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.
I judged Teatro Grottesco by its cover. And a blurb that says reading this collection of stories, “is to risk your own vision of the world.” I went into Thomas Ligotti’s odd work with an expectation that I would encounter a grisly, horrific set of shorts that would lodge themselves deep in my mind and wrap their tendrils of creepiness tightly around my brain stem. However, I slowly realized that my impression of Ligotti and his actual brand of horror were grossly misaligned. I felt I’d been handed a different product than the one sold to me. That may be the reason I felt let down by the end of nearly every chapter. Perhaps if readers approach this work with an understanding of Ligotti’s intent, they’ll have a more fulfilling experience.
These stories (sometimes of a unifying theme, sometimes not) are parables meant to reveal an aspect of our world we don’t usually see. The themes are clear. The characters are mainly vehicles for revealing the author’s thoughts. The settings are typically industrial, though unrecognizable as being grounded in reality. Ligotti’s goal does not seem to be painting a broad, perverse, redefining view of our world, but revealing how the littlest moments – the mundane, over-looked details – are the most unsettling parts of life. It’s a subtle recalibrating of what you take for granted.
The short stories shine a light on the dark side of pursuing artistic endeavors, the devastating results of dead-end jobs, and the danger in putting too much stock in family values. My biggest problem with these stories is Ligotti’s pessimistic, paranoid view of the world, which rarely rang true to me. If these stories had tapped into a deep truth of life that made me question my perspective of society or government, I might have been enthralled by these worlds and Ligotti’s mesmerizing tone. But because I found mostly hollowness in the worldview Ligotti offers, even his beautiful, lyrical writing became a swamp to trudge through.
I offered the disclaimer up front about my expectations, because Ligotti is a remarkable writer with a deep imagination and unique worlds to invite people into. Though I didn’t find much truth in his writing, that’s not to say the questions he asks his readers are worthless. If you’re looking for a book to give you a sense of moderate unease, question that maybe things are not exactly as they seem, and look at the extreme results of ignoring small societal problems, then this might sweep you into a world you never imagined and reveal a side of reality you hadn’t noticed.
BRENT JOHNSON with Josh Compton
Josh Compton – So it’s almost Halloween. What are your costume plans this year?
Brent Johnson – I don’t really have any. Last year, my wife Adrienne and I did a Day Of The Dead bride and groom thing so she could wear her wedding dress one more time. That one actually turned out pretty cool.
JC – Any crazy Halloween experiences, or something really scary that’s happened to you?
BJ – I was in Bolivia almost 20 years ago, and I was warned to stay away from a certain part of the market. Of course, being 16, I went straight to that spot. I bought a few trinkets from a voodoo table: a black wax skull candle and a dried out llama fetus. One morning, back at home, I was sitting on my bed waiting to leave for school. As clear as I hear you, I heard a gnarled voice from under my bed say only the word, “god.” So I guess hearing a demon voice come from under my bed is probably up there with the creepier things I’ve experienced.
JC – That is creepy, and now I’m scared! So let’s change gears. Tell me about this sculpture. What materials and techniques did you use to bring your creature to life?
BJ -The body is Magic Sculpt built up over a ball of tin foil. And then I covered armature wire in Free Form AIR to give it more of a lightweight gnarled texture. His head was sculpted then mold and casted in plastic. The teeth were molded from teeth castings my brother found in a dentist’s dumpster somewhere. Then I painted him and gave him hair.
JC – What did you use for his eyes?
BJ – Balls that I got from IKEA covered in 5 min epoxy.
JC – How did you decide on his dimensions and overall size?
BJ – I had half of a head already sculpted. It felt right aesthetically as well as the scale. So that kind of dictated the size.
JC – What were you sculpting the head for originally?
BJ – For fun. I can get really depressed and feel like I’m losing my mind if I don’t make anything just for me. My wife and I started doing weekly art nights. I started sculpting it one of those nights, never finished it, and then this came up.
JC – You also designed a really cool stand for the spider figure. How did you conceive and build this?
BJ – I started off using left over parts from shelves that I built. The wood is cut, sanded, and burned to get a dark coloring on it. I wanted to do this twisted, winding pipe system. I had to figure out the center of balance so that it would not tip over. I had to really wrestle each pipe into place to make sure it was tight.
JC – So this work is inspired by Thomas Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco. In fact it’s taken right out of there somewhat literally. But how did the book and its tone influence your choices?
BJ – Since it was a book of short stories, I picked the story with a creature in it. I’m always attracted to creatures. The whole book had a very grey tone to it, so I guess that ended up influencing his color. I found myself wanting to go more realistic with the look of the head. But when I realized I already had this head, it was like, “Oh yeah, I should do it more in my own style!” Using the head I had already sculpted helped me to realize that I could influence what I was making more, and have more fun with it too.
JC – Why did you choose this book?
BJ – Most of it was procrastination. I had never heard of Ligotti before. Other artists kept selecting the book or author I wanted right before I decided. Then I got a list of newer lesser-known authors. I looked Ligotti up and saw that the re-release of his book Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe has Chris Mars’ artwork on the cover—someone I recognized and who’s artwork I really admire. So I thought it would be cool to read Ligotti if his work was in the same vein as Chris Mars.
JC – Besides sculpting, you work in stop-motion animation, puppet building, and other mediums, so how did you learn all these different skills?
BJ – I’ve been drawing my entire life and then started getting into mixed media—finding things and smashing them together. I found that I wanted to make things out of trash, but I couldn’t pull myself away from making it look like a person. I got really frustrated by that and stopped doing it. I started building sets out of broken electronics and making characters out of clay and shooting stop-motion stuff in my parents’ basement. Eventually I found my way to Atlantic College of Art to study digital video art. I transferred to CalArts and learned a lot more specific skills and materials. Then on every job, I learned something new. Some of the stuff on this guy, I didn’t even know existed until a few years ago.
JC – So where did you pick up those tools?
BJ – I got away from stop motion for a couple years doing After Effects work on Yo Gabba Gabba! I was reintroduced to puppet fabrication on the Elvira Christmas Special. Then Frankenhole was one of my first consistent puppet-building jobs. I constantly learn a lot.
JC – Where do you usually find inspiration when not digging it out of a work of horror lit?
BJ – I have a ton of art books and I just flip through them whenever I’m stuck. Sometimes I’ll flip through three or four different books to look at what other people have done. Study their techniques, or how they approach a creative problem. I love the art books of Guillermo Del Toro’s movies, which show the whole process rather than just a book full of final artwork. They show early drawings as well as finished character designs. It helps to be reminded that these artists have to do and re-do until they find the thing that they like. It’s not like they sit down and turn out this beautifully brilliant thing right away. You have to put in the work.
JC – Which books specifically would you recommend for other artists?
BJ – I just got this “How To Draw” book by Scott Robertson from Design Studio Press. It’s really technical, and full of exercises to train your mind and hands.
JC – You recently worked on “Anomalisa,” a stop-motion film directed by Charlie Kaufman. Can you tell us a little about your work on that?
BJ – I did all of the hair on the main character and a bunch of the male puppets. I had to do about 10-20 identical heads, so I had to match every hair on that guy’s head almost 20 times. It’s all very realistic looking, which was very challenging. But I think we were able to create something of a high quality. I feel lucky to have gotten to work with such a talented team of people.
JC – What are you working on currently, and where can we see more of your work?
BJ – Right now I’m working on Tumbleleaf, which is a beautiful stop motion show for preschool kids on Amazon Prime. It’s getting really cartoony in its animation. It’s really fun to see what everyone is bringing to it. It already got 5 Emmy’s, and it keeps looking better and better. Last year I worked on “I’m Scared,” a stop motion short for Greg “Craola” Simkins. That should be coming out soon.
My website is www.brentscreatures.squarespace.com.
Steal a glance at our full slate of October events: masquerade, magic and more Halloween mayhem.