Every midnight in October: a great work of horror and a conversation with an artist. All works are on display in The Last Bookstore. Don’t forget to pick up a map when you get to the store, so you don’t miss anything, or take a peek here.
Rhoda Penmark is neat and tidy. She is respectful and sweet. She harkens back to a better time when little girls were made of things from the spice cabinet and everything nice. Her parents dote on her. Her neighbors adore her.
Her schoolmates are scared to death of her.
William March’s The Bad Seed is centered on this eight-year-old girl. When one of Rhoda’s school-mates drowns after the school picnic, her mother Christine starts to question her daughter’s quirks and align them with her own dark past: Christine’s biological mother was a notorious serial killer. Could that gene have skipped a generation? When little Rhoda strikes again, Christine has no choice but to take matters into her own hands.
Though the constant point of view shifts and off screen action might frustrate the modern reader, The Bad Seed hit 1954 with instant success. It shows a darker side to an idyllic time. While some of the storytelling approach may be problematic, the ending was a knockout punch. Rhoda Penmark is a brilliant character, juxtaposing the supposed innocence of a young child with the cold calculation of a serial killer. March’s exploration of the sociological and psychological effects of this burgeoning killer is a cornerstone of modern horror.
LORI HALL-ARAUJO with Megan Eccles
What’s your spookiest experience?
I wish I had a story to share! I’m probably long overdue for a really good scare.
Halloween is almost here, what’s favorite past costume?
One year my girlfriend and I dressed up as “Aliens from the Planet Joan Crawford.” We dressed entirely in silver lamé–Forties style halter tops, trousers, turbans, and platform shoes. Our make-up was also Joan Crawford circa 1945. That night we attended a drag ball that had been held on Chicago’s South Side since the 1950s. The organizer was called Jacques Criston, I think. They had many different categories and we entered into the “Most Creative” category. We came in second runner up and received a trophy. I usually prefer to do something scary but that costume was pretty special. I guess I was feeling particularly inspired that year.
We’re excited to see your work! Can you describe your technique? What are your materials?
When it comes to art, I consider myself pretty experimental and don’t feel restricted to work in any particular medium. This piece was a real challenge for me since I don’t typically create from such a specific starting point, at least not when I’m doing something that isn’t collaborative. After I read the book, I kind of let it marinate for a while. One day, while doing something entirely different, I was struck with an idea and a medium. So I made a quick sketch and decided it would work best as a collage, which is a medium I’ve been especially fond of for the past few years.
How did Bad Seed influence your choice of all the above?
Oddly enough, not at all.
Any particular reason you chose this specific piece of literature?
My first choice was Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin but another artist had already made that selection. After getting over my initial disappointment I thought about what drew me to Rosemary’s Baby in the first place. I realized that I’m really interested in bad children and less-than-idyllic motherhood. I think we’re in a strange kind of Victorian moment where people fetishize and romanticize children and their imagined innocence. Children are like anyone, they’re far more complex than pure innocence.
Similarly, I think there’s a lot of social pressure for pregnant women and mothers to “glow” and to make lots of personal sacrifices for their children. It seems perfectly human to me to fantasize once in a while about making one’s children disappear. Bad Seed appeals to me because it explores these themes to the extreme, considering the possibility of a truly rotten child and a mother so horrified and exhausted by her daughter that she would consider murder.
On top of being an artist, you’re also a museum curator and cultural historian. How has your experience influenced your art? How do you think Bad Seed fits into the history of horror?
I’ll answer the second question first because it’s the easiest one for me to address. I’m not a horror connoisseur so I couldn’t really say exactly how “Bad Seed” fits into the horror literature canon. I do think it’s significant, though, that the book was published in 1954 at the height of Post-WWII conformity and widespread ambivalence about fitting in.
I wouldn’t say that my experiences as cultural historian and curator influence my art so much as I would say that all the different aspects of my life speak to one another. Whatever I commit to doing has to begin from a deeply visceral and intuitive place that finds expression through the physical and the sensual.
We assume horror isn’t your first go-to for inspiration, what has inspired you in the past?
I am inspired by the human condition in its many manifestations. I know there are people who are inspired by nature and I respect and admire them for that. It’s just not what moves me to create.
Any book recs for artists?
Being very independent-minded, I assume other people are the same way. Since I don’t like being told what I “should” read or “should” do, I’m not in the habit of making recommendations. What works for me may not work for you.
One book that has had a tremendous impact on how I think about my own creativity is “Our Lady of the Flowers” by Jean Genet. Genet’s easy movement between imagined and lived experience appeals to me as does his utter lack of self-consciousness about giving himself over to love and sex. “Our Lady of the Flowers” is a novel and Genet is better known as a playwright but for me he is a poet insofar as he reveals truth that’s raw and beautiful and painful.
Where can we see more of your work?
Steal a glance at our full slate of October events: masquerade, magic and more Halloween mayhem.