10 scary pictures for Halloween 2018


From craftshub.com


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.


From zeroequalstwo.net


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.


From peacocksgarden.blogspot.com


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!


Oz — more magic than wizardry?


(c) MGM


A while back I read an interview with Kenneth Anger in the Guardian.  Now in his eighties, Anger is best-known as the director of the classic occult movie Lucifer Rising (1972) and the author of those two tale-telling, scandal-mongering books Hollywood Babylon (1965) and Hollywood Babylon II (1982).  He’s also an admirer of magician, writer and mountaineer Aleister Crowley, who during the first half of the 20th century founded the esoteric religion of Thelema and enjoyed notoriety in the British press as the Wickedest Man in the World.  During the Guardian interview, Anger mentioned L. Frank Baum, the American writer of the much-loved children’s book The Wizard of Oz and its sequels.  “Baum,” claimed Anger, “was a secret occultist and the Oz books are full of secret little jokes for people that understand magic.”


Jings, I thought.  Could The Wizard of Oz – the book and the celebrated 1939 film version with Judy Garland – really be a hotbed of occult themes and images?  Could those generations of kids who thrilled to the adventures of Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion have been secretly subjected to the ‘magick’ that Aleister Crowley spent his life pursuing and practising?  So to find out if anybody else shared Anger’s opinion of Baum, I had a hunt around the Internet.


Well, I found a couple of websites that would have you believe that The Wizard of Oz is the work of the Devil.  These sites were written, needless to say, by the sort of American religious-right fruitcakes who’d say similar things about the books of J.K. Rowling, alleging that Harry Potter is the Antichrist, Hermione Granger is the Whore of Babylon and Ron Weasley is, well… the Great Ginger-Headed Beast that the Book of Revelation prophesised will rise out of the sea shortly before the Day of Judgement.  And no doubt those same fruitcakes would warn you that if your kids play their Judas Priest albums backwards, they’ll hear the voice of Satan urging them to vote Democrat.


However, I did find a non-hysterical, informative and detailed piece on the Vigilant Citizen site (http://vigilantcitizen.com/moviesandtv/the-occult-roots-of-the-wizard-of-oz/), which claims L. Frank Baum was a member of the Theosophical Society.  According to my much-consulted copy of The Element Encyclopaedia of Secret Societies by John Michael Greer, the society was “(t)he most influential force in the great renaissance of occultism in the late nineteenth century” and was “founded in New York City in 1875 by the colourful Russian occultist and adventuress Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, her American promoter Colonel Henry S. Alcott and a handful of other students of the occult.”


The Vigilant Citizen piece details Theosophy’s three objectives as being to “form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour,” to “encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy and science”, and to “study the unexplained laws of nature and powers latent in man”.  That all seems very worthy and reasonable, but when you get around to exploring their theories of reincarnation, which involve the human soul being reborn in seven different “root-races” in seven different “globes” and which refer to fabled lost continents like Hyperborea, Lemuria and Atlantis, things start to sound a bit doolally.  (Any remaining Theosophists out there shouldn’t take special offence at that, though – I think all religions are doolally.)


Among the features of The Wizard of Oz that the Vigilant Citizen article claims can be traced back to Baum’s familiarity with Theosophy are the following:


The yellow brick road.  Uncannily similar to the concept of the Golden Path in Buddhism, the yellow brick road along which Dorothy and co spend much of the book and the film travelling is representative of the route the soul must take to achieve Illumination.


Spirals.  It’s a violent, powerful spiral of wind that transports Dorothy and her house from Kansas to Oz.  In Munchkin-land, the start of the yellow brick road unwinds out of another spiral.  These spirals can be seen as representing the cycles of karma, the evolving self and the soul as it works its way up from the material world to the spiritual one.


(c) MGM 


The silver shoes.  Dorothy’s footwear was famously a pair of ruby slippers in the 1939 movie, chosen because the filmmakers felt their redness would complement the yellowness of the yellow brick road.  In Baum’s original book, however, the shoes were made of silver – supposedly a reference to the silver cord that is said to connect a person’s physical body with their astral one.


The Wizard.  A scary, blustering being that, it transpires, is a façade whose smoke and mirrors conceal a cheat and a fake, the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz has been identified with the bullying, bow-down-and-worship-me-or-else God of Christianity, Judaism and other conventional, organised religions.  He’s not interested in the personal enlightenment of his followers.  Instead, He wants only their deference and obedience.


Toto.  Dorothy’s faithful little dog has a knack for doing the right thing at the right moment.   For example, he barks at the phony Wizard hiding behind his curtain, and later he springs out of the Wizard’s balloon – causing Dorothy to follow – before it takes off for Kansas.  As such, he can be seen as Dorothy’s intuition or ‘inner voice’, which sees through artifice, as represented by the Wizard.  Meanwhile, the evil that is represented by the Wicked Witch of the West tries on two occasions to imprison Toto.  Both times, however, he manages to escape.  In other words, one’s intuition can’t be locked away.


The Witches.  The set-up in Oz can be interpreted as two contrasting axes – an East-West axis, which is ruled by two evil witches and represents the material word; and bisecting that a North-South axis, ruled by two good witches and representing the spiritual one.


Of course, even if the above things are true, it doesn’t mean that The Wizard of Oz should be treated as a piece of propaganda by the Theosophical Society and not as what it really is – an imaginative work of entertainment.  If such ideas were important to Baum, it’s natural that, consciously or unconsciously, they should make their way from his head down to the page – just as Masonic symbols and imagery are said to crop up from time to time in the work of Alphonse Mucha who, when he wasn’t painting, was busy founding Czech Freemasonry and leading its Supreme Council.  But those influences make absolutely no difference to one’s enjoyment of Baum’s or Mucha’s output.


To draw on another comparison from the world of children’s literature – I enjoyed reading C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books while I was a kid at primary school, but I read them with absolutely no idea that they contained Christian themes.  Indeed, I didn’t see Lewis’s Christian overtones until a Religious Education teacher at secondary school pointed out how in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Aslan had been crucified and had then risen from the dead.


The possibility that these themes lurk within The Wizard of Oz do, however, seem to give it an exoticness, an extra-special flavour.  Perhaps that’s why the film version has attracted more than its share of urban myths over the years – for example, the story that a stage-hand hung himself during filming and his body can be glimpsed dangling in the forest beside the yellow brick road; or that if you start watching the film at the same moment that you start playing the Pink Floyd album The Dark Side of the Moon, the film and the album will display a startling degree of synchronicity (Dorothy’s house rising within the whirlwind at the same time that the orgasmic backing vocals start for The Great Gig in the Sky, etc.).


Of course, The Wizard of Oz-the-movie has become a staple of TV schedules at Christmas-time and the image of Judy Garland and friends skipping their way along the yellow brick road seems as festive now as ivy, mistletoe or Santa Claus.  In fact, Christmas as we know it today is not really that Christian — it’s as much a hotch-potch of things borrowed from pagan religious festivals such as the Germanic Yule and the Roman Saturnalia.  So I rather like the idea that there’s a little bit of Christmas, as embodied in The Wizard of Oz, that Theosophists too can proudly point to and claim as theirs.