Interview with Joseph Vargo by Maynard Blackoak - July 2011

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Greetings Joseph! I have long been an admirer of your many talents from your art, writings, to your musical work with Nox Arcana. How do you find time to manage all three?

You really have to commit yourself to your craft and have the discipline to focus your best effort on every project. I love to create new things, so I spend between 10 to 14 hours a day working on projects to appease my various passions. Most of the time, I work straight through the weekends. Like I always say, there’s no rest for the wicked. Occasionally, my friends drag me out of my dungeon to have some fun. I really enjoy having a number of creative outlets, but it definitely interferes with having an active social life. Making your work a priority is a lot easier when you love what you’re doing.

Just trying to master one of the arts is difficult enough for most. You have been able to master all of them. How is that you are able to accomplish that feat and sustain a high level of quality?

I appreciate the compliment, but I don’t feel that I’ve mastered any of the arts I practice. I’m very driven to challenge myself with new projects, and like most artists, I’m very critical of my own work. I really spend a lot of time with the details of each project and just keep my mind focused on the goal I’ve set. It’s very easy to lose sight of what you set out to accomplish. If a particular piece isn’t heading in the right direction, you have to be willing to pick it apart and start over. I rework many of my paintings, musical compositions and stories several times before I’m satisfied with them. Occasionally, the initial idea is strong enough to carry through to the end of the creative process, but most of the time I’ll come up with new ideas to make the piece better and apply them along the way.

Which of them pose the biggest challenge for you?

Art and music come very naturally to me, but writing requires the most concentration. The challenge with any artistic outlet is to add a unique touch to make the work original. People judge art very quickly. Their eyes wash over a painting, and they instantly know what they like or dislike about it. Music takes slightly longer to stimulate the senses. Sometimes a song has to grow on you before you can appreciate it to the fullest. A book takes the longest to assess. Some stories are completely engrossing from cover to cover, but others may take several chapters to capture the reader’s interest, or lose it completely.
      Art puts a vivid image in the viewer’s mind and music evokes a specific mood, whereas writing allows you to explain your thoughts in precise detail. I keep all these things in mind while I’m working, and I often create music and stories for my paintings so I can convey my concepts in a way that stimulates several senses.

Your work in Gothic art is second to none. The dark imagery you create is not only chilling but also captures the delicate mystical side of darkness. What fuels your imagination to inspire the remarkable images you create?

Thank you. Again, I appreciate the compliment. Basically, I just love these things. Vampires, gargoyles, ghosts and bewitching enchantresses are among my favorite subjects to paint. The dark side piques my curiosity and stimulates my imagination— the mysteries that lurk in the shadows of our minds, the occult, the supernatural, and secrets buried in mankind’s forgotten past. When I wonder about these things, I form images and stories in my mind in order to explain and understand their hidden secrets. I also love creating a classic Gothic mood, which to me, is a balance between unsettling darkness, elaborate artistry and melancholy beauty.
         I have always been drawn to these things. Even when I was very young, I loved monster movies, dark fairy tales and ghost stories. As I grew older, I found that my childhood interests still held my fascination. I feel extremely fortunate to be able to make a living doing what I love, creating things that can be appreciated by people with similar dark interests. If my work can inspire the next generation of artists, that’s all the better.

Frank Frazetta greatly influenced you early on as an artist. Did you ever have the opportunity to have him view your work?

Sadly no, but I did meet his wife, Ellie, on two occasions when I visited the Frazetta Museum in Pennsylvania. She was a terrific lady, with a sharp eye for art and a keen mind for business. She managed all of Frank’s business affairs. She looked at a portfolio of my art back in 1991 and gave me some nice compliments. Most of my work back then was done exactly in Frank’s style, so it was pretty easy to recognize his influence. She gave me some very good advice about striving to be original, which I suspect she gave to all the young Frazetta clones that came to the museum. In any case, her advice hit home and I began to hone my own style, painting things the way I saw them in the shadows of my mind.

Is your muse the same for writing, painting and music?

No. With my art and music, I am driven to create a universal balance between my themes, depicting both the horror and beauty of darkness, balancing the sinister and the morose with night’s romantic majesty. I strive to capture a wide variety of emotional states, ranging from sheer terror to exhilarating passion to blissful surrender.
      My writing is strictly horror, although I mainly like to write gothic tales dealing with supernatural topics, a large portion of my fiction deals with contemporary horror themes. Much of this comes from the gloom-shrouded recesses of my own imagination, where my own sinister muse dwells.

You have written many short stories and books. Which one of them do you view with the most sense of accomplishment? What makes it stand out to you?

I’m going to have to give you a two-part answer to that. At this point in time, I would have to say the novella The Legend Of Darklore Manor. It was based on the first Nox Arcana cd, Darklore Manor, so I had already created a soundtrack and basic story outline before writing the book. This presented a problem, because I had locked-in certain story elements and characters years earlier, before I began my first draft of the book. It was a real challenge to stick to the original tale and fill in the gaps with new ideas, but it really came together nicely. The end result is a classic haunted house story dripping with gothic imagery, creepy twists and dark, Lovecraftian elements.
         I’m currently working on the sequel to Tales from the Dark Tower. The new book, Beyond the Dark Tower, continues the saga of the vampire lord Brom and his quest to discover and resolve the dark mysteries that surround a forsaken Romanian castle. The stories are filled with gothic elements such as vampires, ghosts, living gargoyles, werewolves, witches and dark angels. The second book is close to completion and I am also working on a new Nox Arcana cd based on my Dark Tower mythos. Eventually there will be three books to finish the trilogy, and I think the completed series of over 50 stories and poems based on my artwork, with its own original soundtrack, will give me the best sense of accomplishment.

As an avid reader of Dark Realms, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that publication and its importance to the gothic community. Why was it discontinued and do you see it ever starting up again?

It was great to be part of a magazine that catered to an intelligent audience who found beauty and intrigue in the shadows. It was also very rewarding to be able to promote talented artists, writers and musicians who were generally overlooked by mainstream publications. Christine and I are very proud of Dark Realms, but it was really a lot of work creating, publishing and distributing the magazine. Because we were also working on numerous other projects simultaneously, we had zero time for ourselves. During the eight years of the magazine’s publication, Christine and I both had annual calendars of our art, we published two decks of fortune-telling cards, wrote and published three new books, and launched several new t-shirt and poster designs. I also released ten CDs with Nox Arcana between 2003 and 2008. Aside from being managing editor, Christine also wrote numerous articles and reviews, and created the Madame Endora segment. I painted the cover art, contributed the occasional short story, and created the Doctor Arcana features.
      It was a very successful project, but the horrors of dealing with distributors in the publishing industry are beyond the worst things encountered in the darkest tales of terror. Due to the current state of the magazine industry, I don’t see Dark Realms ever being resurrected.

You have been involved with several bands over the years. Were any of those experiences beneficial in helping you assemble Nox Arcana and establish it’s musical direction?

I try to glean wisdom from all my experiences, both good and bad. My experiences with rock bands in the early years were all very positive. I honed my songwriting skills, and learned a lot about composition, melody, harmony and solid music structure. I retained this information, along with the knowledge learned from my own mistakes, and put it to use later in my career.
      When I worked with my first gothic instrumental project, I had some very lofty goals that could not be achieved due to the limited vision and talents of the other band members. Whenever an idea arose that challenged them, they’d disregard it, opting to and stick to safe, familiar territory. They were more worried about the marketability of the project, rather than its musical merits. It was artistically stifling. They didn’t want to take any chances with composition, instrumentation or album concept, and the music began to sound stale and rehashed. My original vision was being compromised, and that inspired me to break free and pursue my ideas by starting my own project.
      In Nox Arcana, we constantly challenged ourselves to create drastically different soundscapes to convey a wide variety of moods and themes. If we ran into any obstacles, we figured out ways to achieve our desired goals without ever forsaking an idea because it was too difficult or time-consuming. All of the Nox Arcana cds conjure different moods, settings and time periods, but our underlying style is still very recognizable.

Knowing your deep appreciation for horror legends Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe, how have they inspired you personally on your journey as artist, writer and musician?

Stoker gave birth to the classic vampire novel. Dracula is a masterpiece of Gothic fiction, mixing folklore with original horror concepts. It establishes a brooding atmosphere of menace, terror, mystery and romance, depicting both the horror and beauty that darkness holds. This is something that I strive to do with my music and art—to convey the idea that things that dwell in the shadows aren’t inherently evil. The night holds as many wonders as it does dangers.
      Poe was the ultimate tortured soul who captured his own pain and sadness in his stories and poems. His morbid tales of murder and madmen were grotesque and gripping, yet artfully penned. These weren’t just mindless stories of torture and bloodshed, they were Gothic tales, crafted with great skill. His poems, The Raven,” and “Annabel Lee” are beautiful, heart-wrenching stories of lost love and melancholy memories. Poe’s work influenced me to find inspiration in some of my own tragic memories and experiences.

Like you, I was an ardent fan of the original Dark Shadows. Also like you, I remember running home from school to watch it. To many of us, Dark Shadows was the holy grail of television shows, something sacred and revered. Now Tim Burton is doing a movie based upon the original with Johnny Depp as Barnabas. As a fan of the original, what advice would you like to give Tim Burton and Johnny Depp for the remake?

They used to remake movies and shows with reverence for the original, however, the trend in the last decade has been to “re-envision” the source material, usually changing it so drastically that it becomes barely recognizable. The few examples of successful re-envisioning are Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which returned to the original novel and added some great gothic imagery, and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, which also expounded upon the original tale with the addition of some very cool horror elements. It reminded me of the way Richard Matheson crafted screenplays for the film adaptations of Poe’s work, adding macabre elements from Poe’s other stories.
      Dark Shadows has been re-worked several times with three previous movie adaptations and the tragically short-lived television resurrection in the early 90s. Dan Curtis always kept continuity with every version of his creation, but he passed away a few years ago, so this new adaptation may be very different from the tale we’re familiar with. I would strongly recommend that they keep all the classic elements that made Dark Shadows so memorable—the portrait of Barnabus, the trademark wolf’s head cane, the Collins family crypt, the majestic Collinwood mansion, and of course, the eerie theme music. Also, don’t take liberties with the characters or story lines. Keep the plot centered on Barnabus, Angelique and Quentin and the dark secrets they harbor. Johnny Depp does a great job of disappearing into his characters, and I think he could make a very cool vampire. If he delivers a serious performance, I think he’ll be great.
      As for the production, I would love to see them elaborate on the costumes and sets, giving Collinwood and its haunted denizens a wicked, big-budget look, like Tim Burton did with Sleepy Hollow. It would be impossible to retell the entire saga in one film, but if they can condense the best elements, they can leave it open for a sequel. If Burton doesn’t screw it up, the fans will definitely want one.

You have been a fan of horror since an early age. Which horror movies from your youth remain your favorites still to this day?

Most of the classic Universal monster movies still hold a fond place in my heart. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman and The Creature from the Black Lagoon were the basis for some of my earliest nightmares. I also still love the old American International films based on Poe’s gothic tales, especially Masque of the Red Death, The Fall of the House of Usher, and my personal favorite, The Pit and the Pendulum. I still enjoy watching the original 1963 version of The Haunting, which I appreciate even more now than when I first saw it. But the one old horror film that really stands out to me is Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. It’s a gothic masterpiece and it scared the hell out of me when I was a kid. It drew me to the dark side, and continues to inspire me each time I watch it.

Given the fascinating and multifaceted life you’ve led, have you considered writing an autobiography?

I don’t think a story about a guy who sits around in a studio all night, painting and making music would interest that many people. Besides, I still have so many other projects that I want to add to my body of work before I sit back and reminisce about my accomplishments.

I want to thank you for allowing me the privilege of interviewing you. Do you have any scheduled personal appearances or Nox Arcana shows coming this year? Do you have anything else you’d like to tell your many fans concerning upcoming projects or plans?

It was my pleasure, Maynard. I don’t really make many personal appearances. I love meeting my fans, but I’m constantly working on new projects, usually several at once. Because of my hectic work schedule, I don’t really have time for the convention circuit. Nox Arcana is strictly a studio project, so there are no plans for any concert tours. I’ve built a wall of mystery around myself, so I’ll just return to Gothic realm and stay here among the shadows.