An interview with dark artist Rob Stanley

Rob Stanley is a 43 year old artist and musician from the Sunshine Coast hinterland in South East Queensland, Australia. He specializes in dark and macabre artwork and melodic, heavy music. After checking out his art at BlackAbyss.net, I wanted to ask him a few questions about his work.

Your art is incredibly striking. How would you describe your style?

I would put it in the dark surrealism basket. My style is constantly evolving, but the common thread that binds it all together is the dark surreal nature of it. Although some of my works are colour, or muted tones, I much prefer to work in black and white/greyscale. I feel this conveys emotion better, and our minds fill in the blanks where colour is missing. A bit like a good horror film leaves bits to your imagination, thus making it truly scary.

What drew you produce such dark, horrific imagery?

Ever since childhood I’ve always been drawn to the macabre. I have no idea why. Perhaps it’s the emotion it evokes when looking at it. I remember being in record stores as a young kid and looking at the cool monstery artwork that adorned heavy metal albums and being utterly fascinated by it. The same goes for books. I would always want to have the books that had the coolest artwork on the cover. Because if the artwork was awesome, the story inside would be awesome too.

As life went on I began to see and understand the differences between illustration/commercial art and fine art. I began discovering other fine artists whose flavour and style appealed to me and I began to develop a need to express myself visually in similar ways. I started out just doing drawings and illustrations, practice pieces, always focusing on the technical aspects of the creation rather than creating from the heart.

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It wasn’t until I was an adult that I started producing art of this nature. My work comes from deep within me and is usually dragged up through anxiety and migraine headaches. I find I am at my most creative during these periods, and at the time of creating it, I usually hate the work produced. A good portion of my art is influenced by our (humanity) constant need to be revolting to each other, other creatures and the planet we live on. As I get older and my art evolves, I find it reflecting more and more the true nature of what we are as a race of beings on Earth. I also have extremely vivid visions and dreams when in a migraine headache phase and I often draw on the imagery experienced when in those phases.

What artists or movements do you consider influences on your work?

There are many artists I love, all varying in style. I love the classic sci-fi and horror works of Les Edwards, Michael Whelan, Tim White, and Frank Frazetta. A love the soul-twisting surrealism of H.R. Giger, Salvador Dali, and Zdzislaw Beksinski. I love the experimental and shock works of Hermann Nitsch and The Vienna Actionists, although some of their behaviour and work is rather questionable.

What fiction or films do you consider influences?

I’m not a massive book reader or of watcher of films, but there are some authors and filmmakers who have had an influence on my thinking and artwork. When it comes to books I’m a little boring and predictable: Frank Herbert, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Arthur C. Clarke.

As far as film goes as an influence – the original Alien film, the H.R. Giger design masterpiece. Begotten by E. Elias Merhige is an amazing trip and has some very cool dark imagery. And Jaws. I love Jaws. My favourite movie ever.

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Who are some contemporaries that deserve more recognition?

Chet Zar. His work has seen some commercial success, but I believe his work is up there with the greats and should be recognized as such.

What books feature your art?

I have been published in various indie magazines around the world such as Forbidden Whispers, Blood Magazine, and one or two others.

What types of books would be a good fit for your work?

I have always seen my art fitting for all types of horror and the bizarre.

What is the relationship between art and fiction, especially in regards to horror and the weird?

They are both art forms that have the ability to take their audience to another realm, whether it be deep in the viewer’s heart or a far out plane of existence in another universe. It’s this ability of this type of art that makes it special. With the exception of some genres of music, no other form of art does this. Well, it doesn’t for me, anyway.

How can authors and editors get in touch with you about commissioning you or using your art for their books?

Through my website, social media or email – robstanley72@gmail.com

What are you working on next?

I had a vision this morning whilst lying in bed, so a work based on this might be in order: I was semi-conscious, i.e., I was aware of birds twittering outside, but still sleepy and dazed. I was standing on top of a hill on a stone paved floor with a large stone wall at my left side. Before me came three black pyramids floating in a row through a dense grey fog, dimly lit from behind. A jet black figure emerged from the center one and came toward me. It was the shape of an inverted elongated pyramid with a humanoid head and spindly arms and legs. It moved as if floating on air and a black sooty smoke/mist came from it as it moved. It connected with me somehow, like a greeting of sorts, and then it moved to the stone wall and peered around the corner of it as if it was watching something coming. Then I fully woke up with a pounding headache.

Tell me a little bit about yourself outside of your artwork.

I live with my dearest darling and best friend Karen, along with our awesome pooch Truman.

Ever since leaving school, my “professional” life has seen me work as a signwriter, an art director in various advertising and design agencies, as well as freelancing and running a design/visual effects business from home. I have produced all sorts of commercial artwork and designs for a wide range of clients from real estate developers to death metal bands to filmmakers. I am currently working as visual effects supervisor for a feature film called Boar.

I have written and illustrated a children’s book called Magnificent Murray. The main character is based on my late great dane Murray. I am in the middle of producing a second book but that has been on hold as we lost our darling boy back in March. It’s been a bit difficult to start work on it again. You can see the website here – MagnificentMurray.com

I have a small recording studio where I record and produce music for myself and others. Music is my other passion, and it plays a huge role in my life.

I also collect knives. Big ones and little ones.

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You can follow Rob’s work on Facebook here, and find him on RedBubble here.

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25. Banshee Chapter

25. Banshee Chapter (2013). Number stations broadcasting creepy music (this is a real phenomenon, by the way), secret government experiments on its own citizens in the MK Ultra program (ditto), psychic monsters that show up when you take DMT (…), direct references to H.P. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond”, and Buffalo Bill as Hunter S. Thompson (sort of). Budget limitations (and the ho-hum ending) be damned, this movie speaks to me, man.

Film Review: The Haunted Palace

Directed by Roger Corman; Starring Vincent Price, Debra Paget, Lon Chaney Jr.

The Haunted Palace caught me off-guard.

I’d borrowed the film from my local library. It came on the same disc as another Vincent Price-Roger Corman film, Tower of London. I expected a schlocky, low-budget affair from Roger Corman—a workingman’s effort, sure, but I was prepared to sit through a film limited in quality.

Boy, was I wrong.

Advertised as an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe poem, the film is more accurately an adaptation of several H.P. Lovecraft stories, including The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Seeing the Old Man’s name pop up in the opening credits surprised me—was this the first film adaptation of Lovecraft’s work? And how had I never heard of it before?

The film opens on a scene of classic gothic horror. A warlock, Joseph Curwen (one of Vincent Price’s two roles in the film) is burned alive by the townsfolk after allegations of rape and witchcraft. This is heady stuff, and really surprised me that a mainstream horror film of this era would tackle the subject of rape… especially if the rapist proved to be something beyond a sadistic old man.

Just before Price’s character is put to the torch, he curses the town. Who wouldn’t?

One hundred and ten years later, the warlock’s descendant (also played by Price) returns to claim his ancestral home. It’s not long before the spirit of his dead great-grandfather makes moves on his psyche, hoping to possess poor Charles Dexter Ward and continue the wizard’s dark work.

That work is nothing less than cross-breeding humans and monsters, coupled with a little bit of necromancy. The goal—although it’s never stated how exactly he’ll reach it—is to open the gateway between worlds so that the Elder Gods—great Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth specifically—can reclaim earth as their own. Ward—err, Ward possessed by the warlock Cerwin—doesn’t really understand his own motivation. And that makes it all the more disturbing.

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“We obey,” he says ominously. Indeed. Sometimes, the less about a horror that is explained, the better. Hollywood doesn’t seem to understand this anymore.

The cinematography in The Haunted Palace is excellent, with great use of color, fog, and beautiful composition. The sets are great—even if much of the film is set in a stock spooky castle replete with secret passages and a haunted painting. Although the setting isn’t exactly original, it  looks good. It’s never over lit—which was a common pitfall of the 50s, 60s, and 70s (Hammer) gothic films. Supposedly, this is a low-budget film, but it never shows.

The make up effects are great. There’s a monster in a green pit that looks cool (although it’s clear it doesn’t actually move; camera trickery gives it a look of extradimensional waviness), and the villagers suffering from genetic corruption are suitably creepy. One of the film’s best scenes involves the villagers descending on Charles Dexter Ward and his wife in the middle of town, only to be called back at the last moment by the ringing of a bell.

What church do those mutants attend, I wonder? Mayhap the Esoteric Order of Dagon?

Despite its marketing as an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, Lovecraftian themes abound: we have dark lineages, the corruption of blood lines, the Necronomicon, Elder Gods… And there’s even a reference to the Tillinghast family. This is a labor of love for the work of old H.P. Lovecraft, and was well ahead of its time in that respect.

For fans of Roger Corman, H.P. Lovecraft, gothic horror, or the master Vincent Price, you can’t do much better than The Haunted Palace. I’ll be adding this one to my personal collection.

Late to the Party: True Detective as Weird Fiction (or not)

At first, I was disappointed.

Weird fiction/horror author Orrin Grey has described works that tease the supernatural but offer realistic explanations in their stead as “spookblocking,” a term that I intend to steal and use from now on. After watching the final episode of the critically-acclaimed True Detective, I thought the show had perhaps crossed into that territory.

Upon reflection, I’m not sure that’s the case.

True Detective is a show that garnered a lot of praise—and a lot of criticism—as it acted less as a generic police procedural, and more as a live-action vehicle for the philosophical ideas of Nietzsche, Thomas Ligotti, and even H.P. Lovecraft. What starts out as a high-quality murder mystery show quickly metastasizes into an exploration of the Weird Tale, more in line with Ambrose Bierce than Raymond Chandler; more Robert W. Chambers than David Simon.

Without getting too far into spoiler territory, the murder mystery begins with a single individual, but strands and threads are tugged and pulled to reveal a larger web of Southern-fried gothic conspiracy. Not only is there a killer on the loose, there is a whole network of influential people in very important positions in our society, all engaged in ritualistic “devil” worship.

Except, of course, that their particular devil isn’t the one of Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s of a much more alien variety. The object of their worship appears to be Chambers’ King in Yellow, an extradimensional figure that may or may not be a figment of everyone’s imagination.

Ah, that last line may have caught your attention. Grey’s analysis of his own frustration—resulting in the sexual innuendo-laden “spookblocking” term—may be begging your interpretation of this plotline. Matthew McConaughey plays Rustin “Rust” Cohle, one of the (if not the) titular detectives, slussing out this bizarre mystery, one lead at a time. Early on we learn that Rust is prone to hallucinations—damaged neurons resulting from his years of undercover work wherein he was forced to take drugs to avoid blowing his cover. It’s from his perspective that we witness several strange events—weird lights flashing by him as he drives; a flock of birds forming a spiral symbol; and the (pen[?])ultimate vision of a cosmic cloud moving to consume time and space amidst a serial killer’s dungeon altar.

Drug use; a damaged past. Can what we see through Rust’s perspective be trusted, or is this just HBO’s own version of spookblocking?

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Typically—and, admittedly, in the moments following my viewing of the last episode of True Detective’s first season—I thought the latter was the case. Here was another high-profile show, content to take two steps toward the Weird and the Unknown, only to take three steps back at the show’s conclusion. How frustrating to be treated to a grown-up’s version of Scooby-Doo. The monster is always just Old Man Jones, wearing a hokey monster mask and employing some lo-fi special effects to scare the kids.

But is that really the case? Does weird fiction—which most would agree this show falls into that category—have to be a binary, post-modern, either/or proposition? That is—would the writers that this show draws influence from have employed spookblocking, or is the idea of spookblocking perhaps not always applicable to a work that leans toward one explanation and form (realism/literary fiction) over another (supernaturalism)? Is spookblocking even applicable to weird fiction?

So, I thought about this show for a while. Season one was an immensely enjoyable ride, with twists and turns that never felt cheap or convenient. The detective work conducted by the two leads was always easy to follow and not at all overwrought, engendering a sense of participatory understanding in the audience; the cinematography was gorgeous and often intentionally understated; the dialogue was whip-smart with the exception of Rust’s ridiculous anti-religious, anti-rural folk screeds. While some reviewers have pointed out the problematic interpretation (or outright plagarization, depending on who you read) of the popular works of Ligotti, the true influence on this show is Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow.

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Understanding that the King is a character in this work, and that Chambers’ (and, to a lesser extent, Bierce’s) proto-weird fiction is a driving force, the idea of this show being an example of spookblocking becomes less relevant.

That is, in weird fiction—especially in the tradition of Chambers’ The King in Yellow—what the Truth is (capital “T”) is less important that what the characters’ experiences are. In real life—or in the cultural mythology that we build and call “real life”—strange things happen. Odd coincidences crop up, patterns emerge, or outright terrifying and unexplainable events (UFOs, poltergeists, cryptids, etc.) happen to seemingly stable, regular folk. It’s not just the backwoods, moonshine-drunk yokel who sees spacemen wearing silver suits and football helmets (full disclosure: there’s nothing wrong with backwoods, moonshine-drunk yokels… I happen to be a member of that particular population); it’s also the trained observer aircraft pilots, police officers and even several ex-presidents.

Although the horror-hound in me yearned for a more gee-whiz, flashbang supernatural ending, the subdued, almost reserved denouement made sense in light of what Chambers’ work with the King was. In his short story collection, there’s never a concrete explanation of who the King in Yellow really is, or what he wants, or what he’s doing. He does speak, in a fashion, and his influence is felt everywhere. But whether he was a demon, a hallucination, a government-created fabrication, or something else entirely is left up to speculation. The reader becomes an active participant in determining what the Truth behind his malevolent influence really is.

Even Lovecraft, in his vaguery and obtuse style, would often over-explain cosmic horror/weird concepts (in a relative sense, at least). Cthulhu was an organism, after a fashion. There was a hierarchy of Great Old Ones, forgotten gods, Crawling Chaoses, and so forth. That there exists a cosmology to his world, as bleak as it may be, makes it understandable, quantifiable. In Chambers’ treatment of the King in Yellow, no such stratification exists, and, therefore, our lack of understanding contributes to the terror and weirdness that he sows within our imagination. Each story could very well be a hallucination or the result of mental illness on the part of the various characters we meet. And yet—it is weird fiction. Solidly, inarguably.

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I’m not making a judgment call on whose style I prefer. I’ve read more of Lovecraft, but find Chambers’ work intriguing and beautiful. Lovecraft was inspired by Chambers, and took his ideas (and settings and characters) in new and interesting directions, just as Chambers was inspired by other proto-weird writers (such as my fellow Army-veteran-turned-writer, Ambrose Bierce).

Writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Joji Fukunaga have given us a work of weird fiction worthy of inclusion in such a pantheon. They’ve taken the ideas of literary weird fiction and converted them into a live action story about two men pushed to the brink: professionally, personally, and by their own misdeeds.

While I was tempted to consider this an example of spookblocking—to chalk up the supernatural elements as merely frosting on a cake built of convention and familiar tropes—it’s since become clear that Chambers’ work was often obtuse and strange, lacking definitive answers and explanations, even if we expected them to be pronouncedly supernatural.

My personal preferences tend toward the cosmic, the weird, the fictional, the supernatural—but true weird fiction doesn’t have to play by my rules. It doesn’t have to play by anyone’s rules—and that’s the point. Weird fiction, like its twin brothers horror and supernatural fiction—challenges conventions, ideas, and easy explanations. Grey’s posit that spookblocking is a tired, worn-out trope rings true. True Detective, when appraised from a historical, true weird fiction perspective—is anything but.

The King in Yellow is available for free from Project Gutenberg.

Film Review: The Pineal (Phallus?) Gland’s Revenge

From Beyond (1986) directed by Stuart Gordon

Starring Jeffrey Combs, Ken Foree, Barbara Crampton, Ted Sorel

 Most horror film aficionados love Re-Animator, the first of Stuart Gordon’s many H.P. Lovecraft story adaptations for the big screen. Its follow up, From Beyond, is a lesser-known film, but in many ways superior to the original.

Both films have a lot in common. First and foremost is the performance of Jeffrey Combs, who plays (in both films) a scientist crossing over into unethical and unnatural research. In Re-Animator he is arguably the villain as well as one of the main protagonists; it’s his out-of-control research that invites the terror and splatter that follows. In From Beyond, however, his character is Crawford Tillinghast, now a resident at a psychiatric hospital following his research with his mentor, Dr. Pretorius (a wickedly delightful Ted Sorel).

Crawford wants nothing to do with the house in which they conducted their research; he fears most of all the resonator machine on the top floor, which, when activated, stimulates the pineal gland (or the third eye of mysticism), allowing human beings to see and be seen by creatures in parallel worlds. He claims the activation of the machine drove Pretorius mad and ultimately led to his death at the hands of some monstrous, unspeakable creature.

The opportunity to study Crawford’s apparent psychosis is too much to resist for Dr. Katherine McMichaels (the lovely Barbara Crampton), who arranges for his release on the condition that he accompany her to the house and show her the resonator. They are accompanied by a no-nonsense policeman (Ken Foree, who is the only one making relatively good decisions in the film), and spend several days at the site of the strange research.

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The plot is predictable in its pacing, but the set pieces involving the resonator, human mutation, and sexual deviancy are anything but. The film, while quite funny at times, shocks with its unnerving, gross-out special effects. Fans of Re-Animator, Videodrome, or The Thing’s practical creature effects and body horror will squirm in disgusted delight. Everyone else will be suitably horrified.

The mushroom-trip visuals of the film, quick pacing, and outstanding practical creature and mutation effects, all make this a visual and aural treat for horror fans. From Beyond is an overlooked classic that pushes the limits of the visual medium of cinema—it’s a dark nightmare of absurdism, a grim portrait of humankind’s place in the cosmos, and quite simply the most fun you’ll have with some beers, popcorn, and a couple of friends on a Friday night.

My only real complaint about the film is the sexual bondage motif—it felt shocking for shocking’s sake, meant more to titillate than horrify. If you’re not much of a Puritan, it probably won’t bother you.

All in all, From Beyond is a superior film to Re-Animator, but both are in the same ballpark of greatness in the horror genre. Stuart Gordon doesn’t accurately adapt Lovecraft’s stories, but he does try to capture some of the tone of hopelessness and horror intrinsic in the writer’s work. If you enjoy the film, consider reading the original story here, which is much shorter, but provides plenty of tiny glimpses into a realm of madness and unholy un-life.

5/5 Phallic Snake Brain Glands (You’ll See What I Mean)