Friday, October 28, 2011

In the Realms of the Unreal

Henry Darger spent nearly his entire life writing and creating art for his novel, In the Realms of the Unreal: The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. At over 15,000 pages, it is believed to be the longest novel ever written, though it has never been published, excluding excerpts to be found in many of the wonderful books of his artwork.

I've been fascinated with this story since I first encountered it as a college student. Along with the artwork, it's been one of the major influences on my imagination over the last fifteen years or so. Darger's work showed me how it was possible to stretch the imagination without limits. Elements creep into my work frequently, appearing in odd ways, most notably in Thief and my upcoming book Life is But a Dream.

Another aspect of In the Realms of the Unreal that fascinates me is Darger's real life obsession with a missing photograph that weaves its way into this brutal playland he creates. He had once possessed a newspaper clipping with a photo of a murdered Chicago girl named Elsie Paroubek. Somehow or other he lost it and spent years afterward trying to track it down. He prayed daily to find it again and grew angry when it never materialized. He was so angry with God that he wrote himself into the story on the side of evil.

After encountering the story, I set off on my own search for the photograph. Even in the digital age, it wasn't easy to find. Librarian friends of mine searched with no avail (though they did manage to get me the actual article that accompanied the photo). A few years ago I met someone who worked with one of Darger's biographers and she was able to send me the picture.

It's haunting.

Elsie has since influenced quite a few of my character since.


  1. I saw the Darger doco earlier this year. It was the first time I'd heard about him although seeing his art was familiar somehow. I agree. I also found his story fascinating and haunting and wonder about what happened to him in his early life that led to this amazing inner world that he created.

  2. I first came across his work in the mid-90s when Artforum did a cover a story on him. I was obsessed from that moment on. The artwork and the writing have played a huge roll in my development. In a way, I envy his ability to exist in the world he created.