Artist and illustrator Eli John is primarily inspired by ghost stories, and supernatural and gothic fiction, searching out the sublime and psychological landscapes in his work. That he lives and creates in the Pendle Forest, in the shadow of the Lancashire witches, could not be more appropriate. That he’s also a bookseller specialising in old ghosts and new, even more so. As Eli John adds a new M. R. James project with US publisher Centipede Press to his illustration stable, he talks to Sublime Horror’s Lucy Wood about obsessions, solitude and getting his hands dirty.
Lucy Wood: It all began aged nine, when you dipped into the pages of A Pictorial History of Horror Movies…
Eli John: Yes, I just remember seeing those images of the really early films, the 1920s stuff. I had no idea what they were but years later when I saw the book again, it was a total Proustian moment, particularly the images from Cabinet of Dr Caligari, The Man who Laughs, Lon Chaney in London After Midnight, Wolf Man and The Freaks.
Then, I was on work experience from school and I was sent to a graphic design place near where I lived. It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me; the company made merchandise for heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden, and it was all pre-computers. Computers were there but everyone was drawing and painting by hand, doing airbrush work and overlays before everything was screen printed onto T-shirts and sew on patches. I remember seeing the original artwork for Fear of the Dark by Iron Maiden on a drawing board and it blew my mind.
There were books everywhere and I picked up a copy of Giger’s ARH+. I think he was the first obsession. The images were unsettling, but so beautiful. When work experience finished, Mike the big boss (who I idolised) drove me home via an art shop and bought me an airbrush. I’ll never forget that. I was only 12 but in that one week I knew exactly where I belonged.
LW: Tell us about your M. R. James project.
EJ: It’s completely obsessive for me, to the point of madness, I sometimes think. I read and re-read the original stories, and I’m trying to honour the original text. A major problem when illustrating a book of MRJ stories is the films from the 1970s directed by Lawrence Gordon Clarke and Jonathan Miller. They are wonderful in their own right and have left behind images which are so strong and fused in the imagination they are hard to shake off, but the stories are very different to the films.
I went on a road trip earlier in the year to Great Livermere, Monty’s childhood home and the inspiration for a number of his stories, and Aldeburgh which was, of course, the real setting for “A Warning To The Curious”. I walked around Livermere for hours without seeing a soul, just immersing myself in that uncanny stillness. It was as though time had stopped for me and I had just pulled back the veil somehow and stepped behind it. Aldeburgh was incredibly exciting, walking the coast road, following Paxton’s steps to the Martello Tower at 5 am with everyone still sleeping. For example, the final scene in Warning is so powerful, I mean hollow laughing heard rising out of the sea mist! No trace of that in the film version.
LW: Which place connected to Monty that you’ve visited so far affected you the most?
EJ: Livermere, without doubt. I had the place all to myself, I won’t forget that; uncanny, hot summer afternoons.
LW: What makes his stories so appealing to illustrate? And what makes him a true master of the genre?
EJ: It’s a total honour to illustrate MRJ. I think what I love about him most was described best by Sir Christopher Frayling, who said something about Monty’s horror being peripheral horror. It turns up again and again, this idea that you can see something out of the corner of your eye, you turn, and it’s gone, there is a psychological fear in that, is it imagined or is it real? With Monty the threat is very, very real. There’s something fatalistic too which appeals to me massively. Also I think Monty is the master of restraint and this exquisite holding back – the atmosphere or visceral horror he can conjure in a single line – is breath-taking. He can give you such a visual punch with a total economy of language.
Another appeal and challenge for me is trying to capture the essence of a story in a single image. I have no interest whatsoever in neat illustrations which literally describe a single scene/moment in the text. I want to capture the true essence of James’s stories, to try and manifest the anxiety, that precise fear of the unseen and unknown inherent in each story
LW: Like Monty’s, ghost stories overall have an enduring appeal. Timeless, yet time travelling. What, do you think, lies at the heart of that?
EJ: I strongly associate with the sense of isolation in James’s stories, and I think a lot of people who are drawn to ghost stories know what that feels like. If you were the weird goth kid at school, you’ll know what I mean. James’s stories are always about the solitary figure heading off alone to spend time alone, I think people identify with that on a primal level.
LW: Aside from MRJ, what else would be your ultimate illustration project?
EJ: Well I’m just as obsessed with Monty’s Chit Chat buddy E. F. Benson. There is a dreamlike brand of fatalism in Benson that is all his own – it’s completely hypnotic. I love the idea of Fred languidly reclining at another garden party, gazing past his Mapp and Lucia cloned guests to whatever is lurking in the trees. There is such polarity in him, it fascinates me. It’s like the opening scene from Blue Velvet, the white picket fence and roses, but what is festering beneath the lawn, Benson is the same, yeah, Lynch and Benson, what a great dinner party that would be.
LW: Perhaps an obvious question to ask but it has to be done. Favourite MRJ tale? If so, why this one?
EJ: I’m actually really obsessed with “A Vignette” because I truly believe that experience in his youth created the uncertainty within him which made him write ghost stories. Personally, I don’t buy Monty’s trivialising of his ghost stories as mere entertainment. I think writing them was a cathartic experience for him, a place where he could safely examine his own fears and uncertainties about what lies beyond without attracting high-brow academic ridicule. The existence of evil was very real to him, or you couldn’t write stories of this staying power.
I’m also very fond of “A View from a Hill” and “A Warning To The Curious” of course.
LW: What media do you use, and what’s your process? You collect antique photographs to inspire your art. What makes them such a valuable source? And do you use any other/more objects to inspire you?
EJ: It depends on the project, but I always start by sketching and roughing ideas out. With this I’m collaging my own photography, especially of actual settings where the stories took place and vintage photographs from the precise era the stories were written. I scan the internet and antiques fairs and markets for photographs of people who I can recast as characters in stories. I love the idea of re-animating these real-life ghosts – who were the people in these photographs? With Monty in particular I wanted to use lots of real textures too. Soil, earth, slime, ink, old fabrics, spider’s webs etc have all been smeared over collages and photographed. I think those tactile/textural elements run through his work. Everything is then brought together digitally.
I am a very obsessive person, I must be the only person in the world who has a box full of CdVs and cabinet cards labelled RENFIELD. I re-read and re-read over and over. I watch films over and over and over. It’s about a specific atmosphere, like a place I just want to walk into for real, again and again. There are stories I am obsessed with, and it’s always visual for me. “The Room In The Tower” and “In The Tube by E F Benson”, a number from Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Robert Aickman’s “Ringing The Changes”, Bierce’s “The Death of Halpin Frayser”, and The Great God Pan by Machen.
LW: Who are your artistic inspirations? What is it that moves you about a particular piece of art?
EJ: So many people! Dave McKean is without doubt my favourite artist, he is out there on his own as far as what he has done for comics/graphic novels. Cages is a masterpiece, Pictures That Tick I & II, Mr Punch, Black Dog… his output is vast, and I’ve never stopped learning from and appreciating his work. The important influences are the ones that come back again and again over many years. It’s quite a mix, Munch (especially the prints), Francis Bacon, David Lynch’s paintings, Gustave Dore, Walter Sickert, Alfred Kubin, David Inshaw, Max Ernst’s collages, John Atkinson Grimshaw. The photography of Alvin Langdon Coburn, Julia Margaret Cameron and Francesca Woodman have stayed with me. Giger of course, Virgil Finlay in Weird Tales, Bernie Wrightson’s work on Frankenstein and Poe is mesmerising.
At the moment I’m in love with the Balbusso Sisters, Santiago Caruso, Joel Peter Witkin, oh Lord the list never ends! I mean, film has been as big an influence as art on me, especially the old silent horrors directed by Murnau and Robert Wiene – I could talk for hours on that.
LW: What piece of art has stuck with you?
EJ: It’s mainly book illustration that has a big effect on me. Dave Mckean’s work with Neil Gaiman, especially Mr Punch and the Sandman covers had a huge influence. I couldn’t figure out – and often still can’t – how Dave makes certain images. It’s this seamless fusing of original painting, drawing, photography and collage; you can’t tell where the elements have been sewn together. He just did an online exhibition called Nitrate, paintings inspired by 1920s cinema, like German Expressionism. It’s mind-blowing.
I love work that inhabits that place in between fantasy and reality. One of the strangest experiences was travelling to Giger’s gallery/chateau in Switzerland on a kind of pilgrimage, but ultimately being disappointed. The huge airbrush works hanging together were so big they took over whole walls, so textureless it could just have been printed wallpaper. They left me kind of cold in a weird way, but when I open my giant copy of Nocronomicon the images still give me a buzz. Some things just belong in books maybe.
LW: It’s almost Christmas. What is about the season that makes it so intrinsically linked with the supernatural? Do you believe in ghosts?
EJ: I’m really not sure, tradition I suppose, from Dickens to the Ghost stories for Christmas films of the 1970s. For me, it’s a personal thing. When I was younger, we always watched this stuff. The Hound Of The Baskervilles with Jeremy Brett is a Christmas staple for my family, as is The Signalman with Denholm Elliot, and the Monty films of course! For most people I know the ghost season kicks in at Halloween and runs to Christmas, it’s when goths are at their happiest… it’s a comforting time for us children of the night. Yes, I believe in ghosts, of course.
LW: What are you reading this Christmas?
EJ: The last two issues of Hellebore I’ve not had time to sit down and enjoy. Also, I’ve spent years reading short stories by Victorian and Edwardian authors and woefully neglected modern authors of weird tales, so I’m going to read Adam Nevill’s Wyrd and Other Derelictions.
LW: What other projects are you working on?
EJ: I’m doing M. R. James for the mighty Centipede Press in the US and really hope to work with them again on something. I’m also on with a children’s book inspired by the Pendle Witches, both will be published later next year. There is going to be a lot more painting and drawing in 2021. I’ve spent a lot of time in front of the Mac this year so I’m itching to get my hands really dirty with paint and wax and resin and metallic dusts. Vampires and witches will feature heavily.
LW: And finally, what is your personal Sublime Horror?
EJ: My personal sublime horror would also be to live within the stories of Angela Carter’s bloody chamber. For those stories to just come alive walking through a wood one late evening.
Follow Eli John on Twitter and Instagram at @elijohnart.
Original artwork and limited edition prints of his work, including M. R. James, are available at https://borderlandpress.bigcartel.com.
Borderland Books can be found at www.borderlandbooks.co.uk