John Harris Dunning’s Haunted House

On the opening page of Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers, author John Harris Dunning cautions, “Those who love the rum and unusual, the uncanny, the macabre,” those who, “wish for thrilling horrors in their own seemingly mundane lives” to “beware what they wish for.” If you happen to fall into said categories, you should ignore the warnings and look into Dunning’s beautifully crafted graphic novel. Featuring intricate, richly detailed illustrations by South African artist Nikhil Singh, Salem Brownstone follows the title character as he journeys from an ordinary existence as the proprietor of the Sit & Spin Laundromat into the curious world he enters upon the inheritance of his deceased father’s mansion. Salem, along with the reader, finds himself lost in the trippy mystery life that his father once lead, populated by the performers of Dr. Kinoshita’s Circus of Unearthly Delights and evil spirits hell-bent on destroying Salem and his cohorts. In Salem Brownstone, first published in the U.S. last week by Candlewick Press, Dunning and Singh have created a creepy, enthralling, and stunningly designed tale of adventure for adults. (PHOTO BY MATT HASS)

MENDELSON: Can you talk a little bit about your background? I know that you’re originally from South Africa–how did you wind up in the UK and writing?

DUNNING: I lived in South Africa until I was 24, and I grew up during the height of Apartheid, so it was a very culturally isolated place. There was what was called “a state of emergency,” and that meant that everything was censored, from TV to newspapers. To me, New York or London were about as real as Atlantis. I found South Africa very frustrating as a place to create–it isn’t internationally connected, and in some ways is a conservative place in terms of the arts. It didn’t feel like the right environment for me as an artist. As soon as I finished university (I studied film), I got on a plane to London and never looked back. I’m very grateful to have come from Africa though–it gives me a great perspective–I can “pass” as Western, but I’m not. I’m an outsider, in the best way.

MENDELSON: How did the idea evolve for Salem Brownstone? Where did it first appear?

DUNNING: I came up with the idea for Salem as a kind of comic-within-a-comic initially. I was working with South African artist Jason Masters on a comic project about three teenage friends—it was in a much more realistic style than Salem. The idea was that the teenagers were reading Salem Brownstone as a comic, and at the end of each episode you would get an excerpt of what they were reading. These short episodes started to be published in seminal UK comic book anthology Sturgeon White Moss and then just started to evolve into something larger from there.

MENDELSON: You work as a journalist, so why a graphic novel?

DUNNING: My first love has always been comic books–to the point that when I was ten I was dreaming in comic book frames with captions and word bubbles! I’ve just finished a novel, and I’m inspired by writers like William Burroughs, Anais Nin, Paul Auster and Chester Himes. My central drive is to tell stories. I love narratives. I love words, sure, but journalism doesn’t fulfill that need to tell a story.

MENDELSON: Where do you find inspiration for your work?

DUNNING: Writers like Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft are huge influences, as are the films of Tim Burton–there is a lot of Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands in Salem! I’m a huge graphic novel fan–my favorite writers are Alan Moore (Watchmen) and Dan Clowes (Ghost World). I think my ‘desert island’ comics would be Halo Jones by Alan Moore and Ice Haven by Dan Clowes.

MENDELSON: Do you draw on your life in your writing? What are your favorite parts of SB?

DUNNING: There is more than a bit of me in Salem. The way Salem looks was partially based on me. It’s fun seeing myself on the pages of a comic book. Having said that, it’s far from autobiographical. I haven’t run away with the circus yet! My favorite character would have to be Oosik–he is a kind of cross between Tintin’s dog Snowy and Gandalf the wizard. I’m very happy with him as a creation! Salem Brownstone is a strange blend–it was very much based on my experience of Hampstead, my neighborhood in London (where film director Tim Burton lives–I often see him around), but it has an American title –”Salem” from the witch burnings to indicate his occult leanings, and “Brownstone” from the old New York mansions to indicate his dapper attitude. The language I use in Salem is very mannered, and although I think the book is spooky, I hope people also get the humor–it’s all about light and dark.

MENDELSON: What are you working on now?

DUNNING: I’m pitching in a short series to DC set in Batman’s neighborhood–it’s a more literary, cool approach to the super hero genre that I grew up on. I have huge admiration for the fresh direction artist Frank Quitely and writer Grant Morrison have taken Batman in recently. Basically, I want to inhabit Gotham City. I’m always cooking up loads of ideas–I’m germinating the idea for another novel now; it’s a cocktail of dissociative personality disorder, serial killing, the old “penny dreadful” crime magazines, and the history of north London.