It’s not close to Halloween yet (so take that candy off store shelves!) but I thought I would scratch out a few lines on horror, and how difficult it is to illustrate. Fear is such a personal experience – no two people feel the same, or respond to the same stimuli – that writing with the intent to frighten is very difficult. Having to put images to those emotions is even harder.
Unease in general is hard, but it can be very effective. Take James Ensor‘s Self-Portrait with Masks, from 1899, in the collection of the Menard Art Museum, Komaki, Japan (below). The parade of masked faces, which recurs in Ensor’s work, is enough to make you worry. Why are these people masked? What is their intent?
The evocative image need not directly illustrate a story, but can instead suggest some sense of the macabre. Consider this cover for Der Orchideengarten, the pioneering German magazine, which focussed for most of its run on fantasy and horror, that ran from 1919 to 1921. I haven’t found out the name of the artist yet; my apologies to his ghost.
But these are standalone images. Where an artist must draw an illustration, the challenges are double. Wise horror writers eschew explicit description, fully aware that, like sex, horror is hard to capture and runs the risk of sliding into accidental humor. (There is a contest for worst sex writing of the year; there ought to be a similar contest for least scary horror writing.) One way is to leave the worst details to the imagination. For example, when Lynd Ward brilliantly illustrated Frankenstein in 1934, he had to draw the monster repeatedly, but he wisely chose many compositions that hid the creature’s face – see below. Ward only showed the monster’s face a few times, and the impact is greater for it.
Sometimes a daring artist – in this case Hannes Bok again – brings the monster right out in the open, and trusts to his skill. This drawing from H.P. Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model, published in Famous Fantastic Mysteries magazine (December 1951) is brave, and has become iconic. Other artists illustrating the same story have decided to avoid this scene, and let the reader create their own monster.
Lovecraft is circumspect about the creature, leaving Bok alone with his imagination. (An aside: I find that horror and fantasy stories are best illustrated in black and white, despite the brilliance of some color work. Perhaps it’s just me.)
Few stories remain frightening forever. The vast majority step sideways into fantasy or fable, stirring wonder but not fear. This is fine, and brings a second act to the life of horror stories. Fear is also transient, and the story that makes the skin crawl on first reading can become mundane or comfortable with repeat reading. Perhaps what is surprising is not that so many fantasy artists fail to capture the mood of macabre stories, but that so many do succeed.