com/). Druillet is better known as a science-fiction artist, but when his sci-fi sensibilities combine with the macabre, the results are impressively creepy — in a colourful, comic-book way.
Moving on, this stark statement about the biggest horror we face during our existences – that of the passing of time, and aging, and decay – has always chilled my blood. Thank you for that, Mr Francisco Goya. Very recently, I reached my half-century, so your cosy and charming little painting Time has really made me feel good about myself (http://www.eeweems.com/goya/viejas.html).
And once you reach old age and decrepitude, there’s only one thing more to look forward to — death itself. I feel this illustration by the 19th century German artist Alfred Rethel captures the omnipresence of death when you’re in your twilight years very nicely. Well, not nicely – depressingly. Rethel had more than his share of depressing experiences himself. He was believed to have been stricken with insanity following an an accident he had during his childhood. Also, he passed away at the early age of 42 (http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/rethel_alfred.html).
Meanwhile, for an eastern meditation on the topics of death and decay, you need look no further than this painting by the distinguished Indian artist Ganesh Pyne: http://www.contemporaryindianart.com/ganesh_pyne.htm.
A more up-to-date item now – an diabolic but sexy painting by the modern-day artist John Coulthart, done for the cover of an album by the greatest Goth / black metal band to ever emerge from County Suffolk, Cradle of Filth. The album is called Bitter Suites to Succubi — I’ll leave you to figure out the pun. Coulthart, incidentally, writes an eclectic and informative blog (http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/) and I never miss his daily postings.
Having started with an eerie and evocative picture by Samuel Palmer, here is something similarly eerie and evocative to end on. It’s an illustration by the French 19th-century artist Gustave Dore for one of the most famously unsettling poems in English literature, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Sinister, desolate and downright weird, it sums up the spirit of the poem perfectly (https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/coleridge/samuel_taylor/rime/).
And finally on Halloween night… Here, courtesy of the San Francisco writer and artist Dan Brereton (www.nocturnals.com), is one dedicated to the ladies out there. Happy Halloween!