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.
Small town New England: farmers, a general store, one part-time cop – then in walks… Civilization. The Big C slowly metastasizes through the community, as a stranger sets himself up as the saviour the town didn’t know it needed. With his ever-so-helpful auctions and a tongue like a silver hammer, he menaces its citizens to the edge of a cliff, like so many Disney nature film lemmings.
It could be read as social commentary, but the story is fully functional without it. Joan Samson does not care how thrashed your nerves get as her plot develops or how frustrated you are with the stuckness of her characters. She is relentless. She has a really excellent bead on how people deal with a slowly intensifying crisis: like the proverbial frog in the gradually boiling water. This is not the horror of the supernatural or of cheap boo-scares. This is the kinda thing that actually happens, and when it does, it’s so untenable, you start inventing otherworldly causes just to make sense of it.
Maybe there are no monsters but us.
Samson succumbed to cancer shortly after writing her bestselling and only novel The Auctioneer. Its underground legend has barely escaped oblivion. If you want more, here’s a great convo about the book with horror pro Will Errickson and book whiz Gino Sorcinelli. There aren’t any straight-up spoilers, but they do reveal more than I do.
HELEN H KIM with Eric Larkin
Our artist for this rare book is the equally uncommon Helen H Kim. For a show with Horror Story in the title, Helen picked a book she hoped would not be scary, and gleaned her techniques from a pop-up book workshop she took a decade ago. Here are highlights of our convo, which was actually about twice as long.
Eric Larkin – Can you describe your materials and technique?
Helen H Kim – Found object and mixed media: it’s a variation on the traditional “peep show”. [Editor’s note: not what you’re thinking; this kinda thing.]
E – Have you ever done this type of piece before?
H – No, but I had taken a “pop-up book” class, and the teacher showed us a really amazing peep show. It was a royal court scene from 18th century France. So, I always had that idea in the back of my mind, and I wanted to try it.
E – Can you talk about process, either in general or just with this work?
H – Some artists identify themselves based on the medium they work in, but I’m more concept-driven. So my ideas are not “Ok, what’s my next painting going to be or what’s my next diorama going to be…?” It’s more about “What idea do I want to explore, and what would be an interesting way to look into that idea?” So, I end up being a “jack of all trades, master of none”, and that could not be truer for anyone else. I just sort of MacGyver things. It’s gonna be duct tape and bobby pins by the end.
E – The idea comes first, and then you figure out how to do it.
H – Yes. I would not say I’m a conceptual artist, but I am concept-driven, just figuring out how an idea would physically manifest in the world. That could be photography, that could be writing, that could be a diorama in a TV.
I was taking a walk, and I saw this TV on the street. It made me think of the TV in the book. I went back that night, and – I knew the street, but I didn’t remember exactly where it was. I had to get out of the car and look, while my friend slowly cruised next to me in her Subaru.
E – How do you know when you’re done with a piece?
H – It takes me a really long time to think through things, but by the time I’m finished, execution is pretty fast, because I’ve figured everything out. Except when glue does not work as promised on the label. [Editor’s note: the project sits incomplete on a nearby table. The next day, I got an email “Turns out the glue did work. That’s 23 hours 40 minutes longer than indicated on the package.”]
Sometimes I’ll think about things for years, and then it’ll take me a month to finish it.
E – Do you have ideas percolating right now?
H – Yeah. And some of it doesn’t happen, but that’s fine, because then obviously that wasn’t worth doing.
E – It’s like planting bulbs or growing a fruit tree.
H – I used to get really anxious about that because, particularly in art school, there were a lot of people who were really prolific. They would have truckloads of art every time I saw them, and I was like “Oh. And I’m still thinking about this thing.”
With this piece, a lot of what I’ve thought about are not going to be obvious. I kept talking about it to people and they noticed that my main interest in the book was the author. I was obsessing over her a little bit, and was a little frustrated, because there is not that much information on her. I subscribed to Ancestor.com, and spent four hours researching her. I found out the year she was born, where she was born, who her parents were. I found out the name of her husband. Her brother lives in LA. She was in her late 30s when she died in 1976 of brain cancer. She was working on her second novel. She has two kids. She went to Radcliffe, before it became part of Harvard. Her mom died in 2005, at the age of 101 or something. And that was the most information I found out about Joan Samson. The obituary of her mom is super interesting. Her mom grew up in Canada, in a rural farm community, so I wondered if that had to do with her knowledge of the kind of life that ends up being the backdrop of The Auctioneer.
And I kinda resisted this train of thought, like, this is typical, I’m a girl so I’m gonna hone in on the female author and the girl characters. I found all the characters really compelling, so I wasn’t drawn to Mim Moore, the female protagonist, just because she was a woman. The language used about her was repetitive. There’s that one point where the auctioneer’s pinning her against the wall, and she thinks, “If I want to get away from him, I have to push him away”, but she doesn’t do that, she decides to stay pinned to the wall. When she’s 14 and she’s being courted by her husband, she would run away into the woods, after they were skinny-dipping, but he knew that if he waited, she would always come back. And it says twice that she never struggled. There’s no direct correlation, and it is not at all my intention or my conclusion that that female character stands for the author, but I did in my mind create this very loose amalgam of a person based on the protagonist and the author, who died before her potential was fully realized.
And the thing about the TV is that this was the Moores’ one way to look out into the wider world, and then it was taken away from them. I was interested in the duality of the TV, this enclosed and finite object that you look into in order to look out into the wider world. This is where the peep show idea clicked into place. But then, on further inspection, it kind of breaks down. I’ve turned it into a kind of shrine. Why is she [the author Joan Samson] in a frame on that wall ? I don’t know. It’s just a diorama, get over it. I was just interested in making a peep hole, and creating a feeling of claustrophobia was interesting to me. That’s maybe where the horror lies; this person is trapped, there is no escape.
E – Was there any particular reason you chose The Auctioneer?
H – I didn’t want to do something obvious, monsters and vampires and stuff. Also, I am not a connoiseur of the horror genre, because I’m a scaredy cat. Though, I was a little anxious about this book. There’s this sort of macabre, creep factor to things that were produced in the 70s. There are two different covers, and there’s one that totally looks like 70s creepo, Rosemary’s Baby kinda thing.
Also, I think I was interested in the fact that she died after she wrote this book.
E – Writes a bestseller, and then dies, the book kinda disappears.
H – Something about that really intrigued me.
E – It has a sort of underground, cult following. I don’t even think it’s in print. Did you find the book scary?
H – No, it was suspenseful. It definitely generated this sort of anxiety in me. Her writing is subtle; it’s like a metronome. It’s incessant, and the foreboding rhythm starts happening on like, page 50 – and you think, “How long can she go on like this?”
E – Yeah, I had the same feeling. Is there anything in particular that generally inspires your art?
H – I know that one intention I generally have is to provide experiences. So I like having some sort of visceral, experiential element to what I do. I feel like this checks that box for me really well…. if it all comes together and doesn’t fall apart totally –
E – You’re thinking of heading towards duct tape…
H – Yeah, I’m gonna duct tape the shit out of it…
E – Are you particularly inspired by any other art or artists, music, etc?
H – Well, I feel like I kind of operate in a bubble. One artist that has been really influential to me is Mary Kelly. She is a conceptual artist. She did a lot of pieces that were kind of dense in their scope, physically. This one piece, in order to display it, you need six separate spaces to exhibit the whole thing. It took seven years to do, because it is based on the first seven years of her son’s life. It had to do with her neuroses and her growth as a mother, the physical development of her son. It had to do with the theories of Jacques Lacan and feminism. It’s super smart and epic. But that’s aspirational; I’m not that much of a brainiac. I am pretty choosy as to what gets catalogued in that drawer of “This is going to get turned into an art piece one day.” The Ktown is My Town tour came out of a tour at Cal Arts about 20 years ago. I went for a visit, and an MFA student was doing her last piece, which was a tour of campus. Hers was very obviously a performance; it was scripted and very smart. I thought, that is a really cool way to relay a narrative of some sort, and to have a captive audience. So that sort of stuck in my head. I saw DIY snow globes once, and years later I did a piece with snow globes. I’ve never thought about that before, what makes it through as a potential concept for a project, but when it happens I almost always immediately know.
E – Where can we see more of your work?
H – I’m putting together a website, but it won’t be ready by October. It will be theotherhelenkim.com. I think there’s a link to an old show I did in Echo Park. I don’t need what I do to be acknowledged as art; it can just be an experience, and that’s fine.
I wouldn’t necessarily call myself an artist. I just… make stuff.
Photos don’t do this piece justice; this is one you’re gonna have to come in to see. Don’t miss it.
Steal a glance at our full slate of October events: masquerade, magic and more Halloween mayhem.