Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Artist Spotlight

Artists’ Spotlight: Five Queer Artists Destroying Horror Art

Queer horror art is the tl;dr of our most disturbing moments. We who let our subconscious bleed onto canvas, paper, and clay are compelled to remark upon the world with our hands and voices. At least for us, the darkness in our history is an orchard of inspiration.

It’s a history I like to see flayed and stitched back together in different iterations, examining the unique ways in which we understand the sickness in the human condition. The variety in the GSM spectrum gives our community strength, and I think that variety is also the key to Destroying horror, where we are usually seen as anything but the protagonist.

When I selected artists for this special issue, I looked for work in which the creator’s gaze was strong and easily distinguished from the heteronormative, cissexual gaze that dominates most horror art. It was more difficult to find queer artists than I expected, because not everyone announces their queer status, but the art and GSRM communities were helpful in sharing their favorites. In honor of the symbolism behind the spectrum, I narrowed my choices with the intent of representing disparate styles, media, and processes: KG Schmidt’s crisp lines and comfortable elegance; Elizabeth Leggett’s subtle, textured surrealism; Eliza Gauger’s unapologetically weird chameleonism; my own splashy, gritty ink work; and of course, AJ Jones’s eerie, illuminated struggles.

I’d like to introduce you to our Queers Destroy Horror artists. I hope their art enhances—and possibly reflects—your own experience.

• • • •

AJ JONES

What attracts you to horror and dark subject matter?

I suppose I’ve always been drawn to darker, slightly bloody subjects and drippy, rusty environments; I’m not sure why, but horror movies, books, games, I’m really into all of it!

To what extent do you feel being queer influences your art?

Being queer influences pretty much every aspect of my life; I view the world through queer lenses. I discovered this when a professor of mine would question the strangest things about subjects in my illustrations, and I just realized that he and I experienced completely different worlds on a day to day basis. I’m pretty deeply immersed in queer culture, from my circle of friends to the media I consume, it all influences the content I create.

How do your own fears interact with your art?

Recently I’ve had a fascination with painting things I used to be uncomfortable with, and making them appealing to me—not necessarily making horrific things beautiful, but making them a bit more surreal.

You’re involved in a collaborative art blog, Lot No. 3, which showcases original “dark and surreal” content. Can you tell us a bit about how this project started, and what it does for you as an artist to be producing work on a new theme each week?

Lot No. 3 began when my roommates and I decided that we really needed to start producing finished work on the regular, and one of the things we had in common was that we all gravitated towards darker themes and subject matters. So we started the blog as a really casual way to hold ourselves accountable to just finish something, whether we’ve spent thirty hours or one hour on it.

One of the aspects of your work that has changed the least over the years is your propensity for dramatic lighting. What would you say has changed the most, and how does it complement the way you play with light?

Even as a beginning artist I embraced values and contrast and darker, heavier marks, but recently I’ve been trying to play with lost edges and letting things disappear and fade into the shadows. Something that has drastically changed is the color palette I work with. It’s gone from super dark, less saturated colors to brighter, heavier saturation. I also often bring in extra, internal light sources, which I’ve certainly gotten more bold with.

• • • •

ELIZA GAUGER

What attracts you to horror and dark subject matter?

People ask me this a lot and it never fails to catch me by surprise because I don’t think of my art as being “dark.” I’ve learned to say disclaimers when I’m showing my art to someone because I’ve learned that what I feel is “normal” or “true” or “beautiful” or even “realistic” will usually strike people as ugly or unnerving.

To what extent do you feel being queer influences your art?

Queerness has driven me to focus very much on “monstrousness” as subject matter, or rather, depicting what feels “right” to me and which usually ends up appearing monstrous. And most of my work has a sexual or fetishistic tone even when it is not explicit. Feeling alienated and, often, as if I’m hiding myself or my desire in an effort to keep people around me from being confused or upset, leads to a sort of “ghost at the window” perspective. I’m the ghost.

How do your own fears interact with your art?

My own particular traumas inform a lot of what I choose to draw in terms of the process of drawing being a literal “objectification” of an idea or a person—you can turn someone into a piece of paper with marks on it through the process of drawing, which reduces threat. It’s like taking an entire dimension of existence away from them. I’ve drawn several people before I met them. A lot of my art is a combination of hostile or confrontational, and tender or comforting, because I feel ambivalent and dichotomous about just about everything.

The occult plays a large part in both your comforting “Problem Glyphs” project as well as a more unsettling role in the forthcoming comic book Black Hole Wizard. How does it feel to approach one subject from two disparate paradigms?

I’ve never been a “true” occultist in that I have never really stuck to studying the tomes and then practicing the rituals or recipes, despite being thrown up against the idea a lot in my life. I was a tween Wiccan like everyone else but didn’t agree with the touchy-feely stuff about no curses, no bad vibes, etc. And the gender binarism in most alchemical/neopagan stuff is just ridiculous. All the phallic green god vs. yoni earth goddess stuff, I mean where did that leave me? It’s such a patriarchal lens with which to view paganism, and it’s ahistorical at best—in a huge number of magical traditions, gender weirdness and queerness was a part of the liminalism inherent to magic workers. You find it everywhere.

I just talked a lot about all the things occultism isn’t to me, as opposed to what it is, sorry. The approach to occultism I think is most interesting and productive is semi-Jungian, although there are serious gender problems there, too. “Problem Glyphs” pulls on Jungian archetypes but also makes up a lot of its own, or revives lesser-used meanings. It’s an intuitive process of constant self-reference and cross-reference with reference material. Black Hole Wizard probably cleaves more to some external or collaborative concepts of “occultism”, demons, magic(k), and so on, as well as pop cultural Metal subculture stuff. This is necessary for the process of making a comic book with someone (in this case, BHW writer Simon Berman). So everything I do for BHW is something he’s signed off on, or was his idea in the first place. It’s much more structured than “Problem Glyphs,” which is extremely organic.

With media that ranges from digital to oil paint to a Sharpie on a mailing label, which do you find yourself returning to the most, and why?

Probably just pencil. Ever since I attended a classical atelier and went through the absolutely soul-destroying, daily, grass roots classical cast drawing process, turning out photorealistic pencil drawings of plaster casts of classical art, I’ve had a much more thorough understanding of contour, shadow, and the physical memory of rendering. You can do anything with a pencil and a gum eraser. Drawing is the cornerstone of everything else, everything. If you can draw you can do anything else with a massive head start. “Well drawn is well enough painted.”

• • • •

ELIZABETH LEGGETT

What attracts you to horror and dark subject matter?

It is hard not to love perfectly delivered shock and awe! That moment in a story where you cannot really believe the writer is taking you down that Rabbit Hole, but you are so caught up in the whole experience that you just throw sanity over your shoulder and go with them, is fantastic. It is that cresting over the first serious hill on the roller coaster you kept having second thoughts about riding the whole time you were in line. It is a delicious gut punch. What is there not to love?

To what extent do you feel being queer influences your art?

Illustrating beautiful women was my first hint to myself that I was not straight. I remember my first fascination was with a long-haired brunette in first grade. She was always very serious and I remember trying to memorize what she looked like in different lighting. I tried to draw her, but did not ever capture her. At first, I did not understand, I just felt compelled to illustrate females. I guess both loves are tangled together.

How do your own fears interact with your art?

Tough question. The most honest response I can offer is that if the subject makes me exceptionally uncomfortable to create, I need to do it. I use my aversion as a compass to lead me to more powerful pieces. Sometimes, I am not even aware of the triggers beforehand. Art illuminates soul?

There’s a distinctive textural quality to your paintings that creates an otherworldly effect. How did you acquire this aspect of your style, and what drove you to keep exploring and strengthening it?

I was a traditional artist until my late twenties, but around 1995-1996, I shifted to digital. The market was beginning to require graphic program awareness, I had returned to school so money was tight and paint is expensive, and Adobe offered teaching students remarkable deals. I was also missing deadlines working traditionally, which is never, ever good. My first tablet was a monster! I guess I was too stubborn to learn the “right” way to use digital tools. I just fiddled around until I manhandled it to recreate what I had done before.

What kind of relationship do you see between the mood of your subject and the mood of the landscape in which you place them?

Most of my professional work is creating illustrations for short stories and novel covers. The idea is to create curiosity and interest without spoilers. That being said, I enjoy it a great deal when there can be discordance between subject and landscape. I think it makes a better overall composition. (This can be especially true for horror!)

• • • •

KG SCHMIDT

What attracts you to horror and dark subject matter?

When I was growing up, I looked for safe spaces to acquaint myself with taboo subjects I ran into on a daily basis and desperately wanted to understand: mental illness; inappropriate thoughts, feelings and appetites; death; grief; futility; helplessness; the unknown, invisible webs of social and environmental danger and pitfalls. Nonfiction was helpful, but I learned that the horror and dark fantasy section of the library was where they kept all the good stuff. Stories filed under horror and dark fantasy didn’t try to feed me a happy ending—I was given electrifying scenarios and left with open-ended “IT’S NOT OVER YET” conclusions. Since that was my life at the time, I found that message more uplifting than stories with more conventionally happy endings.

To what extent do you feel being queer influences your art?

This is an odd question. It feels a lot like when I was asked how “being a woman” influenced my artwork—or when people tried to figure out if I was a man or a woman based on the style I chose to draw in. Are you asking me how queer my art is, or how my experience as a queer person shows up in my work? I certainly draw for a lot of queer clients, and a substantial part of my body of work depicts people who happen to be queer, in situations which reveal or explore that facet of their being. And then there’s, you know, a couple decades of formal training, experimentation, research, and daily practice, and that has definitely influenced my art. My goal has always been to express the empathy and interest I felt in what I was drawing, but I don’t feel that discipline or empathy are directly tied to me being queer.

How do your own fears interact with your art?

Extensively! I’ll start a project and I won’t finish it for years because I’m afraid of what kind of attention it will attract to me. And other times, I hurl my id at the screen, hit upload, and run like hell. And my id will be, like, fluffy baby animals curled up in a basket or something. And then everyone will know I like fluffy baby animals, and that is terrifying, because maybe someone has the opinion that the baby animals are problematic, or indicative of some deep wrongness in me, or that I’m wasting my time and talent on all these fluffy baby animals instead of making real art, whatever that is. Why fluffy baby animals? What are these fluffy baby animals really saying? How are fluffy baby animals addressing a larger social, political, or economic issue? Can I qualify my enjoyment of fluffy baby animals with a 140 page doctorate thesis and a thirty-minute PowerPoint presentation? What kind of artist am I if I’m not using my love for fluffy baby animals to get into fights on the internet? Questions like these are the armature my fears grow themselves around. I’m facing them head-on whenever I make something, and again when I publish it online.

How organic is the development of the (often complex) composition in your work?

Depends on how complete the piece is in my mind before I start working—it’s a lot like cooking. Sometimes I have a selection of powerful visual elements which go together, but I have to put some forethought and planning into composing the piece before I sit down and actually do it—equivalent to flipping through my favorite recipes and working from one or two of those. Sometimes the pieces fall into place while I’m engaged in the process of the piece, and it evolves under my hands into something different from what I initially pictured—maybe I have to substitute some basic ingredients, experiment—use the butt of the spatula handle for something different than its intended purpose because I don’t have a mortar and pestle on hand. And then, sometimes, a bunch of simple successful dishes accumulate over time, and I get to make something using all of those experiments, which tastes amazing. And of course, more often than I’d like to admit, I prepare the ingredients disastrously out of order or overcook something, or burn something I forgot to stir constantly, and I am obliged to eat my own mistakes while resolving not to do that again.

Physical intimacy and solitude both play strong roles in your work. What draws you to these two different moods?

That’s a very personal question. Well, I am drawn to these two moods because I was the sad fat dragon with no friends and I yearned for friendships based on mutual delight, respect, and understanding—where we could just hug each other and it wouldn’t feel dangerous or weird. But I hadn’t met any of those friends in person yet. So I drew lots of pictures where people who liked each other and felt safe in each other’s presence got to snuggle a lot, and when I hit the internet, I posted them up online, where people understood what they were looking at. And that was enough to take the sharper edges off of a rather lonely chapter of my life. Physical intimacy connects me with other people, and solitude connects me with myself. Striking a healthy balance between the two has proven integral to keeping me happy and centered, both as an artist and as a human being. Refusing to conflate interaction with intimacy or connectivity with a connection to self generates a perpetual tension within me, a part of my daily experience that I draw constant inspiration from.

• • • •

PLUNDERPUSS

What attracts you to horror and dark subject matter?

I don’t know, but it’s been this way as long as I can remember. My parents are fond of texting me snapshots of the humiliatingly awful dark poetry I wrote when I was young enough that learning to pee in the toilet was still on my résumé. Maybe it was a way for my wee mind to process the gore in those National Geographic documentaries I loved so much, or maybe it was the older brother I idolized letting me watch R-rated horror films when he was babysitting me (highlight: watched a miniature dinosaur eat a dude’s genitals, not even kidding). But it’s always been Ghostbusters and naming the monster under the bed and forcing myself to walk down dark stairs without the light on just to see if I could do it.

To what extent do you feel being queer influences your art?

Monsters are a solid metaphor for the unknown, for the Other. When I first became cognizant of my bisexuality and gender nonconformity, we lived in an inbred mill town in backwoods Idaho, an hour from the nearest chain fast food restaurant. I was definitely the Other, just one pissed off redneck away from becoming a sad news story. That internalized fear of torches and pitchforks has guided me to depict the hidden, the liminal, and the feared in ways that focus on their beauty, complexity, necessity, and even sometimes their cuddliness.

How do your own fears interact with your art?

The few times in my life that I’ve actually been terrified were almost exclusively because someone wanted to kick my ass. It’s strange because I know I can take a punch, but I also never know how far someone is going to go. The type of fears I depict in my art are really just delighted escapism: the disturbing, the weird, but most of all, the highly unlikely. The subject matter that really scares me also, somewhat paradoxically, bores me. Given the choice, I would paint a monster with shark teeth and tentacles over a scene of two men passing an entire group of strangers on the street, with one guy in the big group turning toward the two with his fists up. Even though when it happened I almost had to take “peeing in the toilet” off my résumé, I don’t find that scene visually inspiring.

Many of your images feature a striking contrast between the subject in the foreground and a vividly colored and textured background. What do you see as the relationship between these various elements of a piece?

Perhaps because I’m a long-time fan of comics and street art, I developed an appreciation for a gritty “canvas” with natural textures (like brick or metal) supporting a brightly colored graphic foreground (like spray paint or stark ink). I see the contrast as a tool for adjusting how seriously the viewer takes the image. If I’m trying to unsettle the viewer, I shrink the contrast so it seems more “possible,” but if I’m just trying to explore a “what if,” I let my aesthetic preferences win.

In addition to your illustration work, you write speculative fiction. How does the process of creating a story compare to the process of creating visual art (or vice versa)?

It used to have very little in common, but after attending Clarion West, I realized I could apply concepts like contour, chiaroscuro, and composition to stories. Some of them already had parallels (I think of composition as analogous to plot structure, for example). When I’m imagining either a story or an illustration, I start with a brief piece of inspiration—an image, a few words of dialog, a “what if”—and either write the first scene or do a sketch to see if my idea is strong enough to support a finished work.

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Megan Arkenberg

Megan Arkenberg

Megan Arkenberg is a Milwaukee native transplanted to Northern California. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, and dozens of other places. She procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance.