Worlds of Nightmare: The Dark Art of Aeron Alfrey
by Oliver Sheppard
Visual artist Aeron Alfrey has furnished illustrations for books about horror authors like HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Thomas Ligotti. Alfrey’s meticulously detailed nightmare worlds are crammed with denizens of all varieties, densely peopled with black and white monsters like an unholy mash-up between the medieval apocalypses of Heironymus Bosch and the spooky imagery of Stephen Gammell (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark). Although Alfrey has primarily provided artwork for horror fiction, he’s had dozens of exhibitions over the globe in the past few years, and has recently started doing artwork for bands. I recently asked Alfrey about the inspiration behind his morbid fantasies, the process he uses to create them, and what his plans are for the future. Included are samples of his artwork as well as links to check out more of his nightmarish creations.
Check out the CVLT Nation exclusive interview with Aeron Alfrey and more of his art after the jump below!
Oliver: Aeron, if you don’t mind my asking, how old are you, where do you live, and how long have you been making art?
Aeron: I am 34 years old, I live in a depressing little town in Indiana called Crawfordsville. It was once referred to as “The Athens Of Indiana” for its architectural splendor but over time many of those buildings have been destroyed or left to decay. It has been host to an assortment of abandoned factories over the years, many I’ve had the opportunity to explore. I was creeping outside of the hospital I was born in the other week. It’s been abandoned for going on twenty some years and remains in wretched decay, windows smashed in, walls collapsing, stairs filled with toxic debris. So, this is a place that lends itself to my stranger imaginings on long walks at night.
As far as how long I’ve been making art, I’ve been making it all my life. Some of my earliest childhood drawings are online at “An Ancient Beastiary.”
Oliver: I’ve been looking at a lot of your works and for the life of me I’m not sure whether to call a lot of them “drawings,” “mixed media collages,” or something else? What is the media used in a work like, say, “Hyper Organism”? I really like the style of that one and some others that seem to be done in a similar vein.
Aeron: What you’re looking at is purely digital but I go out of my way to use a painterly way of thinking to mesh darks and lights in more primal fashions. Perhaps it’s these layers of strangely shifting lights and darks that provoke a physicality to the art. I came to the digital medium reluctantly and actually discovered the potential of photoshop in the backroom of a traditional lithographic printing studio, in art school. I’ve never taken any courses or had any training in photoshop; it’s all been learned through experimentation over the years. I think, were I to put a name to it, the technique could be described as macro digital photographic collage manipulation. I might use a sliver of skin here, a wrinkle of flesh there, compose it over a rotting fruit, lay in the dots from the skin texture of some strange animal, and build up random shapes that I stretch and push together, with translucent layers ever changing the shape and building up an ever stranger image.
Oliver: I see that you’ve done interpretations of works by horror authors like Stephen King and others, like the cult weird fiction author Thomas Ligotti. Are authors of weird/horror fiction a primary inspiration for your artwork? What is?
Aeron: Thomas Ligotti has always been a deep influence in my work, more so than most. There is enough inspiration in his story “The Red Tower” to fuel my imagination for the next ten years. The story is available to read at WeirdFictionReview.com alongside the previously mentioned “Hyper Organsim,” an illustration I made specifically for this online publication of the story. That said, the thing that drives me creatively is a distinct fantasy world of an afterlife that sort of cracked open in my mind many years ago during a weird fit of depression and, bizarrely, a real cloud of moths that were infesting a room I was sitting in. I messing around in photoshop at the time. I named the work “The Land Of The Moth” and have intentions of someday publishing a book on many of the artworks inspired by it. Online, you can see many examples from it in some of my earliest digital artworks that were all directly based on this grotesque fantasy.
Oliver: Who are your five favorite visual artists, and what are some of your favorite works of theirs?
Aeron: Joel Peter Witkin – “Cupid and Centaur,” “Poussin in Hell,” “Two women with stomach irritations,” “Story from a Book.” Witkin’s tableau pieces using real dead bodies and deformed persons were an early inspiration to me and likely contributed to my use of the dead and deformed in similar ways in my own work, although I don’t photograph them in person as he does!
Zdzislaw Beksinski – He never titled his artworks so it would be difficult to point one out, but I adore all of it equally. He is a constant inspiration but his last few years are difficult to separate from thinking on his art. His wife died in the late nineties, then his son committed suicide a few years later, and a few years from then he was butchered in his home by some bastard teenagers wanting money. It’s a frustrating mixture of inspiration, sadness and anger at how his life was ended.
Jacques Callot – “The Temptation Of Saint Anthony,” both versions. The vastness and detail, the bewildering creatures farting and carrying along weapons in carts, armored beasts flying about…. By the time you’re done looking at this thing in detail you feel like you just watched a feature length monster film made four hundred years ago.
Gustave Dore – This illustration from The Divine Comedy, And these two works from his Don Quixote series… (I love the concept of these giants with their lower halves cut off but still running about with intestines hanging out.)
Stephen Gammell – His black and white ink wash/watercolor paintings horrified me, as they did every other child, or adult, who saw them in Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. They were a direct influence on my art. Stephen’s fluid painting style and eye for exacting deformities and ghostly shadowy things half-seen across the image are brilliant. I’ve never seen another artist like him.
And yes, I realize that’s six and not five artists. Here’s a few dozen more that I’m particularly inspired by: Wayne Barlowe, Alfred Kubin, Sidney Sime, Suehiro Maruo, Hieronymus Bosch, Virgil Finlay, Stephen Blanquet, Junji Ito, Alberto Martini, Uno Moralez, Arthur Rachkam, Bernie Wrightson, Ryan Heshka, Ray Harryhausen….
Oliver: Who are your five favorite writers and your favorite books or stories by them?
Aeron: Thomas Ligotti – I’m passionate about a great many of Ligotti’s writings but, as mentioned above, I’ll repeat “The Red Tower” is a favorite.
H.P Lovecraft – At The Mountains Of Madness. Lovecraft at his best, in my opinion.
Clive Barker – The Abarat series, Clive’s own epic fantasy series filled with a great many bizarre and fantastic places and characters.
Stephen King – The Mist. My favorite monster story ever.
William Hope Hodgson – The House On The Borderland. Reading this you can see where Lovecraft took much of his inspiration. I felt a vague similarity between this and Evil Dead 2 — basically a man alone dealing with ancient evil.
Oliver: The illustration for Songs of a Dead Dreamer has some aspects that kind of remind me of Hieronymus Bosch — a lot going on and a lot of detail, with multiple points of attention and interest, almost like many illustrations crammed into one. Is Bosch an influence? And also how long does it take you to do a work like this, from the beginning stages of conceptualization until completion?
Aeron: Songs Of A Dead Dreamer‘s cover illustration is inspired by the Ligotti story “Vastarien” which involves a grotesque fantastic city of impossible nightmare constructions, wild abominations marching down streets that split across horrifically twisting broken structures. I explored a parade of sorts, terrible things creeping forward in a city of wild nightmares come alive. Bosch is an early and large influence. I suppose that sort of intense detail of many nightmarish life forms seen at once is comparable to some of his paintings. However, I also just have a mad desire to cram as many horrifically bizarre things into a single image. Ligotti’s illustrations are particularly time consuming given the details. They take somewhere in the realm of 120 – 150 physical hours, each, of the three covers I’ve done so far. They were true obsessions, for sure.
Oliver: What are some of the illustrating or publishing credits you’re most proud of? The Ligotti stuff is great, and your American Werewolf in London stuff looks great. What other books, magazines, websites, etc., has your stuff appeared on? Alternately, have you had any gallery showings — if so, where and when?
Aeron: As Ligotti is such an inspiration, I take great pride in my work for his books. I’m also incredibly proud of my work published in “The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities” published by Harper Collins in 2011. In it I had two brilliant authors create short fiction inspired by my art. It’s usually the other way around, as I create art for previously-made stories, so it was fascinating for me to see this work backwards. Michael Cisco wrote “The Thing in the Jar” and Caitlín R. Kiernan wrote “The Key to the Castleblakeney Key.”
I’m also excited to have worked with underground comic artist/musician and all around madman Mat Brinkman on Cave Evil. I designed a lot of monsters for this weird card/board game for him and a few other artist and gamers involved in the project a year or two ago. I discovered his work when I was approached to contribute to an underground comics anthology by Sammy Harkham called Kramers Ergot, what would have been issue 4. I was unpublished at the time but Sammy had seen some comics work I’d shown around and had taken interest in. I wasn’t ready to go to print with anything, regrettably, but I picked up the Kramers book that I would have been first published in, and discovered Brinkman. I became a huge fan of his after that and have enjoyed the opportunity to work with him on that game project. Additionally, I’m very proud of my depiction of Stephen King’s “The Mist,” published in the Stephen King art book published by Centipede Press, as well as my Lovecraft artwork published in a similar book by Centipede Press. I had the opportunity to work in television, however briefly, and created an illustration of a giant catfish eating a person for a show on National Geographic Television about monster fish.
I’ve shown in a variety of galleries around the world. I’m particularly proud to have shown at “House Of Elsewhere,” otherwise known as “Maison d’ Ailleurs,” a museum of science fiction, utopia and extraordinary journeys, in Switzerland. I had artwork included in their H.P Lovecraft exhibit a few years ago. It was hung on walls in the same room as an original H.R Giger piece included in the exhibit, which blew my mind. A full listing of the galleries I’ve shown in can be found on my blog.
Oliver: Have you done any LP/EP or CD, etc., covers for bands? What bands have you done design work for and what are the releases?
Aeron: I created the album art for the band Unholy on their “New Life Behind Closed Eyes” album, the vinyl album cover for The_Network’s “Bishop Kent Kenning LP”, and very recently I made the (hand painted) album cover for the new Mountain Goats record, being released through Merge Records in the not too distant future. I also created album art for a Finnish metal band called PHLEGEIN that will probably be released later this year. I’d like to get into doing more album art so any bands reading this, contact me.
Oliver: Have you ever had a supernatural sort of experience in life? What was it? Do you give much credence to the existence of demons, spirits, poltergeists, and phenomena like that? If so, what are any personal experiences you’ve had?
Aeron: I really want to believe in ghosts and demons. I love the idea of another invisible world lurking in the shadows and a wild fantasy world of an afterlife where everyone we love, and hate, has escaped to. Unfortunately, I don’t accept the idea of anything supernatural being real. Part of what makes death so utterly horrific is its complete and inescapable finality. At the core of what drives me as an artist is an exploration of a fantasy world that mixes death after life, so there is that wishful thinking, dreaming and pretending, of what horrifically bizarre place could go beyond that final curtain. That fuels a lot of my creativity.
Oliver: What was the idea behind your “Monster Brains” website, and maybe you could tell readers a little bit about it and what sort of artwork it features.
Aeron: I started Monster Brains in January of 2006 as a sort of glorified bookmark listing of a lot of my favorite artists who were usually creating monster-themed artworks. It was designed to share with a dozen some artist friends. I tend to dig up a lot of weird art and it helped to keep a steady stream of material to share over the years. It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years and I’m still sitting on a giant pile of monster related artwork to put on that site. The posts are very time consuming; sometimes I will pick through gigabytes (I have a fifteen gigabyte collection of Dr. Who books and magazines that I need to go through) of downloaded material, pick out interesting artworks that I then crop, color adjust, and research so I’m able to properly attribute the art to its creator. So I’m a little behind as I’m focused on my own art as well, but it will be a never ending source of inspiration for anyone out there who is as fascinated by monsters as I am. As I wrote on the site, it is a never ending celebration of monsters. And a book version may well be on the horizon.
Oliver: Where can folks go if they want to purchase and/or check out any of your artwork online? Also, are there any book editions of your work out yet?
Aeron: I have an assortment of prints for sale at www.aeronalfrey.blogspot.com and am available for commissioned art. I have several book projects lined up that will feature my art which I can’t talk about right now. There is a crowdfunding campaign at Indiegogo for a game that I will write, design and illustrate, if it gets funding. This is something that I’ve set time aside for and would really like to work on, so if anyone out there appreciates my art, this would be a valid thing to contribute to. (Details at: http://igg.me/p/153178?a=804331) The plot of the game is summed up in the following quote: “A city crumbles as a giant abomination rises out of the ground, consuming entire city blocks at once. Survivors find themselves inside the Leviathan and must traverse a wild and horrifying ecosystem of parasitic creatures while searching for a way out. There are many strange sights to be encountered, including the remains of other swallowed civilizations. Can anyone escape this labyrinth of nightmarish landscapes and creeping horrors?” The entire game will take place inside the guts of a giant monster, kind of a Hieronymous Bosch version of Fantastic Voyage.
Aeron maintains a blog that features a lot of his artwork, here: http://www.aeronalfrey.blogspot.com/
Aeron’s “Monster Brains” blog of scanned monster artwork is here: http://monsterbrains.blogspot.com/
Additionally, the Thomas Ligotti website has a gallery of Aeron’s earlier visual experiments here: http://www.ligotti.net/gallery/alfrey.html