There are those for whom the primal, base instincts of our nature is not hidden beneath a waxy façade of normality. For many of us in the culture, business, and obsession of tattoos, we wear our demons on the outside. There are few in the tattoo industry who have not been astounded by the unique compositions of Dan Henk, resident tattoo artist at Third Dimension Tattoo and now the proud owner of Abyss Art Studio.
From magazine art to comic art, Henk has made a name for himself in the tattoo industry, and has undoubtedly left his mark on the world of Horror. Known for his brushwork photo realism in black and gray and astounding illustrations, Henk is an artist of many faces.
Drawing on a lifetime of love for horror and science fiction, Henk tried his hand at a different vision. In 2015, Henk published his first novel, The Black Seas of Infinity with Permuted Press, adding the written word to his already stunning repertoire of macabre artwork.
Henk truly lives in the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft in his collection of short stories, Down Highways in the Dark…By Demons Driven. Down Highways cements Henk’s name among the cannon psychological and gruesome horror masters.
Take a Trip Down the Road With Dan Henk
Down Highways In the Dark…By Demons Driven
The Horror genre has been preoccupied with exploring the depths of depravity that exist within every human being. Those who write and revel in the cathartic practice of fictional horror are neither the most frightening nor the most threatening among us. Men and women of keen awareness and heightened senses tend to be the most adept at accessing the most base and primal aspects of the human soul.
Time to take a ride with one of them…
I would normally say, “Where to begin? It was all so good!” and that is still entirely true. But in this instance, I actually do know where to begin. I read “Christmas is Cancelled” first. In fact, I read it before I even got my hands on the collection itself. I met Dan at the Star of Texas Tattoo Expo in January of 2018. With Christmas still fresh in everyone’s mind, it practically called out to me. Dan kindly handed it to me.
Daily I am reminded that the nicest people I have ever met are usually head-to-toe tattoos.
“Christmas Is Cancelled” is like nothing you’ve ever read before. A timeless legend will meet a fate of endless horror that nothing can stop. It was the first time I’d read an indie author who could raise the hackles within just a few pages. The punk rock side of my brain delighted in the violation of a subject that’s usually off limits. It was a delightful display of abject decrepitude. However, Henk’s work is darker than that. Beneath the fun veneer of gruesome slasher horror lays primal disgust.
Henk does not limit his environs. Nowhere is safe. Just try to stand downwind of Henk’s characters/victims. You don’t want to get hit with the perpetual pink spray. Henk handles gore in this collection the way an artist might splash paint across a blank canvas. Blood splatter is merely part of the whole package. Anyone can kill a character, slowly, violently. Henk dispenses with gory pleasantries. He vastly prefers dismantling characters bit by bit, not with a knife or axe, but with the slow unraveling of the mind.
Throughout Down Highways, Henk explores the depraved depths of the human mind. Henk reveals the demons that lay at the heart of even average-looking individuals. The humanity Henk describes spends their entire lives trying to hide the disgusting evil that lurks behind their masks. They roll lidless eyes and flick their lizard tongues while they drool honeyed words to distract and dissemble. Ultimately, the most evil among us hide in plain sight. Henk takes this theory to the next level in “The Small Spaces in Time”, which truly deserved a place in Dark Regions Press’ 2017 publication, Nightmare’s Realm.
The author also examines the impact of trauma on the young mind. Henk traverses the dangers of extreme conservatism that drives youth to rebellion simply to survive their hostile upbringing. Previously, Henk turned this introspective on governmental control in The Black Seas of Infinity. In Down Highways, he turns this examination toward the nuclear family. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in “Dr. Seuss is Dead”, “The Beauty of Ignorance”, and “Down Highways in the Dark”.
At the heart of each of these stories is a sense of whirling through time and space, as powerless to act upon the events around us as we would be drowning in an undertow. Henk’s characters find themselves lost in sweeping vistas of anarchy as they blunder their way through horrors of the soul.
In this respect, this author pays homage to the great master of psychological horror, H.P. Lovecraft.
Sweeping Vistas of Anarchy
Henk expounds on Lovecraft’s ability to build mind-bending expanses of supernatural horror. Lovecraft was only just beginning to find his own voice when he died. It is the welcome burden of authors who followed him to carry on that work. Henk details every single one of his stories with needle-point precision, the mark of a great author and a great tattoo artist. Exposition is balanced with dramatic, awe-inspiring landscapes for Henk’s characters/victims to plummet through. Everything is stunningly painted. Henk can blind his reader with inky blackness, or stop the heart with autumn light.
Setting is important in Henk’s work in the same way setting is important to Sci-Fi and Fantasy writers. Though many of Henk’s stories start out in Suburban America, they don’t stay that way. It is not long before the landscape turns vile and threatening, even if that landscape is a backwoods trailer house away from encroaching civilization, or a sprawling cityscape.
Even the most mundane settings do not feel safe and inviting. Each new scene holds a different sense of hostility and vague threat. Henk capitalizes on feelings of fear of the unknown. As his characters traverse the universe of the mundane or of the mind, Henk reminds us that traveling to new places holds a special kind of paranoia. Even if escaping the present setting is vital for survival, there is a sense of distrust. The previous place might be untenable, but it was a known evil. We see this in “Down Highways” especially, and also in “The Small Spaces In Time”.
All of these things are merely tools in Henk’s cabinet (right beside the Nitrile gloves Dermalize Pro). Our fear of the unknown is punctuated by the fear of what follows us back.
We Are Not Alone
Part and parcel of the Lovecraftian horror legacy is the soul-crushing knowledge that we are not alone, that we have never been alone in the universe, nor even on this planet. “The Beauty of Ignorance”, “Oh The Horror”, “Down Highways”, and “Eye Deep In Hell” explore the possibility that our planet harbors secrets that are better left undiscovered.
These stories do not fall into the mythos camp of those who fight back against the cosmic forces of evil. Henk’s characters are powerless to escape or change their fate. Doom is waiting around every corner. Henk and Lovecraft share an existentialism that scoffs at the idea of reclaiming meaning for the human soul in this collection.
“Oh The Horror”, “Eye Deep in Hell” and “The Beauty of Ignorance” explores the malignant presence of beings that we cannot–dare not–explain. Only once does Henk touch upon the possibility that these powers from outside might be useful. Ultimately, no matter how you toy with the powers from outside, no matter how hard you struggle, for Henk’s characters, there is usually no escape.
Dan Henk proves he is able to tap into that place in the heart of readers that even we would keep safe, and he plows through it. He drags it up and forces you to peer into it. He paints lavish landscapes of cosmic horror that Pickman himself would be proud of. If you value your reputation as a reader of the weird, do not miss Dan Henk and Down Highways in the Dark…By Demons Driven.
About the Author
Dan Henk splits his time between Third Dimension Tattoo in Marshalls Creek, Pennsylvania and his new studio Abyss Art Studio in Long Beach, New York. Having met the man and knowing a little bit of his own story, Third Dimension’s theory that he might be a cyborg is sounding pretty plausible at this point. He also teaches Muy Thai.
Like most people on the Internet, I try to keep myself surrounded by people who share my interests. I don’t necessarily agree with everyone on everything, and I feel like our differences are just as important as what all my friends and I have in common. Not all of us think Bernie is a great candidate. Not all of us think Trump is off his rocker. The divide comes when someone’s opinion is not just different, but genuinely uncivil, and borders on hateful. This I cannot have anywhere near me, and so I was surprised to see it pop up in my feed.
It starts out the same as all troll fights on Facebook do. One day, Guy who is a friend of a friend (I’ve actually never met him, though we all live in the same city) comes off as being in the same wheelhouse as me: we’re into Geek culture, and we like Lovecraft. The next day, Guy who I’ve decided I can be palls with if not bosom buddies says he doesn’t like anime.
Normally I don’t care. You don’t like anime? Fine. I don’t like ham. We’re not criminals.
What I don’t like are those Facebook post invitations to drama. They don’t start out civil with “I watched Cowboy Beebop, but I don’t quite get it, and I don’t think I dig it.” It started out, “Does anyone else not see the big deal with Anime?”
I wish I could have taken a screenshot before I unfriended the guy. Now I can’t see the post because my settings are too high and I have likes and notifications turned off. I can’t even see it through my mutual friends.
“Does Anyone Else Not See the Big Deal With Anime?”: The Clubhouse
There are a couple things wrong with the post in question:
1) It is an exclusive question. It invites people who share that opinion to harmonize while excluding people who do not share that opinion, and it does so in a public way. This is now a private conversation among a certain set of friends that has been made public.
2) Posts like this don’t just invite people who share an opinion to talk while excluding the other side; it also gives the post-er the opportunity to degrade people who don’t share that opinion. Sure not everyone does that, but the vast majority of people who pose these questions are looking for validation for their feelings. Someone interested in opening conversation doesn’t usually start off in the negative.
Remember when we were kids and we all made up those stupid clubs on the playground or around the neighborhood? A bunch of the girls around the block didn’t like that I was a tom boy. I was habitually excluded from their activities, all the more painful when you consider they had no problem with my twin sister. You all know the ones. They get in the tent or into the tree house and put a big sign on the door. “No Boys Allowed–and that includes you because you look like a boy!”–at least that was the one that pertained to me. I may not have been allowed into the club, but that did not mean I could not hear them talking about me as if I were not sitting outside the “clubhouse” in tears, aghast that I wasn’t included, betrayed by my own sister, and waiting for the club meeting to be over so we could all be friends again.
This is exactly what posts like this encourage: a private conversation inside an exclusive club house that everyone can see into and everyone can hear. As an adult, I should probably see it for what it is and not bother with it, but I was one of those people invited to be insulted. Person A takes something they don’t understand and derisively invites others to agree. Again, maybe not a criminal act. But it’s the second part that makes it not okay.
It’s shaming, and it’s not just shaming; it’s internal shaming among a group of people who fit into the same counter culture. Not only are we all Geeks (geeks with a capital G to represent the “culture”, not the derogatory term), there is a sub-set of Geeks–traditionally excluded from popular culture for their interests–that is somehow even more inferior than normal Geeks.
For people who don’t share the opinion posed by the question, we’re sitting in the grass outside the clubhouse, wondering what we did wrong.
I wasn’t beaten into submission when I got left out of the clubhouse (I probably kicked the leader’s ass in middle school for picking on me–back when teachers could see what was taking place and let it sort itself out). No, I always thought it was because no one understood me. Oh, Person A, you don’t like such-and-such. That’s okay. Maybe you just don’t understand.
Because supposedly we’re all friends, and the conversation up to this point has been light, I took a moment to point out that maybe Person A had not watched or read very good Anime or Manga. After all, if someone comes to the US and watches reality tv for the first time, and they declare they hate all tv, our first instinct is to show them an example of something on tv that’s way better than the garbage you can get in prime time. So I pointed out that there are some great, engaging Animes, some really awesome aspects of Japanese culture that really shine through in Anime, things that are unique to that culture, especially when it comes to the eroticism. I pointed out that a lot of Anime is geared to adults, and so it can be shocking to see hardcore sex in an animated show. I was excited and prepared to share my joy in this medium with others, and like an idiot, I expected to change his life.
Let’s make this clear: that person was not interested in understanding. He took the opportunity to point out every stereotypical Anime trope he could think of, how the Japanese habitually appropriate western culture for their own, how all the men look the same, how anime is sexist, and how full of stereotypes it is, and several people pointed out that the eroticism in Anime–and I think they also could mean homoeroticism–was too over-the-top. I took the follow-up to point out all the ways he was wrong. Then when I realized that was pointless, I unfriended the guy. Anyone who is closed-minded on purpose is no friend of mine.
Nothing We Did Not Already Know
The amount of available information on Japanese Anime and Manga that is open to anyone who cares to search for it could drown a person. For people immersed in Anime and Manga Culture, it’s probably information that is commonly known. I did a pretty rough dig when I needed to get even deeper in to the Anime and Manga Culture than I already was.
In 2014, I was invited to speak at the University of Texas at San Antonio in a two-day lecture entitled “Cultural Eroticism in Anime and Manga”. I did a lot of research on cultural eroticism in Japan in general. It was an overview to my analysis of several Animes where eroticism–mainly homoeroticism–was prominent. What I discovered (in a very small nut-shell) is that anime is a fantasy-scape where fantasy and science fiction are mainstream, sex and gender rolls become fluid, and eroticism is a huge part of Japanese culture despite the fact that much of what takes place in Anime and Manga is frowned upon in actual society. Despite the homoerotic relationships of bishonen characters, actual homosexuality is not protected in Japan. Despite the fact that Mangas like Love Hina are geared to men, it is not okay to have sex with minor females. I learned that the bishonen male trope in Japanese fiction and art is older than the Tokogawa Shogunate and represents the ideal form of male beauty and masculinity. Do some heroes of Anime look like others? Does Alucard kind of look like D? Do Alucard and D look a little like Sebastian Michaelis, and do they all look a little like Ashram from Record of Lodoss War? Yes. They are tall, with long hair, aquiline, sharp features, high cheek bones, and six-pack abs under whatever uniform they happen to be wearing. They are what other Anime men aspire to be, men like Parn (Record of Lodoss War opposite Ashram) and Mugen (Samurai Champloo opposite Jin), and Alexander Anderson (Hellsing opposite Alucard) and despite their feminine appearance, Anime lovers know that bishonen men are often the more powerful characters.
Alucard’s most powerful form is as a Bishonen-type male in Hellsing.
Ashram juxtaposed to Deedlit from Record of Lodoss War. Notice the similarity of their features.
An excellent representation of both version of D in Vampire Hunter D. Notice in both the hourglass figure, long hair, and aquiline features.
Sebastian and Grell in Black Butler could both be considered Bishonen. Despite his short hair, Sebastian is still drawn with an hourglass figure, his vest and suit drawn in such a way as to actually imply breasts. Because Grell is male but openly identifies as the female of the unwanted relationship he has with Sebastian, Sebastian is still Bishonen, though his role is as alpha male.
Of all the gender archetypes of any given culture, the female character finds a unique diversity in Anime and Manga. Though the big-eye-small-mouth female is indeed a trope designed to entice male Anime fans and represents a different ideal of feminine beauty, female characters like Twilight Suzuka (Outlaw Star), Faye Valentine (Cowboy Beebop), Integra Hellsing (Hellsing), Hot Ice Hilda (Outlaw Star), and Doris Lang (Vampire Hunter D) can hardly be considered weak. They define the power of the female protagonist. Suzuka is a female samurai. Integra Hellsing leads the dreaded Hellsing Organization with an iron grip, and even her young vampire foil Ceres Victoria is no push-over. Hot Ice Hilda drags Jean Starwind into the epic search for the Galactic Lei Line after discovering the key to the mech ship in the BESMO female, Melfina. Doris Lang is a force for good in Count Magnus Lee’s decadent wasteland. Attractive and strong, these characters are capable of posing real threat and can be devastating forces.
Hot Ice Hilda is a pirate, traditionally a boy’s game in Outlaw Star; she becomes Melfina’s sworn protector.
Sir Integra Hellsing of Hellsing not only takes the masculine title of Knighthood, she also carries a sword–traditionally a phallic symbol.
Twilight Suzuka is wan and deceptively vulnerable. She is a true believer in honor and valor, traits of the true Samurai.
Doris Lang from Vampire Hunter D (1985) is a beautiful, powerful landholder, something that draws the attention of Count Magnus Lee. She is sexy, but completely in control.
Nothing fascinates the Japanese more than Western characters, especially cowboys. They feature prominently in a number of Animes, including both the 1985 and 2000 Vampire Hunter D films. The Vampire Hunter D series is set in a post-apocalyptic world that has it’s roots in the Epic Western of the American Frontier. Yoshitaka Amano’s take on the dhampir (pronounced dam-peel, as the Japanese do not really have an ‘r’ sound) combines the Japanese trope of the Bishonen masculine beauty with Western ideals of power. D is the opposing force of the Vampire Class’ idea of Manifest Destiny. In Hellsing and Hellsing Ultimate , Kota Hirano’s development of the English characters and London setting come from a powerful understanding of the country and culture–if it is, in fact, a little too British. Though originally written in Japanese, the English dub of Hellsing is perhaps equally enjoyable, in that the setting is English, and the language fits the characters.
It’s not unusual to think that the Japanese and other Asian studios borrow from Western culture. The United States has been outsourcing animation to Japanese and Korean studios since the beginning of Anime’s popularity in the US in the 1970s.
There are reasons behind many of the aspects of Anime and Manga the notorious Facebook Fiend found offensive, but the real confusion begins when you consider to which counter culture this person proudly admits to belonging.
What’s With The Shaming?
Anime culture has long been tied to the Geek Culture. Connoisseurs of fine Anime (sometimes called kotaku) get lumped into the Geek Culture by people who are outside the Geek Culture, what we consider “mainstream”. Anime Culture doesn’t fit into the mainstream, and because so many Anime fans tend to also be immersed in Geek Culture, a sort of hybridization has emerged. Anime shaming within the Geek Culture is nothing new. The hypocrisy is long-standing.
Discussing the difference between Geek Culture and Anime Culture was part two of my two-day lecture. The problem with Anime Culture is that it’s part of Geek Culture. Geek Culture can be broken down into several sub-categories of Geek, including Gamer Culture, RPG Culture, Comic Culture, Con Culture and Anime Culture. Anime Culture is fairly popular, but often it’s relegated to the bottom rung of Geek Culture, as if Anime Culture was some sort of weird Geek stepchild that no one cared to mention. Something about the Anime Culture is oddly threatening to the Geek Culture. My deduction is this:
Western Geek Culture is male-centric, centered around particular ideals of male perfection and masculinity. Within the Geek Culture, American Heroes like Batman and Iron Man represent ideal men. They are intelligent, wealthy, handsome, sought-after, and physically impressive. This is the polar opposite to the effiminate beauty of the Bishonen male, who in Japanese and Anime Culture, is someone to be looked up to, even feared. In Anime and Manga, the Bishonen’s presence is enough to threaten lesser men. D is often remarked openly by females in the novels to be the most beautiful man they’ve ever seen. Even men cannot help but be mesmerized by him. Bishonen men are wise, quietly powerful, and will kick your ass only after all other points of egress are closed. American heroes shoot or punch first and ask questions later. American heroes get the girl, and the girl is hot!
Female characters in Western Geek Culture are what the heroes are looking for: hour-glass figure, piercing eyes, large-breasts, often blond, nearly unattainable in their beauty. If they are villains they are batshit crazy. If they are not villains, they are often damsels: Princess Peach, Lois Lane. However, Western heroines have a lot in common with Japanese women. Miss Marvel, Batgirl, Black Widow, and Agent Carter share a lot of traits with Japanese female protagonists. They are hot, but they are hot for different reasons, and it makes the Western Heroine problematic. She’s easy to shame because she’s out of reach. She’s easy to subjugate because she’s incomplete without a counterpart. Black Widow has a thinly-veiled relationship with Hawk Eye. The wind is always out of Cat Woman’s sails, as she is destined for the Batman. For some in the Geek Culture, heroines are perhaps more threatening than any male villain.
For more on the problem of sexism in the Geek Culture, you can read Arthur Chu’s article on Daily Beast regarding Misogyny and Entitlement in Geek Culture. If anything, it will give you insight into the Geek Culture that ultimately outlines the motive of Geek shaming. You can also begin to see some of the stereotypes that are assigned to Anime that are actually present in Geek Culture.
There would seem to be no bridging the gap between the average Geek and the Kotaku. The differences between the two ideal fantasy-scapes are too numerous. Despite the fact that Kotaku have been relegated to Geek Culture, Kotaku are considered weird, strange, eyed askance, secretly homosexual because their favorite characters look like women. It is only too easy to shame Anime fans within the Geek Culture despite the fact that many of the “stereotypes” assigned to Anime are actually traits inherent within the Geek Culture. Those within the Anime Culture can point to any one Anime or Manga that dispells those stereotypes.
It is only too easy for people of any mindset to look on a genre or medium outside their comfort zone and assign stereotypes that hint at a lack of understanding, and also a lack of willingness to understand. It is easy to sit behind a keyboard and call yourself an advocate for social justice by calling out perceived flaws within a given medium while enjoying the masculine privilege of Western Geek Culture, having absolutely no intention of verifying whether or not presumptions are based off of actual analysis gleaned from total immersion or from a few tragic examples of media that serves to reinforce the world view behind the assignment of stereotypes. It is easy to assign negative stereotypes of one’s own culture to another. It is easy, but it is totally unacceptable. It is totally unacceptable to open up an avenue of conversation in public that is designed to exclude outside opinion and shame people who do not share your view. It is unacceptable to degrade an entire medium based on very little actual evidence and to openly state that there was little interest in even trying again. It’s shaming. It’s bullying, and it’s unacceptable. This is not only present in the Geek Culture, visible in examples of Kotaku-shaming, woman-shaming and “fake-gamer-girl”-shaming, but it is the driving force behind the tone of our current political climate.
Because supposedly we’re all friends on Facebook, the invitation to share a derogatory opinion always comes paired with the invitation to try to reason with the post-er. That person, in the end, does not want to be reasoned with. They want to be validated. That’s something I can’t do, and anyone that was willing to sit there and speak from a perceived place of privilege and degrade the art form of another country as some sort of unconscious defense mechanism for what is taking place in current events is someone I’m not willing to be friends with regardless of background. I don’t see that being an outlet for anyone of tolerant mind and spirit. Let those people sit in their clubhouse. They can’t see how green the grass is in the neighbor’s yard from behind the ignorant tent flaps.