For most of us Halloween is right around the corner and you know what that means… monsters, madness and plenty of munchies! While I would like nothing more than to start bringing out the celebratory boogey early, mama Strange always said “the longer the waiting, the sweeter the [candy]” …or something like that. Anyway, I just couldn’t wait to unleash this week’s guest. A self-professed monster kid and horror fan, Aeron Alfrey is also an accomplished artist, not to mention the curator of Monster Brains!
For the uninitiated, Monster Brains is a fantastic site where horror and fantasy collide with the eccentric and obscure. The result is one of the larget online collections of the most absurd, nightmarish and genuinely cool artwork I’ve come across. Consider it an appetizer for Alfrey’s original artwork, which takes you ever deeper into a world that is equally fascinating as it is sinister.
You’ve been creating monsters since you were about 7 or 8 years old. How did you become exposed to the world of horror and fantasy?
I was probably drawing monsters a few years younger than that, but I think my fascination with this subject stemmed from my exposure to a lot of my father’s collection of Heavy Metal magazines, various horror comics and art books. In my father’s book collection I discovered Hieronymus Bosch, Goya, Brueghel, Odilon Redon, Dali, Ernst, and other artists of symbolism, fantastic, surrealism genres that have been deeply influential on me over the years. I was also fortunate enough to grow up watching a late night tv horror host named Sammy Terry who showed many great older horror films and likely contributed to my fascination with all things horror over the years.
What were some of your favorite horror films growing up?
I used to go to the video store in the 80’s and pick out the movies with the craziest covers. More than that though, the video store was a sort of introduction for me to an art gallery. All the VHS boxes were like works of art with paintings of fantastical scenes on display. I would go about admiring all the crazy imagery on those covers not unlike someone might browse through a gallery of paintings. Some of my favorites were Return Of The Living Dead, Evil Dead 2, Creepshow, Puppet Master, The Thing, Killer Klowns From Outer Space, Phantasm 2, Pumpkinhead, Poltergeist, The Twilight Zone Movie, Ghoulies, Terror Vision, Re-Animator, Bride of the Re-Animator… mostly the 80’s stuff. I [also] enjoyed watching a lot of the older films like Freaks, Dracula, Bride Of Frankenstein and any Hammer film.
Why do you think you were so drawn to these films, was it simply the thrill of being frightened or something deeper?
I think it started with the thrill of being frightened but it quickly turned into something else. I saw them more as fantasy films, the impossible stories told in them were what I really appreciated and, of course, the ability to revel before such grotesque and nightmarish things that played across the films. In Poltergeist there was that horrific Muppet-like thing that shows up towards the end on tall bent stalk like legs, the giant rotting skull face with glowing eyes bursting out of the other side… those sort of things amazed me.
So is it true you had a hamster named after Freddy Krueger?
This is true. I was the sort of child that regularly went to the store to buy new issues of Fangoria and Splatterzone magazines, plastering my bedroom walls with fold out posters of Motel Hell, Evil Dead, Hellraiser, The Fly, Fright Night, etc. So it only made sense to name my pet after a horror icon.
Earlier you mentioned Bosch, Goya and Brueghel being early influences on your work. Who are a few artists that have had the greatest impact on your work?
Thomas Ligotti is a great influence in my art, he had been long prior to my illustrating the recently published revised editions of his stories. Joel Peter Witkin‘s use of dead bodies in beautiful, albeit bizarre, settings has always provoked a lot of inspiration in me. I’ve been paying closer attention to a lot of vintage photography of various physical oddities, deformities, facial mutilations of war casualties, that provoke sad strange ideas back into my art. There is something about facial reconfigurations after mass trauma that reminds me of Francis Bacon‘s portraits, except these are the real thing. That incites many of the nightmarish ideas in my art.
Is there significance in the lack of color in the majority of your work?
Yes, I’d always been fascinated by the atmosphere inspired by older black and white films, tv shows like Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. The black and white created a unique world outside of our reality where color would not have made sense. It put an emphasis on the deeper blacks that seemed to make certain places more mysterious. Black and white scenes, I think, instigate a sense of dreaming or remembering. There’s a power there that I’ve tried to emulate.
That said, I am exploring full color imagery more and have been developing a lot of very painterly techniques in my digital style that I’m really excited about.
As a digital artist, can you describe your process for creating these highly detailed worlds?
My technique involves a means of macro collage techniques where I will usually sketch an idea, scan it, enlarge it to the full resolution size of the art, then apply pieces of photos that help to properly realize the idea in the sketch. Abstract textures, photographic bits and pieces, an eyeball here, or three eyeballs from different species of animal overlayed into a new one, a few teeth or hairs there, a skin texture replicated across a bat wing or just the shape of the wing, that sort of thing. I work in multiple layers, some translucent, some soft light or overlay effects, pulling out lighter areas.
My Stephen King Mist illustration was originally a tiny thumbnail sketch on a sticky note, I scanned that and developed it into a 32 x 24 inch detailed illustration. It’s an insanely time consuming process, the King artwork took me over 150 hours but I’m learning to do these things quicker.
You’ve done quite a few Lovecraft-inspired pieces as well. What makes his work such an attractive subject matter?
Lovecraft was able to capture the pure mystery of the unknown in his writings that reverberates through my imagination. That sense of mankind being a dot before the vastness of an indifferent universe that will swallow it whole. He was good at sharing incredible scenes of horror but often leaving room for the reader to interpret it as they wish. I enjoy to no end the ability to visualize so much of his writings, but even where he was specific on the details of the bizarre things and scenes from his stories, it was always mesmerizing and creatively inspiring.
Lovecraft was a master at describing everything and nothing. Do you ever find it challenging to translate his creatures or the worlds that inhabit?
Not at all. As someone with an over-active imagination, it’s a very fun game to fill in the blanks and put my own spin on things as they appear in my own mind. I have great aspirations to illustrate future Lovecraft books so there’s much more to come down the road from me regarding Lovecraft’s imagery.
Aside from your art, you also run an art blog called Monster Brains. Can you tell us more about that and what inspired you to start it?
I had a great love for monsters and noticed it was somewhat difficult to find monster related artworks online. While many have popped up since, at the time (in 2006) nobody, to my knowledge, was blogging specifically on monster related art. So I decided to create Monster Brains and use it as a sort of online bookmark page where I would share the links to artists and artworks that carried this theme. Over the years it has grown into a serious collection of monster related art that I’m quite proud of. And, far from the simple posts I used to pull off, anymore I’ve become good at tracking down art, high resolution art, of specific artists or subject types that are generally not well presented online, and use my Monster Brains podium to preach their works to the internet.
Do you collect much artwork offline?
I’m not much of a collector, although I should be. I do have some incredible etchings by Paul Rumsey, a few sketches by Clive Barker. I came very close to spending $800+ dollars on one of Jacques Callot’s “Temptation Of Saint Anthony” etchings, dated some three hundred years ago. That was more out of a desire to research the image though as I intend to adapt the artwork, eventually, in my own painstakingly obsessive detail, not unlike the original by Callot.
Before we let you lurk back into the shadows… what’s the strangest thing you can remember doing as a kid?
I had a black cat named Mookie that was very good at hunting. She would regularly bring dead animals to my family and was particularly good at catching bats. So there would be dead bats with their chests ripped out, or whatever, lying around and at some point I started collecting them in a shoe box. I think that I intended to use them in some kind of art project but never did.