The Best of Gahan Wilson (edited by Cathy and Arnie Fenner), 2004
Published by Underwood Books
First line: “Here comes that Wilson boy…”
Book Rx: Sometimes dark, sometimes humorous. A fascinating glimpse into a unique mind.
My first brush with Gahan Wilson was a game we used to play on our home PC (with Windows 95, no less!). I suppose Gahan Wilson’s The Ultimate Haunted House is really the main reason why I’m filing this book, a collection of his best art, under my ‘Halloween Reads’ list.
The game opened with the chorus of the ‘Monster Mash.’ The player had to find thirteen keys before thirteen o’clock to get out of the house. There was a high chance of bumping into resident monsters, getting cursed (one curse turns the house’s colors psychedelic and weird, another makes monsters appear more often), and meeting the dead owner of the house, also named Gahan — except the game messes with you by having two Gahan’s. You never knew if it was the nice or the evil twin hovering in front of you.
For a kids’ game it was actually quite scary. The evil Gahan made strange faces if you mistook him for the nice one. He also had the tendency to snatch away any hard-earned keys you’d tucked away in your chunky green bag. Worst of all was getting trapped in the attic by that creepy rocking horse and its crew.
Wilson conceptualized and drew The Ultimate Haunted House and it shows. I find his art distinctive — large bug eyes and bulging noses, cartoonish monsters, the characters’ strange, grotesque expressions.
The game was another fundamental part of my growing up so when I spotted this book in a shop in the UK I immediately picked it up. Happy revelation: there was more to Wilson than his monsters.
The Best of Gahan Wilson is a collection of Wilson’s cartoons as it appeared in magazines like Playboy (where Wilson was a regular contributor), National Lampoon, and the New Yorker. There are monsters here too (he pays homage to Lovecraft’s weird creations in a few of the cartoons) and a hefty dose of the macabre portrayed in Wilson’s unique brand of dark humor…
… but there are also cartoons with social commentaries: a charcoal-colored one on the Vietnam War, another on the effects of nuclear pollution.
Beyond the cartoons that have given him the moniker “America’s Master of the Macabre,” there are other subtler cartoons, ones that he drew for the National Lampoon, which I particularly liked. In The Paranoid Abroad, Wilson illustrates several nightmare scenarios for the paranoid tourist with an overactive imagination, including: customs officers questioning the tourist’s non-resemblance to his passport photo, unwieldy foreign money that wouldn’t fit in the tourist’s wallet, and the tourist ordering strange national dishes which turned out to be freaky things (like rats in white cream sauce). The illustrations are accompanied by hilarious, spot-on captions.
In Click, another one for the Lampoon, Wilson takes us through Phil and Madge’s photo album from their trip to Mars along with little Billy. It’s sad and ironic that the couple don’t realize how crass and brash they are as interplanetary tourists: they ignore the wreckage they leave in their wake and let little Billy do pretty much whatever he wants (including murder, ha).
Words on art from the man himself:
“Art should lead to change in the way we see things. If some artist comes up with a vision which gives a new opening, it usually creates a lot of stress — because it’s frightening. Like Cubism reveals there’s this whole other reality to reality, or Stravinsky comes along and there’s a riot! This is art. It’s very disturbing. If you really see a Cézanne, you never see anything the same afterwards. It’s heavy stuff. The creative artist is automatically an outsider, because he sees through the world that everybody else takes as the final reality and he’s a very scary kind of guy.”
Mr. Wilson, for being one of my favorite scary guys and for painting what you see: thank you.
P.S. Merci to whoever uploaded these videos of Gahan Wilson’s haunted house game on Youtube! What a nostalgia trip.