Pictures in my Head and Phantoms in my Dreams

The Haunting Aesthetic of Grace Braithwaite

By Michael Aronovitz

Horror Author, College Professor, and Rock Critic

I started teaching college English more than a decade ago and I have been writing dark fiction since the early 90’s. Often, especially lately, I have wondered which of these I enjoy more, or rather, which has provided the return I most treasure. The first assumption, I suppose, would be that I love writing horror stories so much that I am waiting for it to “take me away from all this.” The day-job is great, sure, but maybe someday I will be like Stephen King, living in a mansion, smoking a billiard pipe and watching deer cross through the vast expanse of my twenty-acre estate through the back picture window in my illustrious writing room.

In more a view of practicality; however, one could easily presume that the biggest “take” is teaching college rhetoric classes as an adjunct professor (a part timer contracted a semester at a time). This, of course, provides the steady paycheck, not exorbitant but reasonable, good hours, few meetings, no office politics. Moreover, classroom discipline issues are almost nonexistent and the grading gets to be kind of fun after a while.

Still, I don’t write for money, never did, though I have made enough from advances and royalties to pay for beer and pizza for more than a few winters. Admittedly, I teach for the money, but there is more to it than that. Not only is teaching an art in itself, but I find that story writing and pedagogy are more of a rich blend than a pair of separate ingredients. Both require sharp editing skills. Both deal with human behavior and discovery, and each makes the other more valid.

So much for picture windows and easy hours.

The glory is in the hybrid, and when my affinity for aesthetic darkness meets the magic of the classroom, it is more than gratifying. This semester, I was fortunate enough to have a student named Grace Braithwaite in my Tuesday/Thursday schedule, a freshman in one of my Immaculata classes, and when I happened to mention my association with Lynne Hansen (who has created the cover art for two of my books), Grace told me that she had an interest in art as well. Lucky for me, I managed to convince her to send me some of her work.

I was blown away.

Imagine kicking back in the office after a long day of classes, beer mug in hand, and this shows up on the email.

I am no art critic, never claimed to be, but this pic is extraordinary. The childlike, broad strokes lend to it a bitter innocence, and one doesn’t have to search too far for the overall meaning. I especially like the way the monsters in the subject’s head don’t weaken as they multiply farther off into her stratosphere, yet they grow larger, more lethal.

The pic above is one of Grace’s two portraits of her favorite musical artist, Billie Eilish. I Googled Eilish, and Braithwaite’s depictions are dead-on accurate. Still, the thing that I like so much about this one, (which I call “Spider-Girl), is that the eyes tell a story. This is a gaze withered by time and circumstance, once beautiful and pristine, now weighted and blurred, deflated by harsh realities and the stark ugliness of the world. The lovely part is that her eyes are smiling somehow. And the tragic part is that her eyes are smiling. Still

This one is my favorite of the group, and I call it “The Barbecue Flamethrower Lollipop.” I don’t have a bunch of fancy words to describe this one…but do I really need them? This reminds me of the most impactful metal and rock album covers I have seen, (as well as covers for horror books) with subject matter like smiling skulls, torches in damp caves, floating black rose petals, iron crosses, gothic towers, medieval candles, killer clown masks, chains over razors, meat cleavers, car batteries, breaking knives, bone saws, and battle hatchets.

This one, I call “Girl Looking,” and the thing I find most striking here is the coloring, as nearly half the subject’s face is taking on the hue of the background. I know it is an easy trick to invent symbolism and make up our own text as we go, but I just can’t help but follow an emblematic thread here. It seems that Braithwaite illustrates to us that the world’s hard edges, dark corners, and blackened thunderheads close-in on the individual, inch by inch, moment for moment, year and then year, until we bleed into everyone else’s background mural. We are inevitably blurred to invisibility and then left alone with our demons.

Grace Braithwaite was raised in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and she is studying to be a clinical psychologist. She started drawing at the age of five, and her favorite metal band is Black Veil Brides. Braithwaite is also a singer/songwriter, and as many great artists do, she finds the most inspiration from “dark headspace.”

At the moment, Grace Braithwaite has not provided the artwork for a horror book or metal band. She should. Don’t you agree?