10 scary pictures for Halloween 2021

 

From unsplash.com / © Nicola Gambetti

 

It’s Halloween today and as usual I thought I’d celebrate the occasion by displaying ten of the most interesting pieces of macabre art I’ve come across in the past year.

 

And what better way to start than with this illustration by the Italian-born, American-reared artist Joseph Mugnaini for Ray Bradbury’s 1972 fantasy novel The Halloween Tree?  Never having read that novel, I don’t know what the winged, cadaverous, hooked-nosed figure represents, but he makes an elegant and cosmically weird image.

 

© Yearling Books / From monsterbrains.blogspot.com 

 

In these art-themed Halloween posts I usually include something featuring skeletons, as a nod to the festival that comes immediately after Halloween – Mexico’s skeleton-obsessed Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead, at the start of November.  This year’s skeletal number is by Vincent Van Gogh, no less.  Known as Skeleton with a Lit Cigarette in its Mouth, it now resides in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum.  The museum’s website describes it as “a juvenile joke”, painted by Van Gogh “in early 1886, while studying at the art academy in Antwerp…  Drawing skeletons was a standard exercise at the academy, but painting them was not part of the curriculum.  He must have made this painting at some other time, between or after his lessons.”  I find the painting discombobulating, not just because of the cigarette or, indeed, the revelation that Van Gogh, associated with intensity and misery in most people’s minds, actually had a sense of humour.  No, it’s more that the skeleton is such a complex assemblage, of corners, ridges, crenels, shelves and slats.  It’s almost machine-like – slightly reminiscent of the lethal, metal endoskeleton that pops up at the climax of The Terminator (1982).

 

From vangoghmuseum.nl/en

 

Going further back in time, I have to say I love this depiction of a devil, which occupies the front side of the right-hand panel in the triptych Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation.  It was painted in the 1480s by the German-born, Bruges-based artist Hans Memling and is now on display in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Strasbourg.  It’s the merriment with which the little fellow is dancing, on top of those sinners suffering in eternal hellfire, that gets me.  Why, he’s practically riverdancing.

 

From musees.strasbourg.eu

 

Now for a devil from a different culture and different part of the world.  This bloated, pustular apparition is what’s known as a ta-awi, a Philippine ogre / demon.  I happened across it on Cryptid Wiki, which describes the beast as “a large hideous humanoid from Philippine mythology.”  It “raids villages and devours people alive, but doesn’t eat their eyeballs because it can’t digest them for some reason.”  All I can determine about the artist is that his name is Isaiah Paul and he has a page on deviantart.com here.

 

© Isaiah Paul

 

Less in-your-face and more ambiguous – the figure depicted may not even be supernatural, but just an odd person who likes to immerse herself among water lilies – is this painting, which I believe is called Hidden Things and is by modern-day Welsh artist Kim Myatt.  In fact, I’d say it evokes the subtle strangeness of the fiction of Robert Aickman.

 

© Kim Myatt

 

In 1980, when I was both a spotty adolescent and an aspiring writer, the first stories I ever submitted were to a handsome little magazine called Fantasy Tales. (The stories weren’t accepted, but the editors were kind enough to write back and offer me advice like “When you’re typing, try leaving a space after commas and full stops,” or “It’s probably not a good idea to have six single-sentence paragraphs in a row.”)  What made Fantasy Tales so visually appealing was that it featured the artwork of Lancastrian Jim Pitts, whose exquisitely detailed and atmospheric illustrations, often in black-and-white, recalled the great artists of the 1930s and 1940s pulp-fiction magazines such as Virgil Finlay and Hannes Bok. Here’s a gothic and vampirical item that Pitts did for issue four of the magazine Dark Horizons.

 

© Jim Pitts

 

Another English illustrator I remember fondly from my youth is Les Edwards, whose work adorned the covers of paperbacks like Karl Edward Wagner’s Bloodstone (1975) and Robert Holdstock’s novelisation of the movie Legend of the Werewolf (1975).  I like Edwards’ work for being unpretentious and upfront – you certainly knew what sort of book you were getting when you saw his art on the cover – but also for its precision and colour.  This piece is called The Shade and achieves a chill despite its graveyard scene being pictured in daylight.  There’s a suggestion of mist creeping ominously in from the distant trees and the stone angel in the foreground adds to the discomfort.

 

© Les Edwards

 

A third illustrator whose work was familiar to me in my teenage years was the American science fiction and fantasy artist Rowena Morrill, who sadly died in February this year.  Morrill blazed a trail as a rare thing in 1970s paperback illustration – a woman.  Her work graced the covers of the first collections of stories by H.P. Lovecraft that I managed to lay my hands on, The Dunwich Horror (1978) and The Colour Out of Space (1978).  Her depictions of Lovecraft’s ‘Elder Gods’ as amalgamations of bits of wildly-different creatures may not be how most people imagine Cthulhu and company nowadays, i.e., with lots of tentacles, but they’re grotesquely and baroquely weird.  Here’s the picture that adorned The Dunwich Horror.

 

© Jove / HBJ Books

 

I’ve seen the Czech artist Jindra Capek described online as a ‘children’s book illustrator’.  Hmm.  I don’t know if the following picture, showing a hungry ghoul-type creature (though one civilised enough to be wearing what looks like a pair of boxer shorts) taking a bite out of a newly-dug-up corpse, is what you’d expect to see in the pages of a children’s book.  Come to think of it, though, my ten-year-old self would have been delighted by it.

 

© Jindra Capek

 

One sort of image I’ve always found unsettling is that of an insect, or general creepy-crawly, sporting the facial features of a human being.  I’m thinking of David Hedison in The Fly (1958), playing a hapless scientist whose experiments with teleportation go astray and end up grafting his head onto the bug of the title; or the scuttling, insectoid, human-faced aliens in The Zanti Misfits, the famous 1963 episode of the TV anthology show The Outer Limits.  Needless to say, I find this item disturbing.  It’s by the Belgian artist Henri Lievens, who in his lifetime created the covers for more than 200 books.  Entitled L’Araignee, its lady-faced spider is icky-looking but also, with those large doe eyes, worryingly fetching.  The lurid blue and black palette heightens its effect.

 

From unquietthings.com

 

And that’s it for another year.  Happy Halloween!

So un-macho

 

© Library of Congress / From unsplash.com

 

An extremely right-wing author and essayist recently caused an uproar by saying something offensive on social media.  That’s hardly news these days.  Anyway, impelled by morbid curiosity, I checked out said author and essayist’s blog.  No, I’m not going to provide a link to it because the dribbling jackanapes has already received enough free publicity.  One remark on that blog caught my eye and made me think, though.  It was a description of President, soon-to-be ex-President, Donald Trump as  ‘the alpha-male of alpha-males’.

 

Let me get this straight.  Donald Trump is not only an alpha-male, but is the most alpha-male going?  You’ve got to be kidding.

 

The last four years and, indeed, most of the past 74 years that Trump has been on the planet are peppered with instances that show him to be not so much an alpha-male as an alpha-wuss.  Indeed, the past month-and-a-half since the US presidential election, when Joe Biden handed Trump his arse on a plate by massively winning both the popular vote and the electoral college, has shown him to be even more pathetic than normal.

 

Seeing Trump react to defeat with a display of whiny, shrieky, stamping-his-little-feet, waving-his-little-fists, chucking-his-toys-out-of-the-pram petulance doesn’t make me think of some muscled, lantern-jawed, bare-chested, testosterone-oozing specimen of maleness swaggering his way through a Hollywood action movie.  Rather, it makes me think of the obnoxious Violet Elizabeth Bott, the lisping little girl in Richmal Crompton’s William books (1922-70) who, when anyone refused to let her have her way, would threaten: “I’ll thcream and thcream and thcream till I’m thick!”  Or of Veruca Salt, the monstrously spoilt little girl in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), who proved so unbearable that Willie Wonka’s squirrels ended up throwing her down a garbage chute to the factory’s incinerator.

 

Ironically, the right-wing dingbats who support Trump often lament the decline of good old-fashioned masculine values, thanks to, as they see it, assaults in recent decades by feminists, liberals, socialists, gay rights activists, trans activists, etc.  In fact, if you look at the best-known embodiments of traditional masculine values, as portrayed on the cinema screen, you’ll see that their hero Trump displays none of those values himself.  He falls laughably short in comparison.  Imagine how he’d react and behave if he were in the shoes of Hollywood’s most famous macho-men during their most famous movies.

 

© Gordon Company / Silver Pictures / 20th Century Fox

 

Take Bruce Willis, for example – an actor who’s well-known for his conservative leanings but who hasn’t, despite scurrilous rumours, shown much enthusiasm for Trump.  As Detective John McClane in Die Hard (1988), Willis attends a Christmas party being held in a skyscraper by the company that employs his estranged wife.  There’s an unwanted festive surprise when a gang of German terrorists show up, seize the building and hold the partygoers hostage.  McClane, who blames the company for his marriage’s break-up and wasn’t feeling comfortable at the party, nonetheless ducks into the nearest ventilation shaft and spends the film crawling around and picking off the terrorists one by one until order has been restored.  You couldn’t imagine Trump selflessly doing any of that.  Actually, someone of his orange bulk would manage to crawl about two inches along the ventilation shaft before getting stuck.

 

No, Trump, the self-proclaimed master of ‘the art of the deal’, would be more like the character of Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner).  Ellis is a sleazy company executive who thinks he can bargain with the terrorists and get them to agree to a plan to lure McClane out of hiding.  “Hey babe, I negotiate million dollar deals for breakfast!” he brags in Trumpian fashion.  “I think I can handle this Eurotrash!”  Too late does the hapless Ellis realise that the terrorists have been stringing him along and don’t intend to honour their side of the bargain.  Inevitably, their leader, Vladimir Putin… sorry, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) puts a bullet through his head.

 

Or take Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who’s publicly dissed Trump for his appalling record on the environment.  In Schwarzenegger’s most famous role, as the reprogrammed-to-be-good Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Schwarzenegger realises at the movie’s finale that the central processing unit in his head is the last remaining piece of technology that might enable the machines to take over the world.  So, nobly, he decides he has to be destroyed for the good of humanity and asks Sarah and John Connor (Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong) to lower him into a vat of molten metal.  Could you imagine Trump being so self-sacrificing?  “I am NOT going in that vat of molten metal!  There’s no CPU in my head!  That’s fake news!  This is the most corrupt decision in the history of my country!  This never happened to Obama…!”  And so on.

 

Probably Trump would prefer to model himself on the bad Terminator played by Schwarzenegger in the first Terminator movie (1984), since that character has traits that the Gross Orange One admires: zero empathy, total ruthlessness, no qualms about using its arsenal of heavy-duty weaponry to blow away anything that defies it.  However, with Trump as the Terminator, the movie would last five minutes.  The Trump-Terminator arrives in 1984 Los Angeles…  Naked, it approaches a group of street-punks (including good old Bill Paxton, who exclaims, “This guy’s a couple of cans short of a six-pack!”)…  Then the street-punks beat it to death.

 

© The Malpaso Company / Warner Bros

 

Who else?  Clint Eastwood, yet another Hollywood Republican who’s been muted about Trump (and in 2020 promised to support Mike Bloomberg if he became the Democrats’ presidential candidate)?  Eastwood built up his iconic macho persona during Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy in the 1960s.  Not only was he The Man with No Name, but he was a man of few words.  He’d squint, keep his jaws clamped around a cigar and unnerve his opponents with a contemptuous silence.  You couldn’t imagine a brash, loud gobshite like Trump, someone whose mouth is five minutes ahead of his brain, doing that.

 

In fact, Eastwood in his other most famous role, as Detective Harry Callaghan, aka Dirty Harry,  offers advice in Magnum Force (1973) that Trump would have been wise to heed: “Man’s got to know his limitations.”

 

John Wayne?  In Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) and El Dorado (1966), Wayne plays a town sheriff who’s loyal to and protective of his staff – Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan in the earlier film, Robert Mitchum, James Caan and Arthur Hunicutt in the later.  Even when Mitchum develops a severe alcohol problem in El Dorado, Wayne puts up with his drunken bullshit and does his best to straighten the guy out.  It’s impossible to imagine the same of Trump, whose four-year tenure in the White House has seen a parade of cringing and crooked underlings being recruited and then, the moment they displease their master, being dumped again.  The loyal-only-to-himself Trump would have pointed a finger at Mitchum and sneered, “You’re fired!”

 

© Armada Productions / Warner Bros

 

Steve McQueen?  McQueen’s most famous role was as the prisoner of war Hilts in The Great Escape (1963), which would have earned him Trump’s disgust immediately.  As he once notoriously declared of John McCain, “He’s a war hero because he was captured.  I like heroes who weren’t captured!”  In fact, McQueen breaks out of the POW camp in Escape but then gets recaptured when his motorbike fails to clear a barbed wire fence on the Swiss border, which I suppose makes him a double loser in Trump’s eyes.

 

In fact, Trump is devoid of the qualities I recognised in the masculine icons with whom I grew up: being loyal, being selfless, doing the right thing, playing fair, saying only things that are worth saying, sticking up for the underdog, being magnanimous in victory, being graceful in defeat.  Then again, this is unsurprising when you see the Neanderthals who support him signalling their masculinity by gathering in mobs outside state legislative buildings, clad in combat fatigues and totting automatic rifles, to protest the implementation of safety measures against Covid-19.  These would-be warriors are too wimpy to countenance wearing small pieces of cloth over their mouths and nostrils to protect their fellow citizens.  Clearly, their notions of masculinity have nothing to do with the qualities I’ve listed above.  Rather, they’re all to do with intimidating, bullying and hurting people.

 

If that’s what masculinity is about, I’ll be glad to see the back of it.  And I’ll be especially glad to see the back of its biggest proponent, the one in the White House – who on January 20th goes from being the alpha-male to being the alpha-fail.

 

© Stewart Bremner