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This Halloween, 5 Occult-leaning Designs from Before Witchiness Became so Hip

We explore a few lesser-known spooky-leaning design artifacts

Ah, late October. Pumpkins, skeletons, and waiting for daylight saving time to really kickstart the SAD. Halloween is but round the corner, holding an enormous plastic axe and insisting that you give it all your sweets.

It’s been hard to miss the occult’s ascension into popular culture over the last few years. From The Love Witch’s pitch-perfect inversion of the cliched Bell, Book and Candle-style romance; actual witches casting a binding spell on Trump “so that his malignant works may fail utterly” (might be working, hard to tell)—and more recently a hex on Brett Kavanaugh—through to Vogue’s ‘Witchy Week’ and the breakaway success of the supernatural on the screen. With Hereditary, the reimaginings of The Haunting of Hill House and Suspiria, and the return of Sabrina the now-grown-up witch, it seems like these days everyone’s chalking a design on their living room floor, riding backwards on a broomstick, and finding the ghosts of their family hiding beneath the reality that they tread daily.

I’ve spent most of this season of harvests and mists in a small room unpacking boxes, having recently moved house out of the city. And so, with the moon glowering into my window, dragging my possessions out of storage has provided a nice excuse to look at the way that a certain perceived “witchiness” and lingering strains of the occult bleed through in design, from books to records, publications and fine art. 

Hexus Press is due to release Oliver Zarandi’s collection Soft Fruit in the Sun, alongside Hexus Journal III in 2019.

1
Emma’s Doll, Brian Patten and Mary Moore (George Allen and Unwin Publishing, 1976)

A children’s book from Mersey Sound poet Brian Patten, ethereally illustrated by Mary Moore (daughter of the artist Henry Moore), this fits quite easily into the “why the hell were they reading this to children?” category, alongside other brilliantly odd favourites of my youth, such as Maurice Sendak’s pastel nightmare Outside Over There and Derek Boshier’s headfucky How Hudson Saved Rock City. But it’s so much more than that. Patten’s story deals with the difficulties of loss, as Emma breaks her doll and spends the rest of the book looking for a way to make her better through a series of dream-like adventures, which include an encounter with a witch that appears only as oversized eyes and hands from within a tangled forest, and woodland creatures frozen like statues by a motionless pond. As much a junior’s Orpheus as a parable for sickness and recovery, Moore’s drawings lend the story a strange, slightly chilling luminosity that, with the text’s almost morbid descriptions, suggests to me the time-held silence of the best Surrealist paintings.

Emma’s Doll, spreads

 

Interestingly, Moore was schooled in form and art history by her father from a young age, but decided not to become an artist as the competition was perceived to be just too great. She went on to co-found the Henry Moore Foundation and, though in interviews she talks much of his legacy, I wonder how his teaching and politics as a staunch Socialist inspired her in the co-creation of this story, which ultimately deals with the indifference of the adult world and the need to care about those in peril.

The cover here does a very good job of suggesting the contents, with the prevalence for muted colors and patches of black; a world composed of sombre glow contained in, and reacting against, spaces that seem unmanageably huge, headed by the almost nonchalant scrawl of a hand-drawn title. Even though the ending is redemptive, the dark world that Emma journeys through to reach it remains, with each rereading, disquieting, and tinged with an almost spectral sadness.

Emma’s Doll, spreads

2
Kulchur issue 17, edited by Lita Hornick (Kulchur Press, 1965)

The excellent countercultural “little magazine” Kulchur ran quarterly for 20 issues from 1961 to 1966, before morphing into Kulchur Press, which continued to publish right through to 1980—no small shakes for a small press. Editor and literary scenester Lita Hornick took over the reins (as well as funding the venture) from issue three, and they’re all essential reading for anyone looking for a snapshot of the boiling heart of radical poetry and criticism in mid-20th century New York, and the striking design they expressed it through.

But it’s this issue in particular, with its to-kill-for bold black and white instruction, that’s my stone cold favorite. This is book cover as looking-down-the-barrel-of-a-loaded-gun. One half of Robert Indiana’s diptych Eat-Die, the message is—one can only suppose—meant to slay the reader as well as anyone it is pointed at, like some kind of a design version of Medusa’s head. Indiana is of course better known as the man who gave the later ’60s its one word catch-all Love, but repurposed here, his more direct and funereal command works fantastically to create a cover that looks positively deadly.

The bold message, with its heavy, block capitals which serve to isolate the letters and expose the negative space as much as form a word, paired with the hip, Poundian strangeness of the magazine’s name gives this a peculiarly “modern” occult look— presumably armour-piercing, and crying out to be made into a badge/t-shirt/full-face tattoo etc. Uncompromising, and reflecting much of the work in the issue (this one includes a comically confounding Ron Padgett essay on the correct way to read poetry, as well as a piece entitled ‘Pop Art, New Humanism and Death’ interspersed with Warhol’s Disaster and Burial silkscreens), this regularly wrestles for place as one of my favorite book covers—and, of course, undoubtedly wins.

3
In the Desert of Mute Squares, M Kitchell (Inside the Castle, 2018)

Inside the Castle (“a very small press focusing on difficult prose”) is way out there on the edge of the wasteland, steadily grinding away at the bloody and bubbling stump where experimental writing meets design. This, from author M Kitchell (who we had the pleasure of publishing in the first issue of Hexus), is a wonderful para/meta/transtextual descent into the maelstrom, where Kitchell’s work as designer embraces a sort of layout that challenges the eye as much as Kitchell’s writing scours the brain.

Desert of Mute Squares

In the Desert of Mute Squares takes all the deliberate complexity and symbolism of an alchemical treatise and grinds it through an exhaustive contemporary lens. Even the fact that this doorstop of a volume is finished with a hazy, rainbow-hued depiction of an eclipse at totality—with its visual suggestion of both the human iris and the annihilating qualities of the black hole—provides little preparation for what lies inside. It’s the kind of thing you either love or despise, but it presses every one of my buttons until they’re thoroughly broken.

Desert of Mute Squares
Desert of Mute Squares
Desert of Mute Squares

4
Top Hits of ’69, Unknown artist(s) (Deacon Records, 1969)

What… what is this we’re looking at? I almost feel guilty about dragging something so ostensibly ugly onto your screen. From a bygone world where budgetary constraints made it easier to re-record the hits of the day than to license the originals—and sitting nicely alongside a cold tonnage of other, equally risible (and in fairness sometimes great) cover versions on a never-ending supply of Top of the Pops LPs, rugby song-singalong comps, and biker movie cash-ins—comes this absolute rotter. If it’s possible for something to scream “frustrated drabness”, then this, on first glance, absolutely succeeds.

I picked this thing up in a charity shop just the other day purely because I was struck by how good an example it is of a severe paucity of design, which somehow manages to flip over into something that—50 years later—almost looks fashionable again. The combination of the peculiarly raunch-less “biker chick” with the heading font that seems to have been scraped directly from a Letraset page dedicated to the signage of doomed high street shops is somehow sublime. Taken with the ad-hoc listing of the songs in columns beneath, it forms something that nearly—o, so nearly—wouldn’t look out of place in some of the more outré layout-led lifestyle magazines, or amid the piles of cutting-edge lit digests.

This enfant terrible not only manages to suggest Halloween to me in the “easy outfit and already bored of it” look of the model, but also that the awkward, maximalist spacing of the titles and clash of fonts reminds me of the somewhat inelegant layout of sixteenth century grimoires, making it surely the most accidental of occult designs here—and therefore (with a flourish of fittingly esoteric logic) the greatest. These diverse plaudits elevate this to the most transhistorical example on this list. Of course, the music is abominable.

5
Fine art print by Aleksandra Waliszewska

Luckily, I don’t live in a world where I spend my time searching for limited edition art prints featuring dogs being worshiped by a garden full of glowing transparent beings. But when Polish artist Aleksandra Waliszewska released her most recent couple of books last year, with this as an add-on, I couldn’t resist.

Much of Waliszewska’s work sits somewhere on a spectrum between Louis Wain and Clovis Trouille, reconsidered for a contemporary world and given a more nightmarish, overtly “horror” spin: hers are kitsch hells as kitsch as hell, now, must be.

To paraphrase Breton’s praise of Trouille, Waliszewska is the grand mistress of anything goes. I include this here as a sublime example of a sort of a Postmodern Gothic that merges classic fairytale motifs with a very contemporary sensibility of unease. Waliszewska’s images of men and women being devoured by beasts, becoming beasts, and being seduced by beasts are part of a larger map of casual massacres, conte cruels, and Grand Guignol that trample on the roots of our fears with a supposedly naive, throwaway glee. As she told Vice when asked about her hopes for her work after death: “Imagine how marvellous it would be if all of my paintings simply shrivelled up and died along with me. Imagine the stink in all those classy houses.”

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