Visual Arts — September 29, 2015 9:08 — 0 Comments

In The Midst Of Monsters: An Interview With Nick Gucker

Nick Gucker is an illustrator, graphic designer and lifelong fan of horror and science-fiction. He’s known professionally as Nick The Hat and though this term of endearment is in no way related to the many hats he’s worn during an exciting and prolific career, he is a man of many talents, not the least of which is his appreciation for the bizarre. He’s the caretaker of his own night-gallery, a menagerie of taxidermied, canned and cured critters. He’s collected morbid masks from exotic kingdoms as far east as Bali and a bestiary of yokai monsters from the land of the rising sun. I met with Nick at his home in Rainier Valley, for a personal tour of The Nickolas Gucker Museum Of The Macabre.

The Gucker estate looked like a summer cottage for The Addams Family… a palatial bungalow with a moss-addled roof, supported by four colonial-style columns. The first note I took was “Small coffin on wooden porch, skeleton hanging out-” then my attention turned from what was probably an old Halloween decoration, to a lion-headed knocker snarling at me from the front door. I gripped the brass ring in the lion’s mouth and announced my arrival.

Nick answered on the second knock. “Sorry about that,” he said. “I was changing the cat box.”

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He walked me into the living room and it felt like stepping into a Roger Corman movie, as colorful as it was dark. It was The Tomb Of Ligeia, weird and inviting, a feast for the eye with a cluster of secrets around every corner. I fell in the love with the shimmering-green wallpaper and felt so comfortable in the paper-garden of hand-screened tulips that I wanted to stay there forever, but every inch of Nick’s house offered another visual treat and the ideal place for our interview was in the bronze dining room, accompanied by selected art from Mark Ryden and a display of vinyl dolls created by Camille Rose Garcia.

“How’d you get the name Nick The Hat?” I asked. “Well, it doesn’t have anything to do with all my hats.” Nick collects vintage Shriner memorabilia, including their trademark fezzes, but the name comes from his Punk-Rock days, when he played in a band called Scar Crow. “There’s really not much of a story behind it,” he said modestly. “One night after practice, we were all imbibed, tired and walking back to our respective places. I found a nightwatchman’s hat on the ground and one of the guys was like, ‘Let me have that hat!’ It was funny, because this guy was totally incensed with rage, so I said, ‘No! You can’t have it!!!’ He chased me for several blocks, until I finally tossed the hat in a mailbox. Everybody was laughing… At that moment one of the other guys said, ‘Nick The Hat.’ I thought it was a good name and decided to keep it.”

Scar Crow wasn’t the only band Nick played in. After moving to Seattle (from Ketchikan) to go to art school he was part of a group called The Excreted Republicans. I asked him about their most exciting gig. “We opened a show in Lake City for Social Distortion, when they were on their Ball & Chain Tour. That was pretty exciting. One of the other bands started a fight with a security guard and could only finish half their set!”

His focus is no longer on music, but he continues to be a part of the music scene. He’s done design work for Klaw, an album cover for a Pakistani rapper named Adil Omar and has even contributed animation to Monster Magnet’s: The Duke. I thought it was funny that Nick animated a giant claw, because halfway through our interview something started clawing at my leg.

An orange cat had entered the room and was meowing for attention. There was something about its forehead that struck me as odd. I thought it was a special breed and jokingly asked, “Is it a Klingon cat?” Nick hesitated. “No-” bracing me for an awkward subject. “She has cancer.”

I felt like an ass. Cancer? Jesus. The poor thing had a tumor growing out of its head the size of a ping-pong ball and I was making jokes about it. Nick explained, “Her hearing and sight are impaired, so we keep her inside.” The cat continued clawing and since I didn’t know what else to do, I pet it… even though it looked like the creepy kid from Del Toro’s: The Orphanage. “Sometimes fluid builds up in her eyes and sinuses,” Nick continued. “Let me know if she sneezes on you, that can be a little gnarly.” I decided to be a little less affectionate.

The Klingon-kitty got the message and leaped toward Nick, whose affection was unhindered by its fluid. He cradled the cat in his arms and started petting. I asked about his work with Crypticon.

“I wanted to get involved and to play an active role,” he said. “It’s fostered some amazing relationships and the horror community is very friendly.” I was surprised that Nick could use the words horror and friendly in the same sentence, so I asked, “Where does that friendly aspect come from?” Nick smiled lovingly at the Klingon-kitty. “Your fellow freaks. When I went to my first horror convention I realized that there was a whole world of people who revel in weird and that I didn’t have to be by myself. I could discuss weird things openly, with people who champion weird and introduce it to others. We get to corrupt others… It’s exciting!” He’s been the Crypticon Staff Illustrator since 2009, but had to tender his resignation this year, do to the high demand for his free-lance work.

I knew he did fee-lance work and knowing is half the battle, so I seized the opportunity to ask about his free-lance association with Bizarro Fiction, a new genre, filling the void left behind by Weird Tales. “It’s much more experimental,” he said. “Absurd, surreal and even Punk Rock. Not to be confused with Weird Fiction.” Weird Fiction is a catch all phrase describing authors like Jeff Vandermeer, George R. R. Martin and Fanz Kafka, but Bizarro is its own animal, a bold and brave new concept, pioneered by Carlton Mellick III, Bruce Taylor and Gina Ranalli. Nick is a friend of Bizaro and once illustrated a Cody Goodfellow story, as he read it.

I love a good story and love-stories are my favorite. I wanted to steel a few words from Denise, the love of Nick’s life, but she was enjoying The Decemberists at Marymoor Park, so I asked about her & Nick’s honeymoon in Bali.

To get that story, I was led into a red-room, decorated with cursed antiques and insects pinned into elaborate displays. The gruesome faces of wooden masks hung near the high ceiling above and I recognized the worst of them, Rangda, the saw-tongued demon-queen of Balinese mystics. She lorded over the room, which was stuffed with terrible treasures: human bones, mole carcasses and Masonic tomes, but she wasn’t the only frightening face on Nick’s wall. “When Denise and I went to Bali, we saw a lot of Barong Dance.” The face of Barong is a fearsome, lionesque creature. In the eyes of the uninitiated it’s the face of a demon, but Balinese dance is about more than demons and Brarong is king of the good spirits. “He’s meant to ward off evil.” Nick said. “He’s a great example of something that seems awful, but is really just misunderstood-” but there was no misunderstanding the next item of interest… a potbellied statue of Tsathoggua, atop a cabinet of bottled-snakes and Voodoo dolls.

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Tshathoggua was a toad or bat-like deity worshiped by prehuman, Hyperboreans. Nick’s version of the idol was manufactured by Richard Svensson, for an animated adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s: The Shadow Out Of Time and it afforded me the opportunity to ask, “What makes you a Lovecraft fan?” Since 2010 he’s been the sole staff artist for Strange Aeons, a literary and comics magazine focusing on Lovecraft and contemporary Lovecraftian fiction. He explained, “I like Lovecraft because everyone goes insane at the end.”

Nick was introduced to the insanity of Horror at an early age. His mom was a Hammer fan, but was afraid to watch the Hammer Films by herself. It helped having Nick close by. “She liked being terrified,” Nick said. “But the movies were beautiful to me. They had this great, Gothic sensibility to them. I appreciated them, but they didn’t always resonate. I didn’t like the idea of someone going through so much blood and gore, only to come out unscathed. Life doesn’t work that way.” He started getting into Lovecraft and the literary side of Horror in high-school, during a series of class projects that involved watching Horror shorts, then reading the stories that inspired them. “One that really impressed me was a Twilight Zone episode based on Ambrose Bierce’s ‘The Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge.’ It’s about a man who’s being hanged and goes through an imaginary escape-scenario just before the noose tightens. The twist-ending was really effective, like the original Night Of The Living Dead. Some people find it unnerving, but I think it’s more real.”

He then showed me the body of a very real giant-spider; proud of the fact that it was caught crawling on the floor of his own home. I suddenly felt not-proud to be wearing flipflops and wanted to get the hell out of the red room, so we walked passed the Pickman’s Apprentice award, through Nick’s library of arcane almanacs and into the drawing studio.

The studio was lime-green with olive trim, much the same as any other room in the Gucker estate, intensely colorful and filled with esoteric ephemera, but with one major difference. The rest of the house was dedicated almost entirely to the timeworn or old-fashioned, but the drawing-room was an homage to the contemporary and nearly every square-inch of available surface was occupied by a toy. A Ron English rabbit sat in the corner, a Metaluna Mutant lumbered on the drawing desk and on a cabinet beside the desk was a parade of the most impressive Kaiju ever assembled.

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It was the last stop on my tour. I could’ve inquired about the illustration on his desk, or about the work he had in the Georgetown Art Attack, but in the midst of so many monsters it seemed important to ask why Nick had spent so much time collecting them. “Monsters are just fun,” he said. “I like the details. The textures. The blood dripping and oozing. They’re just decrepit weird things that appeal to me.” His favorite is Godzilla, king of the monsters, not unlike Lovecraft’s Cthulhu in that Godzilla is a colossal force of nature. Some see the monster as evil, others as good, still others as indifferent, but I think Nick just sees it as different.

Lovecraft wrote about what he called Cosmic Horror and scholars have been debating over the term ever since. Whatever the definition, the themes are the same: loneliness, helplessness and the nakedness of humanity scampering between the toes of giants. While the intellectual debate rages on, authors continue trying to answer the cosmic question in a more human way, by exploring human frailty and fault. That’s what Nick really sees in monsters: we see a thing with a tumor in its head, he sees a cat who needs love. It’s not ugly, it’s just weird and Nick is one of those rare individuals who not only accepts the weird, but celebrates it.


Words and pictures by: Poster Bot.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney