Among what both arousal and fear share is how the sensations strip you bare. In the foreword of Mirror Mirror II, the freshly-arrived erotic horror comic anthology edited by Julia Gfrörer and Sean T Collins and released in July by Minnesota-based publisher 2dcloud, Gretchen Alice Felker-Martin writes, “great horror is the pursuit of meaning through defilement, a conscious and inquisitive violation of the mind, the body, the beloved, the home.” In a safe, trusting environment, losing control can feel exhilarating, like bungeeing out of the body before snapping back in. Ecstasy, a coveted state, comes from the Ancient Greek ekstasis, to “stand outside oneself.” The closest thing to rapturous, death-like bliss, so the French insist, are orgasms.
Twin pillars of American culture, sex and death are both verboten and banal. The coupling is Hollywood, like ghostly Marilyn Manson clad in black with Rose McGowan in a scarlet gown that plunges at the bustline. What’s challenging about working with these themes is surpassing the pitfalls of triteness. Blood, boobs, violence – in today’s near-saturated visual landscape, few things leave an impression on the mind before landing in the wasteyard of gratuity. But the brilliance of Mirror Mirror II is its push beyond what Gfrörer calls ‘crisis images’ (“the cum shot, the death scene, whatever”) into the outstretched tension surrounding the terror, which descend on the stories like fog.
Bounded in an elegant black matte cover, the anthology is covered in more black ink than white space. It features many exciting players in contemporary comics – Aidan Koch’s charcoal-smudged, impressionistic dream-panels, Lala Albert’s scratchy images with a psilocybin sense of wetness, Clive Barker’s broad-stroked, Egon-Schiele-esque, contorted corpses. There’s Trungles’ ‘Shifts’, a dark vignette of a captive princess drawn with a Disney-like ornateness that teases and cuts abruptly like foreplay, and Uno Moralez’s ‘Vitalya (I’m Fucking Tired of You)’, a pixelated dark-alley-in-a-video-game comic from an anonymous 44-year-old artist from Moscow, with whom Collins held a rare interview.
At a time when real, human-rights-violating terrors abound, and the collective stomach is weak, eroticizing fear can be construed as escapist or sensationalist. Gfrörer and Collins see the genre as a processing mechanism to sort out repressed anxieties, echoing critics such as Robin Wood who has argued that the “horror genre is a struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses.” In the anthology, Felker-Martin continues, “In probing at the meniscus between imagination and the waking world, Mirror Mirror II finds the pathos and the terror in human fantasy.”
Over email, Gfrörer and Collins elaborate about Mirror Mirror II, their interests in the erotic and pornographic, and the ownership of traumatic stories.
** What I like about the anthology is it’s not an obvious kind of horror… blood, guts, dismemberment, although those things are present as well. There lurks an uneasiness that is difficult to pinpoint. What interests you about the genre of erotic horror?
Julia Gfrörer: Well, horror and sexual arousal are about more than just the crisis image – the cum shot, the death scene, whatever. What makes them powerful is working up to that, providing the context that gives that image meaning. You can’t just show a dead body and expect someone to be moved. With enough buildup, a tiny moment of intensity is more effective. Like the twins in The Shining – there’s a reason the camera doesn’t linger on them. Restraint is what makes it work.
Sean T Collins: I tend to push for very broad standards of inclusion where genre is concerned, and moreover the artists we asked to contribute to the book were people we already felt got it. They were on our wavelength, and we were responding to elements of their work that we felt fit the parameters of the book as we devised them: horror, pornography, the gothic, and the abject. That was pretty much the only guidance we offered when we asked for submissions – that, and saying that we believe in work that reflects the darkness of the world we live in, because by only in confronting it directly can people be pushed towards empathy. I mean, maybe not only, but it’s the approach we value the most.
** Within these parameters, what are your favourite things to research? I know you are currently working on the adaptations of the Edgar Allan Poe stories, has that research led you to any unexpected places?
J: I’m always an incredibly promiscuous reader. I just finished a delightful re-read of IT for a podcast Sean and I are working on with our friend, Gretchen Felker-Martin, who wrote the foreword to Mirror Mirror II. And last week I helped self-publish a short novel of hers, No End Will Be Found, so I spent a lot of time researching medieval German woodcuts to find the perfect image for the cover.
S: As for the Poe stories, we’ve done pornographic interpretations/extrapolations/interpolations of “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Cask of Amontillado” so far, with another one on the relatively near horizon. I think Julia has said before that when we excavate the sexual subtext of Poe, it’s barely even subtext at all. His work seems to vibrate with a sort of ecstatic panic that is so close to arousal that it conjures up that sensation like emotional synesthesia. We’re just coming out and saying so.
** What are your thoughts around criticisms of erotic horror as a genre that sensationalizes and glorifies violence, or abstracts violence as an idea rather than damage done to real people?
J: In my life I’ve experienced and witnessed enough violence that I don’t consider my feelings about violence to be an abstraction. My experiences are my experiences. My responsibility to write something honest takes priority.
I think we we can be overzealous in condemning creators for making work about trauma – Sean and I are both abuse survivors, but we’re sometimes criticized for insensitivity towards sexual violence and doing harm to survivors in that way. And no doubt many of those critics are survivors too. It’s tiresome to have to produce a resume of trauma to prove you’re allowed to discuss it, and when you do you get it from the other side – from people who think you’re too close to the subject to handle it well. What I’m getting at is that there’s no correct way to deal with violence in art, and what harms one reader can be healing to another. I’d rather give artists the benefit of the doubt.
S: Julia pretty much says it all here. I’ll just add that it goes back to what I said earlier about different approaches within horror – similarly, there are different ways to address and convey the pain and suffering experienced by real people. Certainly my work as a writer and now as an editor is an attempt to do so, with my own pain just for starters. The great power of fantastic fiction of all kinds, perhaps horror most of all, is that it can give voice to everyday feelings, emotions, and experiences the magnitude of which is beyond the ability of everyday language to express.**