"I wanted to paint ash": Simon Stålenhag on his latest art book, The Labyrinth

"I wanted to paint ash": Simon Stålenhag on his latest art book, The Labyrinth

The cold has come for Vermont. I woke up this week to darkening skies and a thin layer of wet snow clinging to the leaves, and it’s remained overcast and damp, which is the perfect environment for the week of Halloween, and for a project that I’ve been looking forward to: Simon Stålenhag’s new art book, The Labyrinth, with whom I spoke with this week.

Simon Stålenhag’s The Labyrinth

I’ve long been a fan of Stålenhag’s artwork, and his books, Tales from the Loop, Things From the Flood, and Electric State are a fascinating way to tell a story: using artwork to convey mood and nostalgia, along with written sections for the reader. That atmosphere is on display in Amazon’s excellent adaptation of Tales from the Loop, and hopefully, in Stålenhag’s upcoming art book, The Labyrinth, which is now on Kickstarter.

Related: Amazon’s Tales From the Loop Captures the Moody Atmosphere of Simon Stålenhag’s Art

The Labyrinth represents a bit of a departure for Stålenhag. Where his prior books have a sense of playful nostalgia for a world that’s since passed, this new book is darker.

“I tried a bunch of different directions after Electric State,” Stålenhag told me by phone earlier this week, “I had a bunch of different ideas that weren’t … really compatible, but nothing really felt relevant except for the post-apocalyptic, dark, kind of helpless setting that became the foundation of The Labyrinth.”

The story in The Labyrinth follows three friends — Matt, Sigrid and Charlie — who have grown up in underground. Years before, something began to destroy Earth’s atmosphere, forcing the survivors into safety under the Earth. The three mount an expedition to the surface, where they work to figure out what happened, and “are forced to confront dark secrets from the time before civilization’s fall.”

The characters come from an underground city, and they don’t know if there are other survivors out there — as far as they know, they’re humanity’s last survivors. The characters undertake their expedition, and over the next week, Stålenhag says that he explores their relationships and how they move forward, despite the gloom.

Stålenhag notes that his biggest inspiration comes from films — particularly The Shining, and to a certain degree, Sphere and Event Horizon. “Those kind of confined spaces — research facility horror,” he explains.

Image: Simon Stålenhag

The Labyrinth is a dystopian story, Stålenhag notes, something that he played with in Electric State, although he notes that was a much “warmer” story, one in which he got to explore his “passions for mid-to-late 1990s American aesthetics like X-Files, that kind of pop culture.”

“So suddenly, that felt like a self-indulgence to just sit and do that kind of nostalgia again, and the only thing that’s relevant reflecting my feelings about the world was to do with these ash-covered landscapes.

Those ash-covered landscapes are the result of a new arrival to the planet, black orbs that have begun terraforming the planet, sent by some sort of otherworldly intelligence that we can’t comprehend. “All we know is that we can’t understand these things, and the cosmic horror of The Labyrinth is that we become like these insects, insignificant lifeforms to this other, hostile life form.”

That nihilistic view is inspired by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which swept across the globe almost unchecked, utterly transforming how we live in the span of a couple of weeks. “I think it had to do with the current situation in the world, and my feeling of almost cosmic horror of watching humanity struggle,” Stålenhag explained. “For me, it felt weirdly irrelevant to do this nostalgic, cozy environment and stories that I did with Tales from the Loop.” Moreover, “there are no guarantees that we will survive — we have the technological power to destroy every person on the planet, and that power resides in the hands of a madman.” But even beyond the state of the world that faces us, “the current situation is the tip of the iceberg. If you look at history, it’s easy to become depressed.” “

“There are things that we’ve done that are important for us if we want to survive, especially with technology. Things like democracy, science, the humility before knowledge and awareness of our own biases, but all those things are under threat and in decline. So that’s why I wanted to paint ash.”

Image: Fredrik Bernholm

Stålenhag is already at work on his next project after The Labyrinth. Tentatively called Europa Mekano, he told Polygon that it’s “kind of a love story between two young men,” but that it’s also “a story about this robot that has all these memories from a past life.”

“It’s about masculinity,” Stålenhag told me, “and how that kind of messes things up. Masculinity and gender roles is something that I think a lot about a lot, and I feel like this is something I have to say there. It’s something I’ve wanted to explore in my life — about friendship and particularly male friendship.”

“I want to say something about gender — my gender — my experience of being a man, or being told that I’m a man, because I realized that it has a lot to do with the genre of science fiction and robots and everything like that.”

You can now back The Labyrinth on Kickstarter. The campaign ends on October 30th, and books are expected to begin shipping in December. You can also check out some of the art online on Stålenhag’s website.

Coming Up

This week is turning out to be busy: I have a couple of posts that I’ve been working on that are set to hit your inboxes this week.

For paid subscribers, I’ve got an essay about horror in the boundaries between humanity and nature, as well as a piece about radicalization and fandom, two topics that I feel are pretty relevant this week.

On Friday, I’ve got a regular roundup with a trio of book reviews, and on Monday, I’ll be posting up November’s book list.

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I did have a question for y’all: on Saturday night and Sunday, there was a significant spike in signups for this newsletter. To those newcomers: welcome!

I’m deeply curious: this sort of spike is abnormal, and it makes me think that someone recommended it somewhere. Those of you who just signed up, do you mind letting me know who pointed you this way?

As always, thanks for reading. Let me know what you’ve been reading lately, either in book form, or around the internet.