In Search of a Scary Old Man

We all make assumptions. Every time we imagine the face behind a voice, or the taste of food in a picture, we’re making an assumption.

Assumptions on their own aren’t a bad thing. Forcing our assumptions on others, or refusing to believe in something that doesn’t match our assumptions can be more of problem. But assumptions themselves are automatic and natural, built upon experience and what we already know about the world.

These assumptions can be curious, though. Where do they come from, exactly?

When I was a child, I read the 12 book series The Saga of Darren Shan. I loved the series, and re-read it multiple times. Eventually I grew curious about the author, and decided to look him up.

The Saga of Darren Shan is a horror series. Intended for young readers, the story focuses on the life of a young boy caught up in the underground politics and disputes of vampires. In my head, Darren Shan (his penname also being the name of the main character in the books, yes) was an old and twisted man. Bald and slightly grotesque, with fiery eyes and a furious demeanour, scaring away all who dared approach him. He was tall and skinny, wearing all black.

So I looked up Mr. Shan. I saw a friendly looking young man drinking a pint of beer. My entire view of the author shattered. Much as Barthes might disapprove, my core view of Shan’s work evolved and changed after finding out about him, and who he really was. I still like Darren Shan’s work, of course. This strange moment didn’t change my opinions that much, but it was a shock. I’d still recommend the Saga of Darren Shan to young readers, and his book Procession of the Dead to adults who enjoy dark mystery writing.

But why did I imagine him how I did? My assumption is simple – that the books I had read were creepy, and loosely based upon legends of vampires, and thus that’s what I built him in my mind – creepy, old, and somewhat vampiric. It’s odd to think that, unknowingly, artists create an image of themselves out of their work. A self-portrait based on a single aspect of the creator, warped to fit the mind and experience of each person.

We do this all the time. I read (and loved, I highly recommend it) Brood of Bones by A.E. Marling; but went into it without any knowledge of who A.E. Marling was. Once again, I unintentionally built an image of the author in my head. Marling, in my head, become a tall, middle-aged woman, well dressed, and well spoken. Once again this image is shattered upon looking up the author, when I was greeted with the smiling face of a young man.

Every artist, upon completing a piece of work, has contributed a single brush stroke to their own image in the mind of every person who experiences their creation. What then, is this image to the creator? Art is different for everyone, but we all create for a reason. I know someone who uses art purely as an outlet for trauma and hurt; what then would my friend look like, had I only read her work, and not met her in person? Would she change into a horribly sad and broken being, rather than the cheery and kind person she is? How could she not, when that is the only aspect she pours into her work? She clearly breaks this image just as well as any other – she uses art such that her hurt won’t affect her elsewhere, not because it is so all-consuming that it has become her.

I feel these assumptions, held loosely in the recesses of our mind before we otherwise know the artist, are not harmful in themselves, as long as we can understand just how truly distant they often are from the truth. We cannot help but create versions of artists in our minds from the work of theirs we consume, but perhaps they are merely icons of our own impression of them – reflections of what we see in their creations, and not portents of what we may come to know.

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