When people named Dr. Scary and Mr. Gory ask if you’re interested in interviewing them of course you say, “yes!” How can you say no to those names, and not be interested in knowing more about them? So with that, we got the opportunity to find out who they are, and what they are working on. Let us introduce you to Dr. Scary, and Mr. Gory…
-PH: So the first thing I have to ask is about your names. Why those names, and how did you decide who was who?
-Dr. Scary: It is a decision that is partly practical and partly meant to be evocative. Many years ago, I met a man from Poland, who knew about the etymology of my family’s original Polish last name. When I asked him how it was pronounced in Polish, he said: “SCARE-ka-vitz. Like English word, to scare!” I found that to be wonderful. However, I am also a PhD Candidate, conducting my dissertation research in education. I anticipate completing my defense this autumn. In addition to these practical themes, I also wanted the branding to evoke nostalgia for grown-up weird kids who used to read similar work, for youthful readers we hope the macabre name evokes curiosity. For instance, Richard Scarry is a well-known children’s author. Dr. Seuss, also, is a trusted name in kid’s fiction. Above that, I wanted our name to be a homage and refer to the work that so profoundly affected us, (and which spurred this writing project): “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” by Schwartz and Gammell. And, if you notice, “Scary Stories” is also a two-man team. So, in effect, Dr. Scary is an amalgam of all these things, my real-life scholarly persona, and the evocative themes of youth-oriented horror. To be clear, Dr. Scary as a nom de plume, or an “alter ego,” used as my pen name. It is also harkens to the “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” This is where Mr. Gory comes in.
-Mr. Gory: The project was conceived by Dr. Scary, and I joined on as illustrator later. Both of us grew up in the same circle of outcast art-weirdos, doing zines, comics, and art for local bands. I was super excited when Dr. Scary asked me to join the project, especially when my drawings impressed him so much. At first, we considered keeping the name Dr. Scary as a catch-all, but as our conversations deepened, we realized that the art and the writing are equally important. So, we wanted a name that would coincide well with Dr. Scary. When it came down to it, we looked at my first name, Gregory, and decided to slice off the first syllable, which leaves us with: “Gory.” Hence, Mr. Gory. This is another neat coincidence and allusion, referencing Edward Gorey, another well-known horror project, with words and images.
-PH: And with those names you have to love horror, so when did your love for horror begin?
-Dr. Scary: Horror was always central to my love of literature and fine arts. The very first book I ever read on my own was called “The Flat Man.” I don’t remember all the details, since I was a child when I read it, but it was this terribly ghastly story about a two-dimensional shadow-monster that invaded a child’s bedroom, sliding under the closed door, and whatnot. The story was told from the kid’s point of view and the illustrations were disturbing. But I loved it! I loved the feeling of being creeped out. Later, I gravitated toward science fiction. When I was 10 years old, I had a major spinal surgery, and was out of school for several months. During that time, my 3rd grade teacher—bless you Mrs. Stumiller!!—brought me a complete set of illustrated classics, in the vein of: H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly. I absolutely devoured all of those books over the course of my recovery. But, you might say, I never quite recovered from the horror itch. When I read “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” a few years after, I felt my aesthetic imagination truly open for the first time. That aesthetic awakening spurred by Stephen Gammell’s twisted drawings ignited my love for weird, macabre art. It has never stopped: Francis Bacon, Zdzisław Beksiński, H.R. Geiger, and others like them, are massive influences on my art.
-Mr. Gory: Like Dr. Scary, my love of horror began as a child. In terms of books, it was influenced by “Scary Stories to tell in the Dark” and in terms of TV, “Are you Afraid of the Dark.” I was lucky in that my dad was a compulsive science-fiction reader and my parents let me watch imaginative movies like “Legend” and “Ghostbusters.” If you look in my office today, you’ll find the walls lined with the uniquely bizarre cover-art from 1960’s and 70’ pulp novels, like John Brunner’s “The Traveler in Black.” And my bookcases are lined with H.P Lovecraft and Phillip K Dick novels and piles and piles of horror films on VHS and DVD. I was also lucky that both of my parents supported my studies in the arts. My dad is a painter and a writer. And both of my parents constantly encouraged me and my two siblings to follow in artistic pursuits.
-Dr. Scary: Yes, you know, now that you mention it, my family also influenced my love of art horror in important ways. My parents always supported my creative work in, my mom supported my work in the arts and my dad supported my work in writing, and my sister is also a writer-artist, and so is my wife! In terms of horror and speculative fiction, however, I was lucky to have an uncle who sent me copies of these TIME/LIFE books that explored old myths and legends about cryptids. My grandfather was also knowledgeable about the occult, and he studied numerology and the pyramids extensively. He gifted me an encyclopedia called: MAN, MYTH, & MAGIC, where I first encountered Francis Bacon’s artwork. Also, as luck would have it, my dad read mainstream science fiction, like Michael Crichton, and always encouraged me to read them when he was finished. The first adult novel I ever read was “Sphere,” when I was in 3rd grade. I raced my sister to the end of that book. And although I didn’t understand all of it, the concept of spontaneous manifestation never left my psyche, a concept that features in several of our pieces.
-PH: As a writer and as an illustrator individually, what’s some of the work you’ve done before coming together?
Dr. Scary: I am a writer and artist. I write, without exception, every day. As a PhD candidate, a huge part of my writing is related to my research. My focus there is on how images and words come together in teaching. Prior to writing professionally in this sense, I wrote zines as a teenager, and I have an in-progress novel, and write creative nonfiction often. My main writing focus at present is, of course, our mutual project, “Dr. Scary and Mr. Gory.” Together, we have crafted over 60 weird tales. In terms of art, I was a huge art nerd in high school, and won several awards for my art, including a “Golden Key” award for a sculpture that I did, which I received on the John F. Kennedy stage, in Washington, D.C. As an undergrad, I went to art school, and studied sculpture, printmaking, drawing, and painting. I exhibited in several regional shows and galleries. I’ve done a huge amount and variety of art over my career, in just about every medium. I also do graphic design work, mostly for local punk and metal bands, through a small design shop/printing business called “Hard Time Everywhere.” My current media of interest are gauche and soft pigments, like charcoal and pastel, but these days I also do woodwork and wood burning.
-Mr. Gory: I’ve always been creative and I draw basically every day, but I also write, too. I started releasing my current illustrated work in a quarterly publication produced by my college. Through them, I had multiple pages of comics published. Also, several years ago, I published a short story in a student prose journal called “Cabbages and Kings,” called “The Spiritual Evolution of a Monochromatic Television Set.” In terms of general illustration, I draw for fun all of the time! I’m usually found at my desk, pouring over pencil sketches, ink drawings, and brush drawings. I have many in-progress personal projects, such as drawings for my local board-game group, and hundreds of unfinished works and conceptual projects. In terms of professional sales, I have mostly worked on commission, producing merchandise designs for local bands (Ancalagon, of Rochester, NY, for instance). I also sell custom illustration work. Dr. Scary even commissioned a project last year from me—a creepy orange octopus, floating in the moon’s mountains!
-Dr. Scary: I love that painting, Mr. Gory. Truly.
-PH: You’re currently working together on ‘Verses for Darker Nights.’ Can you tell us what that’s about?
-Dr. Scary: Yes! I am glad you asked! Dr. Scary and Mr. Gory’s “Verses for Darker Nights” is an original paracosm—an invented world—of macabre yarns that conjoin image and text, using parable and natural sciences blended with ethics and humor, under guise of Young Adult/Middle Grade horror, but would likely appeal to adults as well. Perhaps our work could be described as: Unnatural Science Horror, Existentialism for Adolescents, Neomythology, or Paracosmic Microfiction. Our goal is to resurrect and modernize the art of the campfire story by presenting brief, terrifying flights of imagination (Verses) paired with equally mesmerizing images (Illuminations). We believe the disturbing Pairings are well-suited to our increasingly visual and death-positive youth culture. The Pairings constitute an unsettling amalgam, in which unsuspecting readers may find a reflected image of themselves: young, alone, naïve, and terrified of what surrounds them. As Charles Dickens said so eloquently, “few people know what secrecy there is in the young, under terror.”
Often disengaged from scholastic reading, young readers seek aesthetic thrills elsewhere. “Verses for Darker Nights,” is Elsewhere. We consider the overall project to be equally aesthetic and political. Authors of weird kid’s literature—horror, science-fiction, and fantasy—do more for literacy engagement than most school principals, policymakers, or Presidents. Weird kids gravitate to weird lit because its authors distill the fears of adolescence and capture both, their disaffection and attention. The lost art of campfire stories—like the mythic tales and elder sagas that preceded them—are made enchanting by emotional evolutions in plot, action, and character. Research on YA and MG literacy shows that emotionally-gripping narratives are foundational for language-learning. Young readers love engrossing (also, literally gross) narratives of horror. They enjoy getting drawn into imaginative stories when the writing resonates with their own emotional turmoil. From Gilgamesh to Gollum, and Kafka to King, historical and contemporary accounts demonstrate that terror-narratives are entertaining but also effective as teaching tools. For instance, the story of Frankenstein’s monster is at once a frightening and cautionary tale.
-Mr. Gory: “Verses for Darker Nights” is about all the fear and horror of youth. Usually, parents and teachers try and shield kids from this kind of stuff, saying that it is out of sync with childhood. We totally disagree and think that weird kids actually understand and enjoy these kinds of stories, more than adults realize. Basically, we want to “scare kids into reading and doing art!”
-PH: How did you come up with the idea for it? Is it similar to anything else that is out there?
-Dr. Scary: One night, as I was lurking in my basement, I asked myself—what would happen if somebody synthesized the dark, youth-oriented poetry of Shel Silverstein with the macabre images of “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”? That realization spurred a dozen ideas, immediately. I began by thinking back on my own childhood—what were the things that terrified but also thrilled me? I wondered about what kinds of things spooked me as a kid. For example, when I was a kid, I found a jackknife planted into the root of an overturned tree-plate in the woods. I asked: “Who put it there? Why is it there? Is someone coming back for it?” A lot of our themes come back to anxiety and uncertainty—the fear of the unknown, basically.
Many of our tales can be summed up as questions. “What went into the woods? Who is nesting under the school? Why is the Ghost of Nohaus so morose? Which witch obeyed her familiars? What dwells in rank floodwaters? Who lives in Bebok’s bag? How do you survive in Troll Territory? Where do the White Waters flow?” While there are precursors to our work, which we have already mentioned, there are also similarities to Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes series. Calvin has a uniquely weird imagination; think about the comics where Calvin and Hobbes inquire about existential themes, or those in which they juxtapose children’s thinking with adult’s thinking, and ponder those absurdities. There is also precedent in Roald Dahl’s “Book of Ghost Stories,” and Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” and also Dave Eggers’ brilliant re-writing of it in the novel form. We see parallels in other categories of weird fiction for kids; including the obvious, like the “Harry Potter” and the “Unfortunate Events” series. But we mostly draw on the classics, like “Watership Down” by Richard Adams, a story about the social horrors of fascism and the death of comrades, but also the hopeful aspect of community and solidarity.
We are adamantly anti-censorship and against practices that seek to infantilize children and dismiss their fears. We take the opposite route and overtly value horror written for kids! It should also be noted that I have done a lot of reading on childhood literacy, as part of my doctoral research in education. So, much of the craft of Dr. Scary and Mr. Gory is actually undergirded by real childhood psychology and research on early childhood literacy. We believe the dark synergy of Dr. Scary and Mr. Gory makes for an art that is as good as it is uncompromising. We think our authenticity and our controversy are wildly marketable—because of their visually-subversive and chilling subject matter. Likewise, the brevity of the tales and the instant aesthetic response afforded by the images add to the book’s salability for young readers who may be reluctant to begin lengthy, text-heavy narratives. We consider our work to be a stepping stone for moving weird kids toward literary fiction.
-Mr. Gory: Dr. Scary brought me on board after seeing my Instagram page. When he asked me to collaborate with him, I was like “YEAH!” We have known each other for a long time but never thought to work together professionally until that time. I am so glad that Dr. Scary’s wife, Mrs. Merry, thought to link us in this way. It was a fortunate coincidence that both of us were working in parallel on another design project at that time (for a local band with J.R.R. Tolkien influences). Overall, we noticed that there were only a few children’s books that are truly scary and horrible, and most of them are from the 1980s! We used them as inspiration, mainly. “Scary Stories to tell in the Dark” with Stephen Gammell’s illustrations, is our main point of reference. Literally each time Dr. Scary and I get together, we end up reminiscing about one “Scary Story” or another! Last time, we were talking about which tales have stuck with us the most. For me it was, “The Appointment,” and for Dr. Scary, it was “The Poltergeist.”
-PH: Is it for a younger audience? Why do you think it’s important to bring this kind of work to a younger audience?
-Dr. Scary: Weird kids need stories as weird as they are.
-Mr. Gory: Yes, we are totally creating this for a younger audience. It’s important because most people try to tone down things for kids and pander to them. Children and adolescents can always tell that kind of thing. We think that young readers deserve honestly terrifying, but also honest media. We are drawing and writing the kind of thing I would have loved to have access to as a child. So, in a way, we are crafting weird tales for weird kids, like us.
-PH: Why do you think it’s important to bring both writing and illustration together as opposed to just writing a regular book, or illustrating a comic?
-Dr. Scary: This is a great question. In general, I think that many young readers need a stepping stone into reading literature. We aim to strike a principled balance in a few ways. First by linking the writing to images—doing this creates a scaffold for learning. Academic theories like multimodality and dual coding both support the idea that writing alone is not enough to convey complex messages. At the same time, we note the global shift in communications, away from pure-language and toward communications that use images and text together. Think about the runaway popularity of internet memes, or the rise of graphic novels as literature, as examples.
Second, we want the writing to be accessible but also challenging. This is where the verse format comes into play. Verses are short by nature. They relate to oral tales more so than written ones. So, this is more like a conversation or a performance than a stale piece of text. Many kids are intimidated by novels, and reading in general, and we want to cut that intimidation factor out. We want our readers to be challenged by the content of the writing not by the fact that it is written down. Mr. Gory’s artwork; however, is the key here. In terms of the research, the human eye can visually process an image in microseconds—far faster than reading or speaking—and that is all it takes to share our work. My hope is that after seeing the horrific drawings, our audience will want to know what the backstory is, and then our viewers become our readers. It should also be said that the illuminations and the verses are greater than the sum of their parts. Together, they are unsettling amalgams. We hope our audiences utterly devour them, and come back hungry for more.
-Mr. Gory: Combining the two forms of media really makes a more powerful machine to convey our ideas. I think the art will draw people’s attentions and the writing will keep it there!
-PH: Do you consider ‘Verses for Darker Nights’ more of a traditional book, a graphic novel, or something in-between?
-Dr. Scary: We want to contemporize traditional formats. Many of our early readers tell me they find the draft to be exciting and unlike anything they had seen previously, so in that sense it is something novel and new. But, I think the appeal is that it draws on but plays with traditional genres, like the campfire ghost story, or the elder Eddas, myths, and sagas that were originally orally-performed, shared in sociocultural settings. So, in some ways, our project harks back to very traditional narrative structures. But, it is also unconventional in that there are very few verse-format narratives geared towards kids, fewer that are accompanied by illustrations, and fewer still in the weird genres, like horror and science fiction. A good example is Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” but it is a rare example, indeed.
I have a feeling that the writing agents we are pitching the book to are verse-averse. Meaning, they are scared to back poetic projects. I think this fear is unfounded. If “the kids” aren’t reading verse, it is likely because there isn’t anything written in verse that appeals to them, not that verse is inherently wrong for them. Verse and children are inherently good fits. I mean, consider the fact that for millennia, nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and other short narrative fiction were exclusively written for children, told orally, and they very often took the poetic form! We want to revitalize that longstanding tradition. I think, again, going back to the idea about reluctant readers, verse is something that children are already exposed to, and familiar with. Except it is in musical form. And of course, they gobble that up! We think there is a similar multimodal dynamic to “Dr. Scary and Mr. Gory.” For example, where rhyming lyrics are accompanied by musical support in the former, in the latter, rhyming verse is supported by Mr. Gory’s dreadful images!
-Mr. Gory: I consider our medium to be a riff on the traditional image-focused picture book. Where we differ is the horrific things lurking inside!
-PH: Do you think you could make the book so scary and gory that it would be banned?
-Dr. Scary: There is no greater honor that could be bestowed on us than to have our first book be a banned book. You correctly noticed the controversial and subversive undercurrent to our aesthetic. We hope to find a literary agent and publishing house that have the guts to stand with us. So far, they have only told us this: “We are afraid…” Good. They should be afraid. They should be utterly terrified.
-Mr. Gory: If it became banned, it would be inspiring. As you know, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” was banned, and remains one of the most frequently banned books of all time. And that’s our main influence! Also, Harry Potter, one of the most commercially successful books of all time, is also frequently banned for its take on magic, wizards, and witchcraft. But, we should also point out that we tend to not include gratuitous violence and splatter-gore. We find that that’s a cheap thrill, gone in a flash. I would rather just have clever images that are unsettling and horrifying, rather than images that glorify violence. There is enough real-world horror, from wars and famines…Our horror tends to focus on inner anxieties and monstrous creatures.
-PH: Is this the first in a series of books?
-Dr. Scary & Mr. Gory: Yes. After the initial collection, we aim to publish additional books in semi-yearly installments: “Tales of the Macabre,” “Stories for After Dark,” “Dreadful Mythopoetics,” and so on. Thereafter, we envision standalone illustrated narratives, similar to the fictional text, “Mister Babadook,” from the film “The Babadook.” Or perhaps longer tales that reanimate the allegorical form (e.g. “The Captain and The Glory,” by Dave Eggers). Like “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” we want to terrify a generation, or more. While the book could be read in an afternoon, we hope it haunts our readers for life.
-PH: When do you think fans will be able to find your book?
-Dr. Scary: We began the project in 2018. I wrote about ten verses, which I planned on illustrating myself, before my wife—Mrs. Merry—showed me Mr. Gory’s Instagram portfolio. I was immediately, and remain, hooked on Mr. Gory’s grim aesthetic and cryptic style. After, we began meeting, Mr. Gory cranked out illuminations and I cranked out verses. Together, we have about 70 in various stages of completion and have whittled 30 selections for the book. Since October 2019, we have been actively querying literary agents. We have around 30 open queries now; that is, agents we are waiting to hear back from. So, we are hopeful that we will obtain representation soon. We are also aware of the publishing bias against unconventional works, but we maintain that risk, in this regard, is also profit. For instance, “A Wrinkle in Time,” was rejected 26 times, cited as being too “evil” and too difficult for children. Likewise, “Carrie” by Stephen King, was rejected over 30 times—but went on to irrevocably alter the landscape of popular fiction, by way of horror.
-Mr. Gory: We work quite hard on this project, so hopefully soon. Usually we meet once or twice a month, and I draw every day. I know Mr. Gory writes every day. We’ve produced a lot of work and we sent out a whole lot of materials. We are really hopeful about this next batch of queries that went out yesterday.
-PH: Here’s your chance to promote anything we haven’t talk about. Let us know something more about ‘Verses for Darker Nights,” other books, future projects, or anything else you would like to mention.
-Dr. Scary: Mr. Gory and I grew up in the Rust Belt, in the outskirts of Rochester, NY. Our city has deep roots in occult mysticism and graveyard haunts, from the infamous Fox Sisters who lived here to the ghastly tales of Mt. Hope Cemetery. We draw inspiration from our geography and its shared history, but we aren’t limited by that. Dr. Scary and Mr. Gory is about processing emotions, like horror and mirth, but it is also deadly serious about philosophy and ethics. Several of our tales use concepts from environmental conservation. “GARGANTUARMS” is about gigantic ogres whose arms are trees, which, if you chop them down, you’ll release their horror on the earth. Or “IYCHDITCH,” which is something of a parable on climate change, when the ocean’s rise, who knows what will climb out, or what will become of us, as a result? Two verses were recently published, in a juried competition. So, if you buy one, you can say, “I knew them when!” Finally, I want to give a brief account of #OwnVoices, and our relationship with disability. I am late-deafened and live with an incurable neurological disease, with lots of unpleasant side effects. Mr. Gory also has several physical disabilities. We want to promote the idea that diversity is more than just race or gender, but also includes different kinds of bodies, that function in different ways. One of my long-term aspirations, after “Verses for Darker Nights” is published, is to translate all of the tales into American Sign Language, which I am fluent in. There is also the widespread problem of illiteracy and aliteracy across our country, and the world. We hope to be part of the effort to tackle that problem head on—with terrified eyes wide open.
-Mr. Gory: Here’s some shameless self-promotion! We have a Twitter account—where we share progress reports, stories, and images, and we hope you all follow us, and interact with us there. Also, I would love if people followed my Instagram page—which features my portfolio of illustrations. We hope that people will swarm to both sites, and help drive our success. Also, I want to end with a simple idea: children enjoy being scared. Horror and scary stories aren’t just for adults. In general, fear is a delightfully fun emotion, especially for children when they have the autonomy to choose what they are reading or watching, themselves. We hope the youth beckon our call. Come haunt with us!
We would like to thank Dr. Scary and Mr. Gory for taking the time to answer our questions. Hopefully this was a good introduction to them, and what they have in store for horror fans. Be on the lookout for ‘Verses for Darker Nights’ coming sometime soon, and don’t forget to follow them on social media!