I've been friends with Mike Bukowski and Jeanne D'Angelo for most of my time in Philadelphia, and I've always been blown away by their vicious work ethic and talents as artists. Mike has been working on a personal project of illustrating every creature mentioned in Lovecraft's work for a few years now and began publishing those in a zine called Illustro Obscurum. That eventually made its way into the creation of Seventh Church Ministries, a publishing haunted house that puts out work by artists working with particularly horrific subject matter. Their next release is Jeanne's Unclean Spirits, out tomorrow (September 25th, 2015). I had a few questions for the oracle, so I'm grateful for the guidance and clarification they were willing to give me.
So apart from Illustro Obscurum and general weird illustrations, what's your main focus with the 7th Church Of The Illuminator?
Mike: Mostly weird or horror, doesn't have to be fiction, but we do want to focus on the literary. We did Gunsho's Goetia, which was based on the Key of Solomon. It's not real, it's about demons, but there is a literary basis for it. There's a source text you can go back to.
So do you envision your releases more as stand alone pieces, or supplementary to the base text?
M: Everyone does their own pieces, mostly inspired by source texts. I really like having an image next to the piece that inspired it.
That's something I've always liked about your zines, especially since it's never just one source text. You recognize how interconnected these things are.
M: A lot of that is because I'm trying to make it as gross as possible. I like to cherry pick all the best parts.
Why make it gross? Why focus on the grotesque as opposed to, say, a pretty Cthulhu?
M: Man, I HATE a buff Cthulhu. I remember there was a reddit forum where people made of my Cthulhu and said he was too fat and lazy, but if you think about it, he's been sleeping for thousands of years. I tend to the grotesque in my own work because when H.P. Lovecraft references these monsters and gods, he's referencing them in a way that's supposed to be horrible. He's not name dropping, like “Hanging with Beelzebub!” It's meant to inspire fear.
I think that's something that gets glossed over a lot. For example, the Greek Gods, everyone expects them to have those perfectly proportioned bodies.
Jeanne: Yeah, but you couldn't look directly at Zeus. It would blind you. He had to appear to you as a swan or a golden shower.
M: I think a lot of it is when I was researching disparate descriptions of, say, Abbadon, what he would look based on different texts, my rationale is always, “If this was a real thing, they're probably writing about different aspects, so how do I combine them?” I'll end up with a locust head, a scorpion tail, lion's mouth, so the reason all the Greek Gods come out differently is that I'm taking different aspects of their descriptions. Like Zeus, I think I drew him with a swan neck, a cow head, a dude's body--
J: --and urine! Urine arm.
Zeus Pissarm. Yeah, that's the guy. Mike, I know that most of your basis is in Lovecraft, but what else are people working on? I know we already mentioned Gunsho's Goetia.
M: We did Alan Brown's I See A Shadow Coming where he illustrated every M.R. James story...well, every ghost story. There are a lot that are like “THE HISTORY OF THE ISLE OF BRITAIN”. That was the first non-Illustro piece that we put out, and it was really cool. He went all out. I leave it up to the artist with what they want to do, in how intense their releases are gonna be. Gunsho, for example, just gave me the art and I did a print for it..
.but then Alan's, he made hand-made contracts with the devil. Every one was hand written in dutch or something and flutes-
J: If you know Alan, it's just like “I whipped these up. I had an idea and did it in like an hour. I hope they're good enough.”
M: For Gunsho's it was a little less involved. It was the book and the prints and that's it. For Jeanne's it's gonna be a little more fancy.
J: Yeah, but less fancy than Alan's.
So Jeanne, what's your source text? What're you going to be working off of?
J: I did 15 illustrations for Nikolai Gogol's short horror stories, which are mostly from his early career. They're not his most well-known or even well-liked stuff, but at the time they were what made him a name and made him really popular. They're all based on his Ukrainian upbringing, and all stories he asked his mother to relate back to him in letters. She sent him a lot of info about local customs in her lifetime, and relaying folklore and superstitions, telling him ghost stories and then he used them as the basis for his stories. None of them is a direct retelling, they're all inventions. He's using this oral traditions of folklore to make a group of stories that has a narrator who's telling the story casually in the beginning and slowly inserting himself.
The stories themselves have a very Gothic sensibility. The events that happen are reminiscent of things you might find in certain folktales, but they're small elements in where he's directing the story. Some of them are legitimately dark and scary, and a lot of them are kind of lighthearted, poking fun at the devil or the villagers and then all of the sudden there's a very violent scene.
M: There's St. John's Eve, where they're joking about boyars and then a few pages later a witch forces a guy to cut off a child's head and then she drinks blood from the fountain of his neck. It's within pages and obviously not meant to be funny. But his horror work, even if it's not his most critically acclaimed, is probably his most lasting.
J: You're much more likely to read The Nose or The Overcoat in your literature class, but The Viy was made into a move. It's not very popular here per se, but it's a pretty well-acclaimed movie made in the 60s.
M: It was the only Russian horror movie to be made under the Soviet Union.
J: It's based on a national folktale. There's a lot of debate, actually, because Russia claims him, but so does Ukraine. He was living in Russia when he was writing, but a lot of folks say he added a Ukrainian element to Russian literature. As someone from neither culture and so far removed, it's hard to separate.
M: It's kind of an interesting thing to consider, ya know, looking at who claims Gogol now and looking at the state of Eastern Europe. It's a weird, wild bubble. He live in what is now the Ukraine, but at the time was part of Russia. It's all blurry.
J: Yeah, but he also considered himself Ukrainian. He had a sense of pride in his national heritage. Maybe he was even trying to specifically interject that into the Russian literature.
So why do you think his horror work is so lasting then? What makes it so interesting?
J: I don't know how lasting it is to other people, but sometimes I get really fixated on things. I read his stuff when I was 21 or 22. I think he's a very...he's a bit flowery at times, and he's very visual. What he's describing is vivid. It was easy for me to read it and see a picture in my mind that I wanted to see realized. So at the time I was so fixated on a few passages and images from those passages and then probably when I was 28 or so, I had an art show. I did a few pieces based on these ideas that have been in my head the whole time, but even then I didn't feel like I was quite good enough to pull off some of those images that seemed more elaborate. So I got to the point where I thought, “Okay, I want to tackle some of these and make paintings of them.” They're just stories that had a few elements that got really stuck in my head, so I just wanted to see what they would look like.
M: Also, a witch surfs on a coffin.
J: Those are the scenes I'm talking about! There's one in A Terrible Vengeance where they're going by a graveyard and bigger and more skeletal corpses are popping out and screaming “I'M SUFFOCATING”, and there's the scene in The Viy where the witch is riding around on a coffin trying to get this priest who has drawn a magic circle to defend himself. I did a huge centerfold of this scene that's more metaphorical, it's a huge passage about going down the river at night and seeing the mountain, seeing it reflected in the water and seeing it going on forever, both above and below, and he describes it like a wood demon washing his beard in the river.
M: That's also considered one of the most celebrated passages in Russian.
How does that horror aspect come through for you? Is it something that resonates in a sense of terror, or is it more about an idea of, “Oh, that would be a cool painting”?
J: For me it was more my interest in folklore. It's more interesting to see someone in a kind of modern context reinterpreting this folklore, injecting themselves back in the story and telling it their own way.
M: I really like seeing these stories that have been told over and over again interpreted by different artists. For Alan's zine, one of the M.R. James stories was The Treasure of Abbott Thomas, and there's this weird demon guarding this treasure in a monastery. I did a mini Illustro Obscurum that was my interpretation of the monster, and Jeanne did a print of the same monster, so in the same release we had three versions of the same monster and they were all different.
I mean, that's one of the beauties of folklore, everyone tells it a slightly different way.
J: Especially in Gogol's case. He was getting these stories from his mother, and reinterprets them himself. There's this idea with academics and folklore, that it becomes “real” when you've recorded it, but it's actually a really fluid thing. In the story of The Viy, there's this monster he calls The Viy and he claims it comes from folklore, so it sent all folklorists searching for decades to find his source and they can't find anything. Their best guess at this point is that it's something from his imagination and he's trying authenticate it a little or make it more believable, but it's also possible it's something his mother made up, some little personal flourish that never got recorded anywhere. The idea that you can ever record a folk tale is kind of absurd. Maybe he made it up and that's his connection with Illustro Obscurum.
I mean, there's something to be said for an invented history. Like the 7th Church of the Illuminator.
J: Nope, that's all true.
M: All documented, all true.
J: At Necronomicon, people would come up to us and ask me, “Is this a real church?” and I would always say, “Our position is we have a brochure so we're a real church.” I guess it depends on how seriously people take it.
M: Hecate has 3 faces, she can look out on everyone.
J: I'm trying to get more involved in a propaganda arm of the church. I was really into Chick tracts, those pamphlets you could get sent to you if you wrote to the Christian Broadcast Ministry about heavy metal. I want to start making that.
Those things scared the hell out of me as a kid.
M: I remember religion terrifying me as a child in a different way. I remember it was supposed to be a happy thing in Catholic church when they talk about it being in Heaven forever, and my brain always got stuck on FOREVER. Like, I was 7 years old trying to contemplate infinity. It just keeps going? It doesn't stop? I think most people would be comforted by that. They don't want their life to blink out, they want to live forever. I was just like, “What the fuck IS forever?”
As for our own church, I kind of got the idea from the same reddit forum making fun of my fat Cthulhu. A few people were saying, “Lovecraft's stuff is supposed to be indescribable. I don't want to see it.” My whole deal is “Making you see it” in daylight. I think that's weirder to me. When it's not hidden, when it's out in all its glory. What kind of weird cult would make you look at monsters? So I ran with that idea of a cult forming around the idea that darkness is comforting because you can't see what's hidden, so this cult is trying to bring around the end of the world by abolishing darkness.
Anything else you wanted to touch on?
M: Everything is printed by Fireball Printing and Awesome Dudes and assembled by hand. Jeanne's zine will be out on the 25th of September, along with two bonus prints from other artists and I'm going to be doing a mini Illustro Obscurum of all Russian monsters. We've got a lot of stuff coming out very quickly at the end of the year that everyone should check out. Well, maybe not everyone.
Unclean Spirits will be available tomorrow morning at 11 AM EST.