The Realms of the Unreal: The Afterlife of America’s Strangest Artist
Every day for forty-three years, Henry Darger would leave his single room apartment at 851 W. Webster Avenue on Chicago’s North Side to attend mass, then head to work as a hospital custodian. He barely spoke to anyone – his only friend had left town years before, and the occasional letter was a poor substitute. His bohemian landlord tolerated his eccentricity, and threw him birthday parties. It may not seem like much, but Darger’s early life was one of perpetual neglect; he was given up for adoption at age four, institutionalized for ‘self-abuse’ at thirteen, and escaped at sixteen. Routine and obscurity were the best he could hope for.
Or maybe he was ‘psychologically a serial killer,’ as his biographer John MacGregor calls him in his book Henry Darger: In The Realms of The Unreal – obsessed with young girls, clipping pictures of them from magazines. Perhaps also a killer; a five year old girl, Elsie Paroubek, was found strangled in a drainage ditch not long after Darger returned to Chicago, and he became unnaturally interested in the case, flying into a rage when his only picture of Paroubek was stolen. Maybe the mass he attended – as many as five times a day – wasn’t an expression of his piety, but an attempt to keep something dark inside of him from getting out.
Today, Darger is anything but obscure: he is one of the most prominent outsider artists of the 20th century, and one of its most prolific writers, even though his work has never been read in its entirety.
Darger’s The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion clocks in at 15,145 typewritten pages. Its sequel, Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago, is over 10,000, and his autobiography, which is mostly fiction, 4,672 pages. Most professional writers will write a quarter of that throughout their careers. He illustrated these stories with elaborate, colourful watercolours, sometimes thirty feet wide, depicting his heroes – the seven Vivian sisters, often naked, heavily armed and with penises (some have speculated that Darger perhaps didn’t know that there was a difference between male and female genitalia). Other pictures manage to be even more disturbing – scenes of children being tortured and killed on a massive scale. Crucifixion and disemboweling are common in his work, but death by strangulation seems to be Darger’s preferred method (official records say that Elsie Paroubek was smothered, but Darger’s own writing refers to her as being strangled). In scenes from the book, typhoons, earthquakes and nuclear-scale explosions kill millions.
The Realms of The Unreal is written as a children’s adventure story: the seven beautiful, virtuous and very, very Christian Vivian sisters become embroiled in the war between their home nation of Angelinia and the child-enslaving country of Glandelinia, serving as a prepubescent, nude special operations unit, carrying out daring raids behind enemy lines. There may be thousands of named characters, many of whom have multiple names and doubles who appear on both sides of the conflict. The story takes place on a giant planet around which Earth orbits, allowing Darger himself to appear in the story, either as a saintly ‘protector of children’ or a child-murdering Glandelinian. If you find Game of Thrones or Thomas Pynchon’s work tough going, then this isn’t for you.
Not that anybody can actually read it: the typewritten manuscript of Realms of The Unreal is currently in the possession of Darger’s landlord’s widow, and the pictures that accompanied it have been removed and many sold to galleries and collectors. It would have been impossible to publish Darger’s work in paperback form, but as an eBook, it might just be feasible for committed readers willing to go deep into the mind of someone who was struggling with some very dark urges, and may have even given in to them.