Friday, May 20, 2011

Knowing Darkness: Artists Inspired by Stephen King

The phrase "horror art" may summon up images of  70s-80s market boom covers: glowing eyes, dripping blood, "eerie" light, and so forth.  But those excesses are, of course, far from the whole story, and talented, thoughtful artists have, by desire or commercial necessity, often worked to illustrate dark fiction.  Given Stephen King's status as the most successful horror writer of all time, it's no surprise that his work has inspired thousands of pieces of art, far too many for a single volume to collect them all.  Centipede Press's Knowing Darkness: Artists Inspired by Stephen King, however, collects an amazing range of pieces drawing on King's short stories, novels, and films, in nearly 450 oversize pages, with many dazzling full-page reproductions and fold-outs.  The book's hefty price tag makes this an item for serious collectors only, but the production values make it more than worth the cost to devotees.

In terms of the art, anyway.  The accompanying text, by George Beahm, has its share of issues.  The book is divided into three arbitrary but useful sections, for "Early," "Middle," and "Current" art.  Each section has an overall essay, offering an overview of King's career during the period, and individual essays on a few artists particularly associated with King's work.  The overall essays, too obviously linked to the images chosen for those pages, are rambling and disjointed, occasionally providing interesting information but too often going over details that will surely be familiar to most King collectors or have limited relevance to the art.  The individual essays, based on interviews with the artists, are better, but have an unfortunate breathless quality, with Beahm lauding each artist's vision in terms that would be appropriate for a overblown press release than an archival quality volume.  Beahm's descriptions of various pieces lack insight, simply describing and making basic comments that scarcely tell the reader anything she couldn't see for herself.  The entire text suffers from issues of language usage (misplaced modifiers and other grammatical problems) and proofreading/layout (repeated text, strange formatting, and typographical errors, including the hilarious "There was always a sense of mystery as to what would be around the next behind in the river") that are especially disappointing given the book's cost and otherwise glamorous presentation.

But this is an art book, and it's ultimately the art that matters.  Here, one finds no cause for complaint.  The variety of artists and of works illustrated is commendable, as is the evident effort to find foreign-language art, one-off magazine illustrations, and other ephemera.  The size and detail of the reproductions, many of which were made directly from the original art, reveal gifts that might otherwise have been ignored; much of the mass-market art that looks dingy or workmanlike reduced to fit on a cover and indifferently printed, is revealed to be astonishing in its pristine form.  Limited edition art, previously available in the original volumes at prices even heftier than this volume's, can find a new audience at last.  Many artists have provided original pieces based on works they've never illustrated before, with amazing results.  Any fan of King, or of horror art in general, will "ooh" and "aah" like a child as the turning of each oversized page reveals new talents and new terrors.  Knowing Darkness is an astonishing pleasure.

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