October 26, 2023


Dark Art Supernatural: A Sinister Coloring Book. By François Gautier. Plume. $16.

     There are designated times of year for spookiness, sometimes seasonal, sometimes based on time of month (the full moon), sometimes relating to specific days (Halloween, the dark first day of winter). But would-be colorists of the weird – the people who will find François Gautier’s Dark Art Supernatural immediately appealing – will look forward to making any day, at any time of year, a chillier one. Gautier has done quite a lot of that already: although some of his intricate black-and-white illustrations have ties to specific stories (for those who know those tales), nothing here relates to a specific date, season or time of year. These are illustrations that can provide a “jump scare” just about anytime, even before they are colored in suitably brilliant or dour or even pastel hues.

     Gautier drags all the familiar tropes of horror illustrations into this book: squatting monstrosities, leering vampires, skulls of all sorts (some clearly not human), clusters of rats, massed and individual skeletons, ghostlike/skull-like things with mouths gaping as if in the painting “The Scream,” monstrous animals that blend at their edges into the landscape, and much more. The impressive level of detail that Gautier brings to all these pages makes them quite scary enough exactly as they are – and also opens the floodgates to all sorts of scary coloristic potential, to be determined by each person’s notion of what would make these frightful scenes even more horrific.

     Some of the illustrations appear to be Gautier’s accentuation of frightening elements of particular stories. One page shows a winged ballet dancer on tiptoe, tears streaming down her face, surrounded by swans that are entwined with vines and seem to be suffering – a scene out of Tchaikovsky’s already-dark ballet Swan Lake. Another page shows a bearded man, his wooden shield broken, looking up in despair at a huge and terrifying dragon that is clearly very much alive despite being pierced with arrows and stabbed by a sword that is apparently the man’s own – a scene reminiscent of the final battle in Beowulf. Still another page has a demonic-looking horse being ridden by a human body that is holding its grimacing head in its right hand – apparently an over-the-top reference to Washington Irving.

     Literary and musical referents aside, though, the pages here speak (or shriek) to anyone who fancies the horror genre and wants to contribute to it in a small way by turning these black-and-white flights of fear into colored ones. There is something here to appeal to or enchant or disturb pretty much anybody with an interest in wading into these suitably murky waters. Indeed, one horizontally divided page has a bird expressing itself full-throatedly in the top half – and seen as a skeleton, reflected in water, in the page’s bottom portion. Another page has innocent-looking Ferris wheel cabs that merge into a grinning, gap-toothed, bulging-eyed monster. Another is a nautical nighttime scene in open water, featuring a Flying Dutchman sort of ship whose hull and elaborate sails are bedecked with all manner of bones and skeletal remains. Yet another features a book whose spine and covers include multiple eyeballs; out of the book’s pages, ferocious things are emerging and attacking the screaming reader unfortunate enough to have opened it.

     Nothing quite that outré happens upon opening Dark Art Supernatural, but who knows? Perhaps some colorist will combine just the right shades of just the right colors in such a way that they will interact in unspeakable ways and pull the doomed artist right into Gautier’s pages, never to be seen again except in the guise of the grinning skull on one page, or the rat-eaten body on another, or the exceedingly scary scarecrow on yet another, or even the once-adorable child’s doll that has become a kind of voodoo figurine in still another place. Gautier certainly gets the emotions churning, even before anything is done to alter his black-and-white art through the addition of color that it scarcely needs to produce a strong effect of gothic horror.

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