Interview: Gwen Callahan of HP Lovecraft Festival

As a devotee of Howard Phillips Lovecraft and keen observer of the resurgence of weird fiction, particularly Lovecraft's rise from obscurity over the last 40 years, I have thoroughly enjoyed the offerings of Arkham Bazaar, Sigh Co. and the HP Lovecraft Film Festival in rainy Portland, OR. Recently, I was able to chat with one half of the brain trust that is continually helping to thrust our beloved Lovecraft into the vernacular, the lovely Gwen Callahan. 

Nightmarish Conjurings: I find it lovely that you are a husband and wife duo, can you share some personal details on how the two of you founded this "weird" business of yours? 

Gwen Callahan: Brian studied literature and computer science in college, but got into web design very early on. I had studied Art and Literature and worked for a restaurant company doing marketing. We had the seed of an idea for a design shop sometime in 2000, but we both had decent jobs and there was no real impetus to do anything differently. After 9/11, we decided life is too short to keep putting off the things we really wanted to do, and we moved to New Orleans. We started Sigh Co. Graphics in 2002 with the idea that we were going to make a million from bumper stickers (laughs), and quickly switched gears to T-shirts as a method of showcasing our creative efforts. We began making and selling T-shirts that summer, and our first convention appearance was on Labor Day weekend in 2002 - at DragonCon! We started with a lot of literary and occult themed designs, but Lovecraft was in the mix from the beginning. One of our first designs was the "Esoteric Order of Dagon" and a Celtic Knot Cthulhu followed soon after. At the time, my brother lived in Portland and told us about the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. We visited PDX that October to vend at the HPLFF for the first time, and we were hooked.

NC: What is your personal relationship to the Lovecraft universe? 

GC: Brian was the real HPL fan to begin with, but I think that Lovecraft really resonates with certain people. We happen to be a couple of those people! Brian was introduced to Lovecraft in Jr. High school by a teacher who gave him Literature of the Supernatural to read; an anthology with Poe, Bradbury, and Lovecraft among others. Then there was a convergence of Lovecraft - and I think this happens to a lot of people - suddenly a friend loaned him a copy of Stuart Gordon's "From Beyond" and another friend suggested they play Call of Cthulhu during their bi-weekly D&D sessions. After we started dating, he introduced HPL's short stories to me, and we would read them to each other before bed. I had always been a fan of Poe and macabre comic books, like "Tales From the Crypt", "Creepshow", and Weird Comics, so Lovecraft was a natural next step. I think "The Lurking Fear" was the first Lovecraft story I read and it evoked the same sense of dread I felt the first time I read "Fall of the House of Usher". Having been a part of the Lovecraftian community for more than a decade, we're just steeped in it!

NC: What is your favorite Lovecraft film adaptation? 

GC: Stuart Gordon's FROM BEYOND for bloody fun, but DIE FARBE for a great, moody, and smart adaptation of "The Colour Out of Space."

NC: You are the director of the HPL Film Festival in Portland, can you share some information about the festival's history, mission and what lies ahead in 2017? 

GC: Andrew Migliore started the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in 1995 after talking to John Strysik about his short film adaptation. The first year was a screening of Stuart Gordon's RE-ANIMATOR, Strysik's MUSIC OF ERICH ZANN, and Aaron Vanek's THE OUTSIDER at the Fifth Ave Cinema at PSU. It grew each year after that and landed at the Hollywood Theatre in 2000. The mission has always been to promote the works of H.P. Lovecraft, literary horror, and Weird tales through cinematic adaptations by professionals and amateur filmmakers in the hopes that his work would be more faithfully adapted to film and television. Over the years, we have expanded that to include bringing the Lovecraftian community together in an event where we celebrate Lovecraft in all aspects of culture through panel discussions, table top gaming, art, music, and author readings. 

When Andrew stepped back in 2010, he passed the baton to us. We try to keep things fresh for our attendees (and for us), and since we began using Kickstarter in 2013, to help fund some of the upfront costs, we create a different theme each year to loosely tie things together. For the average festival goer, it presents itself as an aesthetic in the badges, T-shirt design, and film interstitials, but our Kickstarter backers get an added layer of experience on top of the regular programming. We've done a Trip to R'lyeh, Shanghai Tunnels, and Dreams in the Witch House theme. We'll be unveiling this year's theme when we launch our Kickstarter campaign (hopefully early July), but it's going to be different from anything we've done before. 

We have F. Paul Wilson coming as our Author Guest of Honor, and we're really excited about the dynamic that brings. There has been no shortage of prominent Lovecraftian Guests - we hosted Stuart Gordon, Charlie Stross, Jeffrey Combs, Doug Bradley, Sandy Petersen, William Stout, and the list stretches back from before we started running the festival. 

NC: Why do you think the Lovecraft phenomenon has exploded so heavily, when the writer toiled in obscurity during his life? 

GC: Two things: 1) I get asked this question a lot, and recently came to th e conclusion that it hasn't actually exploded yet, at least not in the US. It may seem like it has since there are a ton of people now making things with Cthulhu in them, and referencing Lovecraft, but it's still mainly on Etsy, eBay, and POD sites. I think it's really cool that so many people are finding inspiration there, but until you can find T-shirts, bathrobes, and sheets with Lovecraft's monsters on them in any department store - the way you find Batman, Superman, and Spiderman stuff - I don't think the age of Lovecraft has "arrived" yet. *We* see it everywhere because that's what we like and are drawn to. I still have to explain cosmic horror and Cthulhu to a lot of people at San Diego Comic Con. We get a little more traction each year, but it's still a very niche genre. I think that when HELLBOY came out, Lovecraft fans though, "This is it! Now everyone will know about HPL!" But I think most people just saw it as a weird and cool comic book movie. 

2) We are living in the information age, where news travels more quickly than ever before, but it's also conducive to creating an echo chamber. Most of the people we interact with online spend their time seeking out similar things and have similar tastes. They share links about the latest Cthulhu thing or Lovecraftian board game. It seems like Lovecraft has hit the big time, because we see it everywhere in books, games, and indie films. The slice of the world we see knows about Lovecraft, but it's really a fairly small slice. I hope that the current and pending film and movie projects around Lovecraft's stories (Del Toro's MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, Jordan Peele's LOVECRAFT COUNTRY) will actually launch HPL into the mainstream and he will become a household name. 

NC: What sort of Eldritch goodies can our readers find at your online store? 

GC: In addition to the hundreds of T-shirt designs we have created over the last 15 years, we also started producing DVD collections of short films from the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival starting in 2014. We're on our 5th one with the Best of 2016 collection, which will be released in June. We make a number of handmade items - T-shirts, women's tees, hoodies, keychains, pendants, accessories, bags, and even holiday ornaments! We have a friend who does glass etching, and he makes amazing etched glassware with our designs. We also work with independent authors and artists to carry a variety of novels and anthologies with modern Lovecraftian authors like Cody Goodfellow, Wilum Pugmire, Mike Griffin, Selena Chambers, Nadia Bulkin, Molly Tanzer, Joe Pulver, Pete Rawlik, and many others. We are also the official retailer for Dagon Industries, who makes things like collectible challenge coins, lapel pins, license plate frames, and the famous Cthulhu Fish car decal, and for Pagan Publishing, who make Delta Green and Call of Cthulhu scenarios and supplements. 

For those who would be interested in attending or supporting the 2017 HP Lovecraft Film Festival, take a look at the Kickstarter campaign's great backer rewards at http://kickcthulhu.com.

Find Sigh Co., Gwen and Brian online at any of the locations below:

http://sighco.com
http://arkhambazaar.com
https://www.facebook.com/sighcographics
https://www.facebook.com/arkhambazaar
https://twitter.com/sighcographics
https://twitter.com/arkhambazaar