Ecstatic Nightmares: Exploring the astral and alien with Camille Rose Garcia in her new illustrated novel | Haute Macabre

Ecstatic Nightmares: Exploring the astral and alien with Camille Rose Garcia in her new illustrated novel

Janaka Stucky is a poet, performer, and publisher whose latest book, Ascend Ascend, is now available from Third Man Records & Books. Find him at and on Instagram.

Camille Rose Garcia’s surreal, narrative paintings of wasteland fairy tales and candy-bright landscapes established her as a seminal artist in the LA lowbrow movement. Her work has been displayed internationally and featured in numerous magazines including Juxtapoz, Rolling Stone, and Modern Painter, and is included in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Resnick Collection, and the San Jose Museum of Art, which held a retrospective of her work, entitled “Tragic Kingdom.” She recently published  “The Cabinet of Dr. Deekay” (Sympathetic Press), a dystopian horror fairytale which she wrote and illustrated over a six-year period in the Redwoods of Northern California. Camille and I originally connected over magic and art last year, after I appeared as a guest on Pam Grossman’s Witch Wave podcast, and have since cultivated a long distance friendship. When “The Cabinet of Dr. Deekay” was released, I eagerly asked if I could talk with her about it for Haute Macabre.

Janaka Stucky: Your primary identity in the world is as a visual artist, and while you’ve illustrated other books, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Charles Perrault’s Cinderella, this is your first foray into longform text-based story telling. What inspired you to put pen to paper, and what was it like working in the medium of language for you as an artist?

Camille Rose Garcia:  My very first creative obsessions, as a child, were illustrated story books and animation, specifically the early Walt Disney animations and Max Fleischer cartoons, and I drew those characters obsessively as a child and wrote little stories for them. At that time in my life, my mother was a single mom and had a really abusive alcoholic boyfriend that lived with us and created a climate of chaos and fear. The books and animations kind of provided a necessary means of escapism and survival for me, in that I actually felt like I was portaling to different worlds through those books and cartoons. Books became like magic objects for me, like a genie lamp, they gave me the ability to be somewhere else in my mind. I had a really grand collection of these magical books by the age of 6.

Anyway at one point my mom was out of town and we were in the care of the Alcoholic BF, and he decided that would be a good time to throw away all of my books. So from that point on, I sort of carried the stories in my mind instead, but I never really got over the loss of those books.

So let’s fast forward… After illustrating Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, and Cinderella, I started to be annoyed by the fact the classic fairy tales we know today were all penned by men. Women didn’t really have the same opportunities as men in those days. So I had the idea that I wanted to write and illustrate something kind of major, longer than a kid’s book, but at this point it was a vague idea of, “oh I should do that someday”.

Well, the universe has funny ways of inspiring ideas, and the catalyst came to me after a great dental odyssey which, I’m sure, can be the topic of the next question. 

Working in the medium of language has similarities to painting, film, and also music in that every word and sentence had kind of a color and a tone and harmony and elegance and all of those things and I guess I approached it somewhat the same as I approach painting. At some point it starts forming itself and telling you what it wants to be. I think since I didn’t go to school for writing, there was also a certain freedom in the writing of it, I really wanted it to convey a sense of playfulness.

JS: Yes, it’s amazing how simply switching mediums can free us from what we think we ‘should’ create, and allows us to just have fun! That playfulness definitely comes through in the story and characters, as does the influence of early Disney and Fliescher work—which even without your psychedelic lens often feels marginally nightmarish, like there’s a madness lurking just below the surface… So, yes, tell me more about this “great dental odyssey!”

CRG:  yes, a horror tale was promised! So I’ve had terrible teeth my entire life, they sort of quit on me early. We never had any money growing up. I had intermittent and terrible dentistry most of the time. I had a root canal done quickly by an angry Russian man that felt like he shoved all the pain and disappointment of his life into my molar. That tooth never was right after that.

It got to a point where I was told I needed a full mouth reconstruction because almost every tooth was failing. All the root canals I had had done previously were infected at the root and would have to be re-done. I also needed quite a few new root canals. So this was a process of flying down to LA, getting a week of work done, and flying back up north to the woods where I live, and this went on for a period of months. 

So I flew down for what was going to be a difficult week. 11 Root canals (the 6 that needed re-doing) plus 5 new ones,  plus gum surgery at the end of the week as the cherry on top.

I got through the first 9 root canals, then the last two were scheduled on the Friday morning with the gum surgery occurring in the afternoon. 

The last two root canals were in the front two teeth, and the right one numbed my ocular nerve temporarily so that I was focused in two different dimensions of space. They gave me an eye patch to wear so that  I could at least walk. The dentist gave me a pre-surgery pill that was supposed to help with anxiety, since I chose not to be put under anesthesia. 

He gave me an Ativan, which I’ve never taken, and I had what is called an atypical reaction to the pill. It was like someone gave me bad acid and a roofie at the same time… I couldn’t focus, my brain was coming undone from my body, I  was hallucinating, throwing up, having severe depressive thoughts, crying, and amnesia. This went on for the rest of the day, then I passed out for like a day and a half. I don’t remember anything after the first few hours.

Needless to say, they recognized what was happening and postponed the surgery, but the long term effects of the whole experience created a kind of layered trauma that mirrored the earlier trauma I felt as a child, unable to control my surroundings or experiences.  I felt very vulnerable and fragile. 

A couple of months later I got the seed of the story in my brain and I just jotted down a quick little paragraph. That’s sort of how it started.

JS: That is a terrifying and stunning origin story for this book! I feel a kind of kinship to it on the flip side, because the seed for  my own recent book also came from a psychedelic vision—but it was intentional and joyous, though utterly overwhelming. You can’t write from that place but I think as artists we are then energized to *write to* that place. We traffic in symbols to express the inexpressible. On a related note: I’m fascinated by how different physical and psychological inputs create waves / plant seeds for future artistic output. You’ve mentioned to me in conversation that moving to the woods changed the tenor and aesthetic of your visual art. Can you elaborate?

CRG: Oh I love that phrase,  “We traffic in symbols to express the inexpressible”. That’s exactly it. Processing, even subconsciously, the collective trauma of living in a society that’s an elaborate military/industrial death cult, with the end-game of Capitalism being a lose-lose for everyone, most people know this instinctively but don’t have the time or energy to closely examine it or even to know how to change it. As an artist I really believe that is my #1 job to be able to distill the essence of that collective horror into something accessible. Most people understand symbolism from cartoons, fairy tales, movies, novels, and popular culture, so I like to pull from those reference points. “The Cabinet of Dr. Deekay” references horror movies, Kafka, Borges, Orwell, Willy Wonka, Max Fleisher, many different cultural touchstones. I wanted it to be something that operates on multiple levels of understanding, and the use of symbolism really creates a shortcut to a subconscious understanding of the story. 

As to the second part of the question, I would love to elaborate on that! I moved to the deep woods of Northern California in 2007 from Los Angeles, where I had lived my entire life, and it did and continues to profoundly change me and change the work that I do on multiple levels. Now keep in mind, I actually live within a national forest, so the ecosystem here is intact. It hasn’t been messed with too much.  I’m trying to find the words to express this…. I guess the main thing is that in my daily life, I am not surrounded by the cacophony and the busyness of a man-made world, filled with constant distractions and an incessant and exhausting barrage of noise and light pollution. And by not having all of that surrounding me constantly, I have been able to hear the much quieter language of nature and I can start to understand what it is, that it IS magic, constant, creative Magic happening all around me all of the time. Everything is blindingly alive and communicating with me. And it’s HAPPY. It’s dancing, it’s singing, it’s in a constant slow-motion ecstacy being in love with itself. And being inside of that bubble profoundly changes a person and it made me want to make paintings in the same kind of way, with the same kind of ecstatic love of color and harmony and pattern, and to be able to express to people that maybe don’t live surrounded by nature, why it’s important to think about preserving it.

The modern world made by man, and by Capitalism in particular, has such profound logistical flaws. It misunderstands the nature of the world and her basic operating systems. It turns everything Magic into landfill, it doesn’t really recognise what it’s interacting with. It doesn’t speak the same language. And it’s trying to train humans to be machines that don’t understand the language of Nature. And you can never understand it if you can’t hear it.

JS: I love the idea of ‘expressing to people that don’t live surrounded by nature, why it’s important to think about preserving it’ through one’s art. It speaks to art’s role as a communicating vessel for shared experience and amplifier of empathic connection. At the same time, the “landscapes” in your work are astral and alien. How do you see the sense of wonder they create in the audience as related to that sense of wonder you feel in nature, and how is cultivating that wonder important for us as a species moving forward?

This is literally the question I ask myself almost every day i’m alive and will probably be asking myself until I am dust in the ground and even after that as a ghost, haunting buildings that house my paintings, staring at them with a critical eye, and wondering if I was ever actually able to communicate that sense of wonder in any meaningful way.  And it brings to mind, you mentioning the landscapes as “astral and alien”, a few things specifically that sent me in that creative direction, and those things were the death of David Bowie, the Voyager space probes, (they have recently left our solar system and are now traveling in interstellar space) and last but not least Pythagoras. I’ll delve into the specifics of these but everything always does circle back to the main question, is it possible to change people through creative work? And of course the answer is YES, it is the HOW that becomes the lifelong pursuit and decent sometimes into madness.

When Bowie died, I didn’t really plunge myself into despair, because it wasn’t like all of his MUSIC disappeared, so I didn’t feel a huge sense of loss. But I wondered where he was going next and I imagined it being some other gorgeous lush planet, maybe with two Suns, and I wondered if he would make the same kind of music on that other planet. At the same time I was fairly obsessed with the Golden Record floating in space (on the Voyager probe), and became fixated with the fact that there’s a Chuck Berry song on that record. It got me wondering if each planet has its own particular kind of music, with tones or scales that are only available on those planets, but because of Pythagoras, the logical conclusion is NO. All the planets are working with the same numbers, geometries, harmonies and scales. And what this means is that anywhere in the universe you put your Chuck Berry record, the basic vibe of it is going to resonate. David Bowie is going to resonate.  So that got me thinking about making landscapes on other planets, with two Suns, maybe a slightly different light spectrum. The geometry of the plants would be the same, there just might be something in the color that is alien. So I started exploring that concept, as a way to instill that sense of wonder by looking at the same thing in a new way. And I think, as creative people, that’s what we do really. We look at the same things everyone else is looking at, but we look at it in a new way with the eyes of a newborn child and when you look at things that way everything becomes amazing and infused with wonder.

As to the last part of your WONDERFUL question, I think cultivating that wonder,  as a species, is critical to our understanding of what we are doing and what our purpose is and what we are capable of. But if we don’t see the world, the universe, or ourselves, as anything magical at all, we are missing the point of it. And my job is to make people see what I see. And what I see is amazing.

The Cabinet of Dr. Deekay and more are available now in Camille Rose Garcia Shop