Why Ville Valo is obsessed with the dark side
Lovecraft, Poe, Argento and more: HIM frontman Ville Valo on the cultural heroes that shaped him as a musician
We had hundreds of books in the house when I was a kid. My dad was an avid antiquarian; he used to buy old newspapers and old books, though not necessarily expensive ones. Most Finnish books aren’t super-ornate or leather-bound, but they could still be beautiful. He just loved to buy random books about all sorts of subjects.
I think my introduction to horror was when I was about 12, when a Finnish guy translated the works of HP Lovecraft. We had some collections of his short stories and novellas, and the first ones I can remember reading are The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward (1927) and At The Mountains Of Madness (1931). Then I got the omnibus of all his works when I was about 15, and it took me seven years to be able to read it without a dictionary in my lap. In the Finnish translations, the language was so archaic, there were so many adjectives even native English speakers would find it tough. The cool thing about Lovecraft is the fact that he’s never too graphic. It’s more about unspeakable horrors and stuff that’s so ‘out there’ that he can’t even write it, and that makes the imagination do most of the work, which makes it all the more powerful.
There’s no emotional content in his books whatsoever, it’s all about the protagonist who goes crazy in the end. There’s no romance, no proper conversation – his writing’s very to-the-point and almost dry, in a way. But then again he’ll explain the architecture of a city down to the square millimetre. They’re really crazy stories, and the sentences are so fucking long, it takes ages to get that shit into your head! It was Kafkaesque, Franz Kafka being another great writer I got into as a kid. Then, after that, they translated all these pulp horror stories from the 20s, more of the ‘weird fiction’ that Lovecraft was such an important influence on. All I knew when I was a kid was that I loved that horrific stuff. That was my introduction to the fantastic, I suppose.
I was – and am – a big fan of Carl McCoy and Fields Of The Nephilim, and they used elements of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos in their songs, particularly The Watchman on their second album [The Nephilim, 1988]. I was never too conscious of developing a dark side as a teenager. But I was listening to Carcass and Napalm Death, and then got into metal. Those bands were the soundtrack to my Poe fantasies, I suppose. The thing is, when I get into something, I’m like a racehorse with blinders on – I’ve got a one-track mind, so when I fall in love with something, as I did with Edgar Allan Poe, I read everything I can get my hands on about the subject, and then forget about it. It’s not like I have a friend for life with literature. Saying that, last week I read Poe’s Eleonora as a bedtime story.
I actually got into Poe when they started showing re-runs of Roger Corman’s movie adaptations starring Vincent Price. The first ones I saw were The Masque Of The Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia [both 1964]. I haven't watched ...Tomb in years, but even though it's been a while, little bits and bobs stick in your head for the rest of your life. I remember it starts with a funeral, and it’s so doomy and gloomy, it reminds me of the band Cathedral and their frontman Lee Dorrian – it’s so classy, and classic. House Of Usher  is great too. The first line’s just great: there’s a knock at the door, the door opens and Vincent Price says [imitating Price brilliantly] “What is the meaning of this?” It’s fantastic!
I first saw Vincent Price in those Corman movies; I didn’t see the older black and white ones where he was a young matinée idol type. I always saw him as a horror fella, though he did a great drama much later in his career, in the 80s, called The Whales Of August, with Bette Davis. I always loved his accent and the tonality of his voice; he’s got such a great voice. Vincent Price really was my favourite. I’ve been meaning to get a tattoo of him for a long, long time. I’ve had the pleasure of Kat Von D doing all the portraits on my body, so it’d be stupid to have anybody else do Vincent for me.
A funny thing happened while we were recording Screamworks. There was an old church that they tore apart in California, and Vincent had bought some of the pews and some of the stained glass. When he passed away, his daughter sold a lot of stuff from his private collection on eBay. I was able to get hold of a piece of his stained glass. It was hanging from the ceiling when we were recording that album. It’s not fancy or ornate, but it’s an important relic for me.
At the same time that Finnish TV was showing the Corman movies, they also showed the Hammer Horror stuff with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. I enjoyed that, but what I really loved was Cushing playing Sherlock Holmes. He did a few movies, including The Hound Of The Baskervilles . I’m a huge Sherlock Holmes fan. I haven’t read so many of Conan Doyle’s books, but there have been some great film adaptations. Like Vincent, Christopher Lee had a great voice, but he was too good and handsome.
This was all back in the age of VHS. I remember my dad found 400 used tapes in a garbage bin once. Someone had thrown these films away, and I was watching those films for years as a kid. That’s how I discovered Luis Buñuel and Fellini. [HIM bassist] Migé and I would get the good horror movies because we had certain friends. Most of that stuff came into Finland from the Netherlands, where they didn’t really censor anything. It was similar to that anticipation when you’re waiting for your favourite band to release a record on vinyl, and it’s coming out at 8am the next morning. It’d be like, ‘Pssst, hey come here, I just heard I’ll be getting The Evil Dead for the weekend!’ The first time I saw The Evil Dead, it was a really bad copy of a copy of a copy. You couldn’t really make that much out of what was going on, but it was so exciting. A lot of that’s missing these days, where everything’s so instant. We were taping everything, and I amassed this huge collection of a gazillion horror movies, including Clive Barker’s Hellraiser movies. Migé and I were both into Hellraiser so much so that I met Doug Bradley, the actor who plays Pinhead. I also got into Barker’s Books Of Blood series. This was also in the time of libraries – there was no Amazon, and I had no money. What would happen was you’d see, say, one of Corman’s Poe movies and discover it was an adaptation of a book, so you’d go to the library, get on their waiting list then wait for the book. Can you imagine if kids had to do that now? They’d go fucking crazy!
I think everyone reads a bit of Poe as a teenager. His stories are really ‘Poe-etic’. Like Lovecraft, he’s got his own original style. Migé’s a fan of Stephen King, but while I like some of the movie adaptations, I never really got into his writing. He’s great at what he does, but it was too mainstream somehow – it didn’t really tickle my fancy. His son writes under the pen name Joe Hill. He had a book out called Heart-Shaped Box . All the chapters were named after classic rock’n’roll songs – the title comes from the Nirvana song, and there’s one called Black Dog, and one called Hurt. Now he is a really good writer, really keeps you on your toes.
The colours in those Corman Poe movies are so vivid – those blues and reds – it’s not really that similar to the work of Dario Argento, but when I saw Suspiria  for the first time, I saw the link. Even though the stories are really different, you could see how the one style had developed from the other. For a long time HIM used the soundtrack to Suspiria as our intro music.
I always loved Goblin, the band that did that, and most of Argento’s stuff. They’re an Italian prog band and all their own stuff was shit, to my ears anyway, but the music they made for Dario was just great.
With Dario, one moment there’s a great film and the next there’s something really odd. He’s like David Cronenberg in that respect, another great director. Dario’s worked in so many different genres, not just horror but noir too, like those early ones, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage  and The Cat o’ Nine Tails . But even if he’d just done Suspiria, that that would’ve been enough. He’s an odd fellow, too. If you see him in interviews he’s definitely not quite right, which is great!
We actually got in touch with him about doing a video for us – it would’ve been great to have something that even we were afraid to look at! Visually, HIM hasn’t really copied that style, but it’s definitely one of the things that made me realise how super-important that aspect of our music is. When we were mixing our first album, we had the cover printed and put on the mixing console, so as we worked we’d question whether the sounds fit the cover. There’s always a link.
I first heard of Austin Osman Spare through Carl McCoy. Now there’s a quirky fellow! Spare was an artist, a magician and everything in between. In the late 19th century he was a child prodigy when it came to painting, and one of the youngest artists to exhibit at the Royal Academy. Again, I got into him before the internet era, and it was almost impossible to find out more about him – there wasn’t much written about Spare at that time. But bit by bit I found pieces out. I was reading Peter Carroll’s book Psychonaut, all about Chaos Magic, and Austin Osman Spare invented what’s called Sigil Magic, so it all kind of intertwines. It’s like getting into Aleister Crowley through Led Zeppelin: “Who the hell is that guy that Jimmy Page was so into?” There’s a book called Austin Osman Spare: The Life & Legend Of London's Lost Artist by Phil Baker; it’s a fascinating read; he really was one of a kind.
Spare preceded surrealists like Dalí. He did these anamorphic paintings. There's a really famous one by Holbein [The Ambassadors, 1533] with two dudes and a memento mori – an elongated skull you have to see from a certain angle to get in proportion. I always liked optical illusions, the work of artists like Escher, when I was a youngster. Then I got into Shigeo Fukuda, a Japanese artist who did a lot of shadow artwork where, like, there’s a thousand fucking forks piled up, but when lit from an angle it casts a shadow of a motorcycle. On Screamworks, we had the image of a nun with four eyes... I love all that stuff.Then I discovered Maya Deren, the lady tattooed on my skin. She was an avant-garde filmmaker, but I first remember her from that really haunting picture [from Deren’s Meshes Of The Afternoon, 1943]. She’s looking out of a window and you can’t really read her expression, it’s tough to say whether she’s pissed off, forlorn or what. I first saw it when it was used on the cover of a Primal Scream single [Crystal Crescent/Velocity]. That’s one of the photographs that reminds me why I love photography.
There’s another one, of Evelyn McHale, the lady that committed suicide off the Empire State Building. She jumped off and a photography student took a picture of her, and she looks as if she’s in repose, perfectly calm. She looks like Snow White, forever sleeping on a smashed car – there’s no blood, no messed-up bones or anything. It became one of Life magazine’s Pictures Of The Year in 1947. Then Andy Warhol used it for a piece called Suicide (Fallen Body) . On Tears On Tape, the intro to opening track Unleash The Red is very John Carpenter-esque. When I was a kid there was Friday The 13th, A Nightmare On Elm Street and the slasher thing, which was fun for a while, but I always liked stuff that was proper spooky, psychologically scary. Halloween  has got to be one of the scariest films ever: the point-of-view camera work, the sound of Michael Myers breathing, and Carpenter’s music. He’s a really great composer. Halloween is fairly violent, but a lot of stuff happens off-screen, and that’s the most effective way of scaring people – by not showing things. It’s like with Lovecraft, people then let their imaginations play to their worst fears. There’s that scene with Jamie Lee Curtis smoking a joint in her car before all hell breaks loose, and the Blue Öyster Cult song Don’t Fear The Reaper is playing on the radio. It’s about building an ominous mood.
Hopefully HIM sort of evoke that feeling, a sense of being otherworldly. The best bands can do that. Type O Negative were able to create this really odd combination. They had such dry humour, and at the same time were kind of spooky and kind of fun – you want to get fucked up, get fucked, and at the same time be scared of it. Peter Steele is one of my icons, full stop. Through his music he was experimenting, trying to find the perfect balance between something really pretty, something really melancholy, and something really heavy-hitting. It’s a great combination – everything a growing boy needs...
Ville Valo was speaking to Grant Moon.