WALKING ALONE: an interview with artist Stephen Gervais

Before Netflix, illustrator Stephen Gervais gave a fresh look to Shirley Jackson’s furiously frightful novel The Haunting of Hill House. Stephen has captured in graphite the walls that continued to stand upright, the floors that remained firm, every door sensibly shut, and not to disturb the silence that lies steadily against the wood, but most importantly care for that which walks alone.

TED DILUCIA (Motif): After all these years, with the keys to Hill House, finally able to illustrate the book, I’m sure you had scenes from the novel banging on the door of your brain, dying to be translated to paper… How did you choose what scenes to portray? Any regrets?

STEPHEN GERVAIS: (Pours kettle) There are so many moments in the narrative deserving attention, and pursuing the creepiest of those, ones that cause small hairs on the back of the readers’ neck to rise is always gratifying. Creating art that challenges and provokes such a visceral response in the reader is sort of controlled power-tripping, which can be very fun. Now… how’s about another cup of tea?


TD: Thank you. Illustrating something you have wanted to for so long, were there late nights spent agonizing over getting it right, overcoming self-doubt?

Stephen Gervais

SG: Not so much agonizing in the dark, in the night, as it was turning things over and over in my mind. I’m a light sleeper, and sometimes I’ll jot down ideas as they occur, then I’ll try to make sense of it all in the morning.

TD: Were there any earlier attempts of what you envisioned Hill House to be before the house finally opened its gates to you?

SG: I began to brainstorm and worked up comprehensives for the project. Two years ago, Paul Suntup of Suntup Press, contacted me about selling prints of the cover to Christine, by Stephen King, that I had completed back in 1983. We discussed a limited edition. Thankfully he successful. So, I started to work on the first illustrated edition of Hill House ever printed! 

(soft thumping)

TD: (pats sweat from forehead, regains focus) I hate this question, the ‘what inspires you?’ question, so I’ll ask it this way, what are you thinking while illustrating?

SG: It’s the writing, the storytelling itself. I feel very lucky that a project like this provides a stage upon which I can share my talent. Plus, it’s always fun to creep people out with the drawings! Hopefully it works to amplify the poignant creepiness of the narrative.

(a distant crash)

TD: (to the sound) Yes… the creepiness…but tell me, when designing, there is a set of rules that illustrators make or take upon themselves. I call it, “you can’t cheat the lace,” the details are the details. Hill House provides certain details that cannot be cheated. Do you try to capture every turret, every doorknocker described, or are there liberties the illustrator takes?

SG: Gotta have some fun, gotta push the envelope! The details are in the details, but I feel it’s always worth going that extra mile.

DILUCIA: (reverts to the stars at the bottom of teacup) There is an immense responsibility that rests upon the shoulders of an illustrator. How do you wrestle with Shirley’s vision and your own? Is there a common ground?

GERVAIS: If I got into a wrestling match with Shirley, she’d be able to take me down. Knowing that I’m illustrating a much-loved novel, I framed my own awareness of the situation. The setting she chose for Hill House serendipitously allowed our aesthetic senses to overlap nicely. There was no wrestling… more of slow dance with Shirley.

TD: (gulps) H-h-how close can we get to a definitive look? Knowing we cannot sit with Shirley and ask her about what she was intending?

SG: I like to think that Ms. Jackson would have appreciated my visual realizations, but alas, we’ll never know. Maybe a séance could be arranged to contact her, get her opinion as such, with the edition in trembling hand.

TD: We’ll leave the answers of yes or no to the living if you don’t mind… we’re doing fine without crystal balls and Ouija boards, just fine.

SG: Calm yourself Ted… don’t want to dredge out the smelling salts. It’s going to be alright…

 (closer thumping)

TD: (teacup rattling in hand) H-H-Hill House can be a comfortable place if one is willing to be at the mercy of its… haunts. I see the house letting you venture off to a nanny a devil- baby on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, or being called to exorcise a possessed teen in Georgetown, escort an unfortunate outcast to the prom… What’s next Stephen, where do you walk?

SG: (leans back deeper into the sofa) Well, I’ve always felt quite comfortable here at Hill House, but I am ready to move on. Hint-hint, a limited edition of The Exorcist by Blatty, (speaking of the devil!) With all that said… I set dinner on the dining-room sideboard at six sharp, I take it you can serve yourself properly after your hands have stopped trembling…

I am here now, where the house stands against its hills. Stephen now embraces the darkness. When everyone’s gone, Hill House will still be here, waiting for its next caretaker to mind the walls that continue upright, bricks that meet nicely, floors remaining firm, and every door is sensibly shut, not to disturb the silence that lies steadily against the wood and stone of this place. Perhaps, just maybe, that person is me, maybe someone else… something that walks alone