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.
A small group of strangers gather at a supposedly haunted – troubled – house for some amateur paranormal research. Well, is there any other kind of paranormal research, when the living are approaching the, what… dead? not-living? What exactly is going on in this house? The investigators are a motley crew of four: a professor who leads the study, a sophisticate with apparent psychic talent, a ne’er-do-well actually set to inherit the house, and the harried Eleanor, the main character – she of poltergeist tendencies. Later, the professor’s complicated wife and her meathead sidekick show up. Despite their initially careful and modest attempts to observe whatever phenomena may or may not occur, you get a sense pretty quickly that they might not be the ones who hold the initiative.
Shirley Jackson never lets you off the hook, “Oh, there’s the monster – okay, now at least I can see what we’re up against.” Humans like to quantify and classify things. We want to put things into boxes so we can understand them. Not gonna happen. There is so much backhistory that you feel like you’re trying to see through fog, anticipating what might emerge, just like the investigators must do. That’s scary. Or maybe it’s the investigators themselves, whom we learn something about, but not quite enough. You’re never sure what anyone might do. Or maybe it’s Eleanor herself, with her sense that she belongs at the house – a house she’s never been to.
The Haunting of Hill House is near the top of most lists of scary books. It’s patient, subtle; it creeps. The superlative 1963 film (whose look and effects – including specific moments from the book – had a heavy influence on Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, believe it or not) emphasized the psychological, but the book does not eliminate the supernatural. Which is it, really? Like any preternatural episode, you might never know. Unlike other works that claim the moniker, this is a haunted house story. Maybe it’s the haunted house story. It’s not about this or that creature who just happens to be in a creepy, old house. It’s about a house which might have an agenda. And forget escaping: if you’re inside it, you are already lost.
kAT PHILBIN with Eric Larkin
To my experience with the book, illustrator kAt Philbin inks the perfect visual for this story: Hill House is separate from everything around it, and if you’re in the house, you’re separate, too. Disconnected, alone.
In a very opposite situation, we met at Kaldi in Atwater Village, surrounded by parking cars and barking dogs. Here’s our convo.
Eric Larkin – The quote on your piece – is that the title?
kAt Philbin – Yeah, I chose the quote as the title, it was a little long, but I liked it. “Hill House, not sane, sat by itself against its hills, holding darkness within.” And that’s not even the full sentence.
E – I think you really captured that feeling in the work itself. I looked at your other work, and it seems as if ink on bristol is kinda your thing.
k – I sometimes use water color, but I like black and white, and I thought that was appropriate for the show. I like black and white for horror.
E – The house is kind of… is it floating?
k – It’s sort of floating, it’s got roots or tendrils – I wanted it to be sort of other-worldly, because the House itself is a character.
E – Definitely. Thinking about the book, I get the feeling that the characters are trapped. Did that inform your piece at all? I mean, the way it’s up in the air like that, you can’t really walk out of the house without falling to your death!
k – That’s true. That’s not something I had thought about, but I like making sure it’s open to interpretation. From the quote, “It stood by itself..” – you can’t get much more by yourself than completely separated from the ground.
E – The first drawing I saw of yours was a girl in a forest, with forest critters – I guess subconsciously I expect to see little rabbits and birds – but she’s with a wolf pack and she’s eating a deer. What’s going on there?
k – That piece has to be taken with the other stuff I do. I tend to have girls in there a lot, and they’re a little bit wild. But there’s always a little variation, whether they’re part of the forest or slightly removed. That one is called “Daughter”, so I definitely wanted her to be part of the wolves. Feral children are a thing that people tend to be really interested in, but it seems like the interest is always in them being reintegrated into society. It’s cool to think of them as still out there.
If you follow Hyaena Gallery at all – they’re who I show with mainly – the owner posts something new on Instagram at the beginning of each day, which he calls “Destroy the Day”. It’s just stuff that inspires him or he thinks is cool. He’s on a big feral child kick right now.
E – Who isn’t? Can you talk about process? Where do you usually start?
k – It can start from anywhere. Usually I get a pretty clear image in my head of where I want to go, if it’s my own work. For the show, since I knew I had to do something from the book, I reread it and was picking out quotes and trying to figure out where to go from there. So, that’s a slightly different process.
E – It sounds systematic or methodical, in this case. Like an assignment.
k – Yeah, I had to approach it like that. If I’m doing freelance work, that’s how I do it. [For my own work] there are always ideas coming, so I don’t have to sit down and do the process as much.
E – Do you have a file in the back of your head, where you’ll say, “Oh, there’s something. That’s going to be art some day.”
k – I try to get it down in a sketchbook, so I don’t forget about it. Just scribble it out.
E – So, you’ve read the book before.
k – Shirley Jackson is one of my favorites. I just really like the way she writes. Even though houses are not a thing I usually draw, it’s almost necessary for it. With so many of the other good authors, like Edgar Allan Poe, I thought that so many other people have done him so well, I didn’t think I could really add anything new.
E – How do you know when you’re done with a piece?
k – Sometimes it’s easier than others. With this one, I thought I was done. I took some pictures, but then sat on it for a few days and realized the day before I had to turn it in that I wanted a little bit more. I ended up filling the house in a lot darker. So now it’s almost just like a shadow, not a lot of detail.
I tend to work on more than one thing at a time, so I can take time away from a piece, not looking at it. This is especially because I do so many little lines that I am always right up close to it; I need to distance myself.
E – Are you often inspired by horror?
k – I’m a little more fantasy than straight-up horror. I know a lot of horror films, but I am kind of a wuss, and I get scared easily. So, I avoid straight-up horror.
Recently, I watched Babadook – during the middle of the day – and days later, I would remember it in the middle of the night! I’m not gonna get up to get that glass of water! But have you seen the illustrations from the book in the movie? They’re really beautiful and creepy and dark.
E – Nope – I’ll take your word for it. I just scroll right past it on Netflix; I’m scared, too. So, more fantasy than horror…
k – Yeah, it’s a combination of everything. I really like fairy tales and all the old illustrations for them are inspiring, and the stories themselves are always sort of dark and weird.
E – Any book recommendations for young artists or someone starting out?
k- Well, I would have to think about that. I have been drawing since I was really little, and just never stopped. I think for me, it’s about taking a lot of time to get to where I am, as opposed to reading books about it. I’m sure there are great things out there.
E – You just gotta draw a lot; sounds like the best possible advice. Do you read much?
k – Yeah. Sci-fi and fantasy. Hitchhiker’s Guide – anything by Douglas Adams. I do love Shirley Jackson. My favorite is We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I like Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, high fantasy stuff.
E – Coming from the Douglas Adams side, do you do any sci-fi art?
k – No, not really. I’ve not been inspired to do that kind of art. Sci-fi always seems so shiny and smooth and straight-lines – things I’m not very good at.
E – I bet you’d crush it, but okay. Really shifting gears here: have you ever had any spooky experiences?
k – I grew up in a super old house in the middle of nowhere in Missouri. We were three miles from town and the oldest house in the county. That was always a little bit scary. At night you could hear the coyotes howling and the house creaking.
E – Sounds like Hill House. We’ll end on that note, thanks very much for your time.
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