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Book Review: A World of God and Monsters by Heather Paxton (2015)

 

“Genius is the recovery of childhood at will” – Rimbaud.

You know, in this cynical, bombastic, hedonist-cum-nihilist day and age, it’s easy enough to think that you will never encounter another work of art that will arouse some sort of real, honest emotional response in you. As you get older, you do tend to realise that any band, or film or book, that brings a rare glimpse of light into an increasingly dark world, is something that makes you remember how violently sensational life used to feel to you when you were growing up, encountering the effects of art of all types in their infinite worldview-rearranging wisdoms and configurations.

And then you encounter a book like….this.

Now. For those of you who are unaware, 61-year-old Heather Paxton, Film Critic and Host, native of Oberlin, Ohio, is one of three older sisters of the horror-and-fantasy-scene-infamous Tim Paxton, the tireless and eternally-producing information factory editor of excellent genre mags like Monster and Weng’s Chop. He’s written more genre stuff in his lifetime than any three or four people could do, and his knowledge of Indian fantasy films is second to none. Tim wanted to honour his creative-minded sister’s constant drawing efforts, so in October 2014 he produced a volume of her works entitled Art by Heather: The Halloween Pumpkin Digest: 50 Jack-o’Lanterns (Volume 1). Unsurprisingly enough, it’s a book of her Halloween-themed pumpkin sketches. This second companion volume of Heather’s artwork follows up on, and continues, her dark-made-light artistic obsessions.

As the book’s title puts it, at least with regard to monsters, wee Heather is preoccupied artistically by ghosts and vampires (her toothy, defanged-anger vamps sometimes look like The Count from Sesame Street to me) and aliens and Frankenstein and monster superheroes and cyclopes and zombies. She and Tim grew up in a household with permissive parents, especially their fantasy-loving mother, where science fiction and horror and fantasy movies were not verboten. Also, Heather loves god, and will sketch crosses and Hindu gods alike with deft aplomb and purity, effortlessly expressing what the vivid neon tunnel vision of her mind is focusing on at that exact moment in time and headspace. Crosses and deities of all stripes and faiths are recurring obsessive themes, but so are fantastical nonexistent creatures, so it all evens itself out in the end, pretty much.

What do I mean by ‘dark-made-light’? Well, what is fascinating about Heather’s illustrations is that zombies, vampires, etc…are often rendered as being smiling. For those of you who do not know, Heather has Down Syndrome, and Alzheimer’s, so what you are getting in her artwork is pretty much as close to perfect, innocent human creative expression as you are ever going to. It’s clear that the beaming images she produces are representations of what has made her happy growing up, and how safe and well-looked-after Tim has made her feel, and the drawings represent her internal crossover associations between the two. There is no blackness in the representation of ostensibly vicious creatures here, as Heather basically has no real conception of (in)human evil. In her wonderous world dark is light is dark, and always the twain shall meet. It’s totally gorgeous. Without a word of a lie, you could get sunburn from reading this book, the pages inside are so gorgeously sunny and radioactive with the vibrant unmediated beauty of a life lived right at the truth of unfiltered perception.

The beauty of her generous free spirit just jumps right off the pages at you, licking your face and heart like a big dog happy to see you, and you can’t help but smile and bask in the sincere and revealing warmth of her blindingly ecstatic worldview. This is not, of course, to romanticise a genetic deficiency, and all the health problems it causes a person and their family, but I truly do mean what I am saying about how euphoric this book is, and what it says about Heather’s view of life. It’s a lot happier than that of you and I, that’s for sure. The drawings are primal, childlike, rudimentary yet totally perfect, eager to communicate and to say hiya, and any parent will recognise these forms and figures as those their own children have carefully produced at one point in their learning artistic attempts. This unforced, genuine touching of deep and secret heartwarming familial places feeds back in on itself in an endless euphoric feedback loop, making your guts glow with recognition and the sudden total recall of a million variant parental memories.

Make no mistake about it, there is love, real, unbreakable-chains love between Tim and Heather here, and in life in general. He looks after her at home, and often posts numerous photos and videos of his sis and how they are getting on in general. It’s incredibly beautiful, and gives you hope for the future of the human race. Timothy Paxton is a man dealing with an incredibly difficult thing, the slow degeneration of his sister’s health, but has been, and is, dealing with it with grace and dignity and unwavering strength. He has done and does all this, tending tirelessly to her needs, for many years, whilst producing endless loops of top-notch genre cognoscenti journalism and magazines, and is an absolute inspiration from start to finish. I have only know Tim since October 2012, but in those 4.5 years I have grown to deeply respect and admire this selfless, incredibly talented man, and the bottomless love he constantly demonstrates for his sister in every walk of life.

I have only met Tim once, at the Fantacon in Albany, New Jersey, in September 2013. I was there to cheerlead my good friend John Walter Szpunar releasing his excellent horror-zine-writers brick-thick tome Xerox Ferox. Tim came up to the table I was sitting at with John, with Heather in tow. Heather was the only person there I was genuinely starstruck by. I genuinely felt a bit in awe, as you do when you see a real star standing in front of you, suddenly expanded from two social-media-represented dimensions to three, and I had to stop my jaw from dropping. Heather Paxton was right in front of me! I’m not joking, either. I have worked with the disabled before, and volunteered with them, and their giddy, innocent conversations have the absolute power to awe and humble. I would much rather talk to somebody it takes five minutes to get a few simple, sincere sentences out of in five minutes, than to some of the ostensibly ‘normal’ people I have met in my life, believe you me.

The Heather’s-brain X-ray illustrations in the book sometimes are transposed from her ever-popping-and-cracking fertile imagination right onto workshop sheets from the sheltered workshop she used to attend. They thus have a base visceral immediacy to them, as if she could not wait to let whatever happy horror vision was buzzing around in her head out to meet and greet the public at large. There are no page numbers in the book, giving the freefloating impression of a constant work in progress, like leaves flying free from a tree in autumn and creating random beautiful patterns on the approving sky. This is Real Art, from a Real Artist, done not from any financial consideration viewpoint, or to be admired or even noticed, but just coming out to play to joyfully celebrate perception and breath and art and life and fantasy and family. Heather attends church in Oberlin, and likes to draw stained glass windows, in whatever shape and shade she feels fits the moment. Her vibrant neon pictures look hewn from the blazing colours thrown by her sun art-partner through the windows onto the church floor, and gently sear themselves onto your retinas. She has had her fine art displayed in public shows, and even sold some too, has had her stuff appear on t-shirt designs and covers of Monster magazine, all of which adds up to a pretty damned fine body of accomplishments all round. Wish that I could say the same!

There is an introduction to the book by Heather’s ‘spiritual daddy,’ The Rev Dr. Brian K. Wilbert, who is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Oberlin, Heather’s place of worship. He draws intelligent comparisons between representations of monsters in the Bible and Heather’s representations of fantastical beasts, and knowingly reconciles her playfueled horror obsessions with her religious outlook, noting no schism or dichotomy. “I am struck to the point of happy tears to see in the cover of this edition of her artwork a cross of rainbow colors flanked by two smiling monsters who appear to be dancing,” he sagely notes, drawing a perfect intersection point between the twin points of Heather’s art and faith. His introduction sits alongside that of another Horror True Believer, the noted artist and dinosaur fan Stephen Bissette, a long-term fan of Heather’s and a friend of Tim’s. He discusses the art of creation done for pure, unabashed joy, and outs himself as a deep admirer of the artist’s unpretentious, celebratory visions of happy horror and smiling benevolent deities of different faiths. And this is coming from a man who knows his fantasy and horror artwork, so you can take his critical observations to the (blood) bank any time you like.

Tragically, Heather is now coming to the end of her life, being under hospice care in the home she shares with her loving younger brother. It’s a sad thing, but Tim can rest assured that, during the 61 years of her life, with his help, she has lived a far more full and happy life than many people with more able bodies and minds have. She is an artist, and a sister, and a member of a church and a community, and has lived contented and well looked after. Tim, you can rest easy when the end comes, knowing that you helped her life a true life, not just a mere an existence. Her happiness and fulfillment will be forever trapped between these barely-containing-it-all pages, just waiting to be sprung again on unsuspecting future readers the minute her two books are opened, enriching the lives of those who choose to meet their contents even half way.

Thank you for bringing us this effortless beauty into our lives, Tim, by sharing your sister with us all, on Facebook and on the printed page, and through your tireless promotion and documentation of your intertwined lives on social media. I consider it a privilege to know you as a friend and as a three-dimensional, fully rounded human being. Your endless photos and videos of you two together have proved your love for each other on a daily basis for many years. Heather has her fans, and so do you. Heather Paxton, thank you for enriching our lives with your gorgeous art and your ever-smiling presence. I for one will always envy your matchless ability to make a vampire smile. It’s a trick that not many can master, and I can’t even really explain it that well, so all I can advise the reader here to do is to shoot on over to Amazon and see for yourself what I am talking about. You will not regret it, trust me.

 

About Graham Rae

Graham Rae has been writing about weird and wonderfueled cinematic oddities for nearly 30 years. He started off writing for the legendary Deep Red, and since then has been bounced around like a human pinball around such venues as Film Threat, American Cinematographer, Cinefantastique, and Realitystudio.org.. A selection of his genre writings are available at www.facebook.com/raewrites, and he runs a Mad Foxes page on Facebook too. You have been warned.

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