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Hexus Press on Horror’s Impact on Visual Culture

Just don’t touch the ouija board.

London-based publisher Hexus Press’ co-founder Thogdin Ripley talks us through five seminal design artefacts from around the dark, spooky labyrinth of the horror genre.

From the outrageously nerdy, instantly nostalgia-twitching glowing red outlined capitals of the design-your-own Stranger Things titles app that took last year by storm, to the upcoming cinematic realisation of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, horror is back in the limelight. As if it ever went away. But while genre TV and cinema is generally lauded for its tenacity of aesthetic (or indeed, damned for its lacking), in print it’s rarer to find something that stands the test of time without falling into kitsch. Amid a certain mainstream appreciation of retrospective genre tropes, I thought it would be nice to look at the some of the perhaps less well-known broadly “horror” themes from a wider palette, concentrating on print and graphic design.

Each of the works I’ve chosen here are highly symbolic, be it that they either use design as a way to compact meaning—through building the themes they exhibit into their appearance, or in the very physicality of their existence—or that they have transcended themselves to become symbols in their own right. And it’s in that spirit that we approached designing the cover for Gary J Shipley’s ferocious, amorphous novel Warewolff!

The book does a multitude of things, one of which is to present itself as a transmission from our world, the non-fictional here and now, which the “author” has tuned himself into—the voice of a monstrous, indefinable ‘other’ too terrifying to comprehend but in its facets: a being that “learns to talk by shaping the stories of its victims.” To read Warewolff! is to submerse oneself in that compound voice, and by hearing its many facets to let the void of contemporary life stare right back through the page at you.

This co-opting of the unexpected at every turn—through the fact that idea that you’re reaching to understand is, in itself, also reaching back into you; through the way the sentences invariably crack and break, changing their meaning almost word by word—is something that really excites me about the book, and we tried to make the cover tread the line between being contemporary and attractive enough to pick up, but visually confounding enough to still have teeth, and to use them to bite.

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Félix Labisse – Patrick Waldberg, 1971. Published by Andre de Rache.

Condensing sprawling obsessions with sex and control into something approaching a workable logo.

French artist Félix Labisse’s only English monograph comes in a journeyman dust jacket depicting one of his paintings that conceals the real treat—an embossed cloth covered edition emblazoned with an iron fist.

Labisse’s peculiar brand of psychosexual Surrealism—his shrouded figures, ultra-kitsch midnight blue nudes and insect-harried landscapes—chimes perfectly with a certain kind of European literary fantasism (Dino Buzzati, Roland Topor, Marcel Schwob et al), which has been, and thanks to the efforts of many small presses continues to be, ripe for modern reappraisal.

Labisse leant many of his works to the cover of the French literary magazine Plexus (from which, partially, Hexus Press originally drew its name), whose slogan, translated as the uninhibited magazine, gives one a good idea of its content. The book cover manages to successfully encapsulate Labisse’s sprawling obsessions with sex and control and his tendency towards playfulness (the fist, taken from a series of his paintings using heraldic imagery and armoured figures, is, of course, actually a pendant) into something approaching a workable logo which oozes a luxurious, lusty opulence at the same time as projecting intimidation: the very real gauntlet and the kitsch black leather glove of a thousand on-screen killers.

Part of the particular reason I love this design so much is precisely down to the fact that despite being such a feature, it’s hidden with the jacket on. I think in some ways an ideal book to make would be one which is conceptually all cover—infinite layers that conceal each other until one emerges at the end—or, alternatively, something which would have to be destroyed (physically ripped apart) to get to its real cover. But then, taking this to its conclusion, how do we know that books aren’t like this already? Reader, please, I hand you this invitation and strong argument to start gutting your expensive hardbacks looking for their ‘real faces.’

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50% The Visible woman – Penny Slinger, 1971, Narcis Publishing

Using “the tools of Surrealism to probe the feminine psyche”

Penny Slinger has been undergoing a rediscovery, of late: her work was included in the recent Alison Gingeras-curated show Sex Work: Feminist Art and Radical Politics at Frieze, in Dreamers Awake at London’s White Cube Bermondsey earlier this year, and a documentary tracing the first part of her career, Out of the Shadowslaunched at the Raindance Festival in September. And all deservedly so.

The collaged images which form her first book, 50% The Visible Woman, remain as confrontational, challenging, relevant, and startlingly fresh as when she made it at the end of her time studying at Chelsea College of Art in 1969. Wrapped in fragile silver endpapers, it’s a delicate wonder to behold. Inside, the work—which, as Slinger herself says, uses “the tools of Surrealism to probe the feminine psyche [and] the role that the feminine has in the whole world of art” via images that are at the same time personal and mythopoetic—are interleaved with near-transparent printed pages, leading the viewer/reader through archetypes and extrapolations of sexuality and selfhood. In each case, the text fits over in a way that riffs off the image below it, and essentially becomes a tool to reinterpret the collages to form another, third set of ‘images.’ In this multi-layered approach, Slinger not only showcases her work but at the same time has created a book that embodies her explorations of ambiguity and depth: a work that forces the reader, by the simple action of turning the pages, to be intimately complicit in its exploration of the psychologies of splitting and unity.

My copy’s a little battered and is missing a jacket as, frankly, they’re tough to find but it’s lovely thing in itself as it is. We were (perhaps fittingly) entirely beside ourselves to include some of Slinger’s previously unpublished work from the time of the book in Hexus Journal vol II last year, complete with the transparencies.

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Arrebato cinema advert flyer, Ivan Zulueta, 1979

A simple, small monochrome ad that goes a long way in suggesting larger puzzles

To even try to describe Zulueta’s 1979 cult Spanish film Arrebato (Rapture) succinctly is to do its complexity and symbolism a massive disservice, but in a the interest of not taking up your whole day, briefly it posits the ideas of filmmaking obsession, the ecstasies of artistic creation, the abjection of drug addiction, the hypnotic yearning of nostalgia, and straight-up Hammer Horror vampirism as vectors of the same essential force. Zulueta certainly engaged wholeheartedly with the first three of that list, and the fact that the film was infamously difficult to produce (due to indulgence and creative difficulties) is as much part of its unique charm as its lore. This cinema flyer (presumably for use as a lobby card) was, as with much of the artwork for his films (and later that of fellow filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar) designed and drawn by Zulueta himself: a talented graphic artist to boot.

The three characters here—the louche, struggling filmmaker José; his flaky, addled sometime-partner Ana; and his complex Mephistophelean counterpoint, the self-taught savant filmmaker Pedro—are pictured in enigmatic poses similar to his one sheet poster for the film. José and Pedro shield themselves from the light, while Ana revels in the beam. Here they are all, amusingly enough for a story that involves people essentially being eaten by the camera, diegetically ‘in the film.’ Over them, Zulueta’s flowing script declaims the title; the font a shattered variation of one which he used several times, strikingly for the poster to Bunuel’s Viridiana when it was finally released from Franco’s censorial grip in 1977.

Arrebato’s complexity folds in on itself narratively and representatively, and that this simple, relatively small monochrome advert for it goes a long way to suggesting some of its larger puzzles is testament to Zulueta’s sensibilities. The fact that the film didn’t succeed commercially on its first run only adds, for me, to the value of this piece of cultural flotsam (which in fact cost me a couple of euros): how, where and why did it survive for so many years?

 

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Ouija: The Mystifying Oracle, by Parker Brothers, 1972

Designs that trigger a general sense of malaise and disquiet.

As the box itself proclaims: “suitable for players aged 8–adult.” It’s a game, right? Just a game.

Whatever else it is, Parker Bros’ Ouija board is a great example of an immediately identifiable design that, in this 1972 incarnation, genuinely deserves that somewhat eroded acclaim of being ‘truly iconic.’ A design classic, recognizable by its abecedarian fonts alone, which are derivations of the brass stencils used to decorate the original wooden boards, and suggestive of doomed teenagers, triggered mental health issues, and a general sense of malaise and disquiet.

The history of the board (including its being “proven to work” before a presumably rather freaked-out patent officer) is fascinating and labyrinthine. But perhaps what’s most interesting to me is the idea that the “Mystifying Oracle,” born as it was amid the Spiritualist craze of the turn of the 19th century (which was, arguably, prompted by burgeoning communications technologies such as the development of Morse code and the transatlantic cable), is—if we take it as read that it ‘works’ and can ‘connect ‘to a ‘spirit plane’—surely a conceptual forerunner of the internet: of being able to contact a hidden, all-pervading ‘world’ that imparts information.

Looking at from this admittedly revisionist standpoint, the board itself becomes an amalgam of both keyboard and monitor (although the results it’s possible to obtain perhaps point more towards a sticky connection, blockages at the service provider-end and a scrambled, uncertain signal and response: a sort of a numinous, but equally ‘dead’, Ask Jeeves) and it almost surprises me that no phone company has reconfigured their display, aping it specifically for the goth market and to jangle the nerves of more austere churchgoers.

The board fonts, sitting somewhere between an elaborated version of Bookman and a generic frontier-era ‘Western’ style font—both traditionally suggestive of a kind of rugged masculinity—contain a slight irony in being put to service in a product born out of a very emancipatory belief system: Spiritualism was a rare moment around the turn of the century when women (believed to be more ‘attuned’) were granted status and the relative freedom it brought.

The modern incarnation of the Parker board does away with the strange, sub-oriental/Western mix font on the front of the box, replacing it with what looks like a slightly impoverished version of Garamond, and emphasising the nostalgia by making a feature of still having the ”Original Graphics!” as if the otherworldly aspect is implicit in not just the history of the board, but also its visual design.

A regular fixture in the U.S.—I acquired this one on a holiday at that most American of things, a yard sale—to see one of these in the UK is a relative rarity. It’s a credit to the recognizability of the design that the charge of excitement and possibility still exists here when, each time that it’s mooted as entertainment (predictably well into an evening), it’s unswervingly and nervously passed over.

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Malpertuis, by Jean Ray, 1998. Published by Atlas Press.

All of Atlas Press’s output is worthy of attention, focussing as they do on neglected ‘Pataphysical, Dadaist and other obscured experimenters with literary form, but it’s their translation of Jean Ray’s 1943 Belgian novel Malpertuis that particularly catches my eye.

Without spoilers, Ray’s novel, later turned into a rather pale film version featuring a particularly scenery-chewing Orson Welles, centers around the Gothic pile of Malpertuis: an imposing house that imprisons a bizarre, black secret. Written in strikingly heavy prose redolent of, say, Poe at his most florid, it’s, as Atlas Press rather brilliantly has it, an Anti-Classic” of high standing.

The content of the story is nicely mirrored in the design of the jacket: bulky, stylised rocks or thorns crowd around the title upon which the monster sits, all bordered within a tight grid by Atlas’ sometime framing of choice, fleeing spermatozoa—reminiscent of Munch’s death-laden Madonna. Before realizing these adorned many of their volumes, I took this wriggling frame to be a symbol for Malpertuis—both the novel and the house its named after—literally shedding life: a place where life could not, and (to use the glowering cliché in all its wild-eyed Lovecraftianness) should not be. Plainly, they graphically confirm the “anti” nature of the book.

The design, the striking title, the border, the sheer bloody slabbiness of the thing, and the fact that it’s printed on gold in heavy black and red, all come together perfectly to recommend the book beyond its niche readership, and at the same time to look like very little else. Malpertuis is sadly out of print, but anyone wanting to own a copy could do a lot worse than contacting one of London’s best portals to the unknown, bookartbookshop.

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Design History 101