Interview: Karen Ruffles | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Gothic horror is a genre of cautionary tales filled with isolation, romance and flawed characters that holds a mirror to our society.  It seeps into our psyche and reverberates in our comedy, our music and our art creating more stories within every generation. The latest set of tales comes in the form of Tales in Sombre Tones’ an illustrated anthology of gothic horror stories from Whitby artist Karen Ruffles and American author Sean Walter. To celebrate the publication of the book the duo have produced an immersive touring show featuring displays of Karen’s artwork, live readings and sign language interpretations and stop motion animation. This exhibition will be creeping its way to Vane Gallery, Newcastle from Friday 10th to Saturday 11th May (12pm – 5pm with a special event featuring readings by Sean Walter on Friday between 6-10pm), so we caught up with Karen Ruffles to find out more about the exhibition and the new book.

How did the collaboration between yourself and Sean Walter come about?
I first came across Sean online – he’d put out an open post looking for someone to illustrate a short story he’d done featuring an alternative death character. I couldn’t resist that of course and we got chatting. We soon became firm friends and after writing a story for one of my own monsters, he flew over to do a small show in Whitby with me that was horror themed. Several bottles of my own home brew at the kitchen table later, the idea for an anthology of illustrated horror woven between us came up and we’ve not looked back since.

Where did your love of Gothic horror come from and how has it influenced your art?
I’ve always had a love of dark stories, my childhood reading was made up of classic ghost stories and folklore. I gravitated more towards those tales where the monster had a story of its own as opposed to the more recent horror film something-in-the-wardrobe variety. I wanted to tell the stories of the things I saw, their everyday life and relationship with the outside world, which they tell me is just as scary the other way around. That can be time consuming when you have to do it one frame at a time as a picture, so I was delighted to find an author who could explore with us and understood what they wanted to say. I am a Goth, I listen to the music, wear the black and enjoy the wider culture that embraces and celebrates the darker side of life. When I moved to Whitby a few years ago, with it’s ruined abbey, black shale beach and shipwrecks, it seemed to complete the circle and I have big plans for work through the winter and beyond now I’ve found my home. Several of the reference images for locations are pictures I took myself of this beautiful place.

Can you tell us more about the Illustrated Anthology Of Gothic Horror Stories that is due to be published?
Tales in Sombre Tones is a set of 24 original horror stories by Sean Walter, each with a full page illustration by myself. Asides from being a project that we both wanted to do for ourselves, it’s unusual in that it’s an illustrated collection for grown ups which isn’t something we get treated to very often. We spent a lot of time talking in person and online about the creatures and ideas we already had but hadn’t had chance to play with yet, We also revisited a few old favourites and wrote new chapters in their ongoing stories. Because Whitby has such a fantastic history and atmosphere we included the famous Barghest, the hellhound that stalks the streets – that’s the illustration that became our cover as it encapsulates the feel of the book overall.

What is your favourite Gothic horror story to read and which is your favourite to draw?
One of my very favourite stories and one that occasionally still keeps me up in the wee small hours is O, Whistle – there is a nod to that in the illustration for Unconscious Mistakes. There’s something about M.R.James stories in that as much as many follow a similar pattern (I did turn recorded readings of his into a drinking game last Christmas), that deep seated dread that is for me at the heart of all things Gothic horror, remains and still has power even when you know what is coming. I normally work with my own monsters as for me, pictures must tell their own story and so without the initial inspiration, it lacks soul and frankly, isn’t nearly as much fun. Working with Sean is different as we’ve had years to make friends with each other’s nightmares and when discussing something new, we generally arrive at the same point at the same time. The one thing I’ve gone back to more often than anything is a character called Stephen, who wandered into my life some years ago and made himself at home. He has his own corner of my website, his own Instagram account and gets more fan mail than I do.

What can people expect from the show at Vane?
Our big thing with the show was to share the experience not only of reading the book but of creating it. So in addition to the original artwork, we have Sean on site doing readings throughout, we have sign language videos to go with and animated nonsense from the desk models I use to draw from as they act out their own versions of key sequences. We wanted to bring the book to life, rather than for it to be seen as a passive object. We also have a hosted evening party on the first night to maintain the atmosphere while we mingle and grab a well earned drink or two. Basically, we’re there to have a good time and we invite everyone to join us.

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