Interview: Eric Schaller and Weird Art

"The world is larger and less coherent than I imagine"

Eric Schaller is a writer and illustrator living in New Hampshire. Possessing a unique, precise, and decidedly weird aesthetic, he has contributed art to publications such as Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Last Drink Bird Head, in the case of the latter creating the illustration that provided the inspiration for that anthology. He has also contributed art to Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris story cycle, most notably in the chapbook of “The Exchange,” later included in the Ambergris collection City of Saints and Madmen. Earlier this year, Small Beer Press published An A‑Z of the Fantastic City, a chapbook travelogue of different fantastical metropolises, written by Hal Duncan and illustrated by Schaller. Copies are available for purchase in a variety of formats from the Small Beer Press website. I recently interviewed Schaller via email about his involvement in A‑Z, as well as his own art and weird art in general. In addition to his responses, we have also posted a selection of his art, which you can find elsewhere on this site. An A‑Z of the Fantastic City, the chapbook you illustrated for Hal Duncan, was just released earlier this year by Small Beer Press. How did you come to work on the project?

Eric Schaller: This was a case of being in the right place at the right time. I was at ReaderCon in Massachusetts, and touring the dealer’s room with my friend Matt Cheney. We checked out the offerings from Small Beer Press — you can’t go wrong with any purchase from them — and said “Hi” to Gavin Grant. I had previously done a cover to Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and had been impressed with the sense of aesthetics that Gavin brought to the project, in particular how well he had integrated text with the artwork. Anyway, Gavin squinted at me, as if puzzling something out, then asked me in his distinctive Scottish brogue if I might be interested in doing illustrations for a chapbook by a certain Mr. Hal Duncan.

WFR: There’s a thematic and emotional richness to A‑Z that might surprise readers who only know it from its capsule description. What in particular appealed to you the most about this book?

Schaller: I knew nothing about the book when Gavin introduced the idea to me and, although I already knew and loved Hal’s novels, I didn’t immediately say yes. For any project, I need to find a link between it and my own aesthetic. So Gavin emailed me a copy of the text, I printed it out, and, upon reading it, was completely bowled over. It was exactly what it purported to be, An A to Z of the Fantastic City, but it was also much more than that, a marvelous combination of the historical and the personal. I think that Hal performs an amazing literary tightrope walk in A‑Z, nimbly avoiding the pratfalls of dusty academic rhetoric on the one side and satirical self-consciousness on the other. As you say, Hal imparts an emotional richness to the landscape, an A to Z of emotions in keeping with the breadth of the topic.

WFR: I’m especially taken with the little header illustrations you provide at the top of each entry, of the pilgrim watching the fantastical city arise out of nothing. Taken together, they tell their own story, in a way that complements what Hal does with his written entries. What was the creative process behind those particular illustrations?

Schaller: Once I had agreed to the project, Gavin and I set up a phone call to discuss illustration possibilities. The structure of the book, with 26 individual entries, one for each letter of the alphabet, called out for some image to mark the break between each letter/city. But to create 26 individual illustrations was beyond the scope of the project, so doing a header of seemed the natural solution. This was, in fact, where I began the illustration work for A‑Z.

The idea of using illustrations as sequential art, telling a limited visual narrative that complements the larger narrative of the author, comes from my having devoured comic books since a kid. Other instances in which I have employed a similar approach are in the illustrations for Jeff VanderMeer’s story “The Exchange” and for headers used in a chapbook of his story “Secret Life.”

In general I’m not that interested in illustrations that simply attempt to recreate an event from the text. My interest, and the resulting creative struggle, is in coming up with an image that relates to the text but doesn’t give away critical information. That being said I don’t remember exactly how the central image of the header came about. It was important to me, however, to leave the gender of the pilgrim unclear so that the pilgrim could stand in for both female and male readers.

WFR: Which are your personal favorite entries in A‑Z, and why?

Schaller: I like S because it is so personal. I like G because it references Picasso. I like Y because it is so short, and H because it is so long. I like R because I couldn’t imagine the book without it. I like A and N because they are two of my favorite literary haunts. I like F and Q because they took me by surprise. I’m being a little facetious here — maybe a lot— because I don’t want to give away too much about the book’s content. I want readers to experience the same delight of discovery that I experienced the first time I read it.

WFR: Would it be correct to say that there are strains of grotesque and decadent aesthetics running through your art as a whole? What draws you to those styles?

Schaller: I wouldn’t say my art as a whole but I’m not necessarily the most accurate judge of my own work. It’s probably a larger component than I give it credit for being. It’s certainly been the case that, ever since I was young, people have told me that things I drew or wrote were strange, even when I hadn’t thought about them that way.

In many ways I am a traditionalist when it comes to art and draw much of my inspiration from the Golden Age of Illustration, which ran from around the 1880’s to the 1920’s. But I also like art with an edge to it, even if that edge isn’t always immediately apparent and may just work on the viewer subconsciously. There’s a significant degree of overlap in those two areas of appeal.

WFR: I noticed on one of your illustrations, you acknowledge a strong influence of the artist Aubrey Beardsley. What artists and writers have inspired you in your work? Anyone you think has been unfairly overlooked?

Schaller: Beardsley is the most obvious influence, particularly in how I approach solving the balance of blacks and whites in an illustration. Harry Clarke, himself influenced by Beardsley but with a weirder bent, is another that I turn to for inspiration, particularly in his illustrations for Poe and for Perrault’s Fairy Tales. Another major influence is Arthur Rackham who, perhaps more than any other artist, for good and for ill, has defined our visual idea of the faery world.

Another major stream of influence, and potentially less immediately apparent, is Ukiyo‑e, Japanese woodblock prints. Here you get a very disorienting sense of weirdness because you are dealing with another time with its own cultural traditions and myths. Even the translation of Ukiyo‑e is evocative: “Pictures of the floating world.” My two favorite artists in this tradition are Hiroshige, who created beautiful landscape images, and Yoshitoshi, the last great master of the genre, a technical genius whose life reads like a decadent novel.

Writers are also an influence especially because, as an illustrator, you are working with a writer’s text as the inspiration. Thus, Jeff VanderMeer’s writings have been a significant influence, deriving from our long friendship and collaboration on numerous works over the years. Jeff warned me long ago that his ‘fictional’ city of Ambergris had a way of subsuming all it came into contact with, and I am no exception to that rule, the most obvious result being the proliferation of squid in my illustrations.

WFR: What do you think is the appeal of weird fiction or weird art?

Schaller: For me it is the sensation that the world is larger and less coherent than I imagine. It re-instills in me the sense of wonder that comes naturally to a child who has yet to figure out the rules by which the world operates, the child who shoves food off his plate to see if it will fall down, or if perhaps, this once, it might fall up…

WFR: Of all that you’ve drawn and illustrated, which piece of art do you think is the most “weird”?

Schaller: Probably the early series of illustrations I did for Jeff VanderMeer’s short story, “The Exchange,” itself a surreal gem that gives you the impression it was written by an author from another culture. More recently, Last Drink Bird Head, the title of which inspired Jeff to create an anthology that ended up including over 70 writers. There’s a humorous background story to this whole process, too long to go into here, but you can read about it in the Introduction to the Last Drink Bird Head anthology.

WFR: What’s the weirdest piece of art you’ve ever viewed?

Schaller: You know I can’t restrict myself to one example, so…

Probably the weird art that first made a strong impression on me were the John Holmes covers for the Ballantine editions of Lovecraft from the 1970s, a great combination of horror and the surreal. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the best weird art was and still is associated with the works of Lovecraft. In a similar vein, but pushed even further into the realm of surreal horror is John Jude Palencar’s painting for the recent Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos anthology; the cover image is unsettling in all the best possible ways.

Coming from a completely different but truly weird direction are such artistic interactions as the following two experiences. First, in Madison, Wisconsin, many years ago, I passed by a small park on State Street where vagrants hung out. I almost jumped out of my skin when a raccoon raised itself from the pavement and hissed at me. The vagrants had attached a dead raccoon to a pump mechanism so that, when they stepped on a foot peddle, the raccoon rose as if still alive, escaped air generating the hissing sound. Second, at an art show in England, there was an exhibit in which the artist had taken children’s stuffed toys and injected them with expanding foam. The foam ruptured and exploded through the seams, then solidified into bulbous worm-like protrusions.

Finally, something that combines a little of both, from a trip to the Asian art museum in Prague. For me, three great weird masterpieces of Ukiyo‑e are the truly horrific The Lonely House on Adachi Moor by Yoshitoshi, the surreal The Plate-mansion Ghost by Hokusai, and Taira no Kiyomori Haunted by Visions by Hiroshige, in which the guilt-ridden protagonist sees hundreds of skulls in his snow-covered garden. Prague has a great Asian art museum, but this is little visited because it is a long bus-ride from the city, and so my wife and I were often the only occupants in the echoing galleries, except for the lone security guard who dogged our footsteps. Then we came to the museum’s special exhibit of Japanese prints with a ghost and horror theme — the must-see event that had inspired our visit — and this was overrun with kids from a grade-school field trip. But the kids were more interested in each other than in any ostensible learning experience. They ignored the samurai warriors. They ignored the humungous frogs and flying monkey demons. And, most surprising of all, they ignored the truly horrific images: the decapitations, the murders, the bound and flayed bodies. The moral of the story is, I think, that a kid will ignore anything marketed as educational, no matter how salacious.

2 replies to “Interview: Eric Schaller and Weird Art

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