Cinema made us fearful of William Blake’s formidable watercolor series, depicting the Great Red Dragon in various scenes from the Book of Revelation.
But Blake’s works and the biblical tale are terrifying enough on their own:
Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems. Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth.
Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth.
Detail from F.G. Gainsford’s portrait of John Polidori, ca. 1816, the year he would accompany Lord Byron to his Lake Geneva villa.
From that famed night of ghost-stories in a Lake Geneva villa in 1816, as well as Frankenstein’s monster, there arose that other great figure of 19th-century gothic fiction – the vampire – a creation of Lord Byron’s personal physician John Polidori.
Andrew McConnell Stott explores how a fractious relationship between Polidori and his poet employer lies behind the tale, with Byron himself providing a model for the blood-sucking aristocratic figure of the legend we are familiar with today.
Lord Byron in traditional Albanian dress, a replica painted by Thomas Phillips (in 1835) of his original painting of 1813.
“The Vampyre” is a product of 1816, the “year without summer,” in which Lord Byron left England in the wake of a disintegrating marriage and rumours of incest, sodomy and madness, to travel to the banks of Lake Geneva and there loiter with Percy and Mary Shelley (then still Mary Godwin).
Polidori served as Byron’s travelling physician, and played an active role in the summer’s tensions and rivalries, as well as participating in the famous night of ghost stories that produced Mary Shelley’s “hideous progeny,” Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
Like Frankenstein, “The Vampyre” draws extensively on the mood at Byron’s Villa Diodati. But whereas Mary Shelley incorporated the orchestral thunderstorms that illuminated the lake and the sublime mountain scenery that served as a backdrop to Victor Frankenstein’s struggles, Polidori’s text is woven from the invisible dynamics of the Byron-Shelley circle, and especially the humiliations he suffered at Byron’s hand.
Detail from a hand-colored engraving of Villa Diodati, by Edward Francis Finden, ca. 1833, after a drawing by William Purser.
Many moons ago I lived. Again I come. Patience Worth my name. Wait, I would speak with thee. If thou shalt live, then so shall I… Good friends, let us be merrie.
On July 8th 1913, after months of experimentation, a St. Louis housewife named Pearl Curran finally had a breakthrough with her Ouija board.
From this initial correspondence, Pearl Curran wrote (or depending on your perspective, transcribed) millions of words she attributed to a seventeenth-century poet who called herself Patience Worth.
Historical novels, religious tracts, and lyric poems were published and embraced by mainstream scholars as authentic examples of early American literature mediated from beyond the grave.
The figure of Patience Worth was commended as an exemplary writer by organizations such as the Joint Committee of Literary Arts of New York.
She was included in journals alongside such future canonical authors as Edna St. Vincent Millay and she appeared in collections such as the Anthology of Magazine Writing and the Yearbook of American Poetry.
All the more amazingly, readers and critics agreed that this was new work by a woman who claimed to have been dead for more two and a half centuries.
The book, published by Feral House, explores an art historical hero not well known to the masses.
So here’s a primer: Mortensen began as a Hollywood artist; a contemporary of Cecil B. DeMille who worked in everything from set decoration to costumery.
He was a photographer too, and as the jack-of-all-trades grew more popular in the film industry, he was able to photograph the likes of Jean Harlow and Peter Lorre, the resulting images ending up in glamorous magazines and bestselling books.
Except Mortensen was no typical portrait artist.
Influenced by the burgeoning genre of horror film growing inside studios like Universal in the 1920s and ’30s, he produced portraits that were more nightmare than reality.
Manipulating his images with printmaking techniques and rather primitive collage-like practices, his artworks looked like paintings rather than photographs.
Given the subject matter — monster primates, transfixing nudes and anything occult — it was just easier to assume the former.
His non-celebrity imagery had no limits, as he obsessed over torture, death and unbridled sexuality.
“In Mortensen’s mind, the grotesque had essential value for ‘the escape it provides from cramping realism,’” Moynihan writes in the first few pages of American Grotesque.
Split into five parts, the book outlines not only the biography of one of American art’s most complex and mystifying characters, but also the evolution and perception of Mortensen’s “ends-justify-the-means” way of photographing people and places.
(“He was willing to use any and all techniques of photographic manipulation to obtain the picture he desired.”)