Art and literature have always gone hand in hand. Pretty Little Dead Things author, Gary McMahon, describes some of his influences from the painted world.


The Art of Fear by Gary McMahon

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much my writing has been influenced by paintings and artists. I’ve always been inspired by art – despite being a bit rubbish at it – but only recently has that inspiration come fully to the surface, in terms of having a direct and recognisable effect on my stories. Without going into too much academic detail and running the risk of boring everyone to tears, I’d like to take this opportunity to doff my cap to a few of the late, great artists who have poisoned my mind, but in a good way…

In Pretty Little Dead Things I reference Hieronymus Bosch’s glorious triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. The array of grotesque yet strangely alluring images in the painting triggered images in my head as I wrote a pivotal scene near the end of the book, when my character Thomas Usher steps through the looking glass and literally enters another world…a realm manufactured by an antagonist known as the Pilgrim. The detail in the painting is amazing, and as a whole it seems to reflect some nightmare I never had but somehow retain a trace memory of…

Again, in the sequel Dead Bad Things, the art world rears its head. Francis Bacon’s terrifying rudimentary creatures in “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” actually appear in the finale – at least one of the characters thinks they do, as these images are the only visual reference he has available for what he is seeing. My friend and fellow horror-head Adam Nevill also references Bacon in his recent novel Apartment 16 (one of the best genre releases of 2010, in my opinion), but in Adam’s book the artist’s imagery has seeped into the pages and become something new, something that’s almost more distorted and terrifying in the literary form.

Salvador Dali also plays a large part in what I write. Not consciously, or as obviously as those mentioned above, but his presence is always there, at the back of my mind, leering at me over his big daft moustache.

Another great surrealist was Max Ernst, and his remarkable cut-and-paste graphic novel “Une semaine de bonté” has prompted certain images in a trilogy of horror/urban fantasy novels I’m currently writing. Victorian-magazine images of men with the heads of birds, well-dressed ladies with huge black wings, and dragons sleeping on drawing room floors…it’s all utterly bonkers, but also really rather splendid.

And then there’s René Magritte, whose images have surely influenced every horror writer who has ever seen them. His classic 1937 painting “La reproduction interdite” (“Not to be Reproduced”) particularly stands out as a visual representation of the moods of unease, dread and dislocation a lot of modern writers of weird fiction (myself included) are trying to reproduce in their prose.

Finally, I’d like to take a moment to appreciate the American artist Edward Hopper, who helped provide the entire cinematic genre of film noir with a visual framework. His lonely subjects stuck in forlorn urban and rural locations, emotionally pained women lounging in beds and easy chairs in empty rooms, fedora-wearing men sipping coffee in quiet night-time diners, all contribute to the mood and air of noir – that beautiful yearning quality in monochrome films about damaged people caught up in damaging situations. It’s Hitchcock on canvas, Fritz Laing in oils. Brilliant stuff.

I see and hear a lot of modern authors talking about how films have influenced their work, but it’s rare that a writer stops to appreciate how the art world has penetrated their creative process and given birth to images they might otherwise never have produced. Personally, I bow before these and other mad, bad visionaries, and hope to keep learning from the body of work each of them has left behind.

One Comment

  1. Interesting analysis, Gary, and thanks for sharing. Of course the fact that most of those artists freak me out explains why I run a mile from horror!

    I think most of my influences are “Golden Age” book illustrators: Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen and, going further back, Aubrey Beardsley. Pretty on the surface but with dark undertones (and occasionally, like Beardsley, downright crude!) 🙂

Leave a Comment