“This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa, where black stars hang in the heavens, where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon when the twin suns sink into the Lake of Hali; and my mind will bear forever the memory of the Pallid Mask.”
R.W. Chambers' The King in Yellow has inspired generations of horror readers, influencing writers like H.P. Lovecraft and the crew behind True Blood. Lanternfish Press will bring a brand-new edition for readers and academics alike in April. We sat down with illustrator Mike Jackson to chat about the challenges, influences, and much more.
Hi, Mike! We're very excited to introduce you to our readers. What were some aspects you had to keep in mind while working on the illustrations for this book?
The biggest thing I tried to keep in mind was 'Would this illustration add to or take away from the reading experience?' The book is filled with visuals that I think are more valuable when the reader gets to build them in his or her head. I didn't want to do anything that take away from the reader's own personal scene-setting.
Did you encounter any unexpected challenges?
The biggest challenge was probably keeping in the back of my mind the connection between King in Yellow and True Detective. I haven't seen the show, but I know how much friends enjoyed it—insisting that I had to see it. (Sorry, y'all.) I knew what the Lanternfish folks had in mind for this release of the book—to make it a definitive edition for a modern reader—and I knew that people might connect those dots. I wanted to make artwork that did justice to that desire to go back and see what influenced the thing that was currently speaking to them. Just like when I started listening to Hank Williams when I read of his influence on Bruce Springsteen.
All of the illustrations were done in ink, which was new to me. I usually work in watercolor, which is a bit more malleable. Unlike watercolor, once ink dries, it dries. And wet ink looks darker than dry ink.
I decided on ink because—and maybe this sounds silly—I wanted to be in a dark state of mind. When I'd talk about The King in Yellow, the word I used most was 'unsettling.' It seems each story would leave me slightly unnerved. The fear never unfolded on the pages, it announced itself in the time AFTER I'd been reading. The more I thought about what I'd read, the more uncomfortable I'd get. The King in Yellow plays the long game. Working with ink brought that feeling to the present-tense of making artwork. Working in only ink brought a similar anxiety to thinking about what I'd read, because it was familiar, but never enough to feel like I was in complete control.
The King in Yellow is a collection of short stories written over a hundred years ago. Do you have a favorite story in the collection?
"The Yellow Sign" is like a playground for potential illustration. The pacing of that story is brilliant. "The Street of the Four Winds" perfectly exemplifies the feeling that The King in Yellow provides in general—where things feel normal enough almost the entire time, until you realize that you shouldn't have gotten involved in the first place, because you're too far into a situation now to get out.
What artists, writers, or other creatives have influenced you and your work?
My gold-standard illustration heroes are Al Hirschfeld, David Stone Martin, and Steve Brodner They can all say so much with so little, and they all rely on movement as much as they do line. Their work is endlessly rewarding in its simplicity.
Recently, I've been obsessing over children's books like LeUyhen Pham's artwork in Fallingwater: The Building of Frank Lloyd Wright's Masterpiece, and Remi Courgeon's work in Feather. E.B. Lewis' work in Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis feels spontaneous and timeless. I bought that after reading John Lewis' autobiography, Walking with the Wind, and E.B. Lewis perfectly captured the innocence and ambition of a young Lewis. There are so many more, but those are the most recent, so they're top-of-mind.
Music is a huge influence for me, because I can listen to it while doing other things. (Like drawing.) I've been doing a deep dive on Jason Isbell recently, because of what I describe as the economy of his lyrics. A line in his songs is like dabbing a brush filled with watercolor into a cup of water and watching it spread out—or cream into a cup of coffee, if watercolor isn't your thing—he goes so far with so little. And he is devastatingly effective in his simplicity.
Where can our readers find you online if they'd like to learn more about you and your work?
My website is alrightmike.com, but I'm most active on Instagram, @alrightmike. I try to share pretty regularly on there—sketches, influences, finished artwork. It's currently the first place where I share a new piece, or a new thing about which I'm excited. I most enjoy talking about my work (and anything, really) in person, though, over coffee or an old fashioned. So don't hesitate to drop me a line!