Oroboro, Necromancy, and the Grinning Man

A couple months ago, I posted an article on necromancers and cool headwear, which culminated in some amazing sketches by my friend Joel Clapp of a nightmarish helmet I dubbed “The Grinning Man.” The helmet he and I came up with was meant for one character in particular, a necromancer named Oroboro, who is also the topic of Ergodica Part 2: Interdimensional Necromantic Blues.

Culaith helmet sketch Joel occult triangle lab

While trying to visualize the character, I took some inspiration from one of my favorite movies, Apocalypse Now. The beginning and ending music of the film was taken from “The End” by The Doors, who took their band’s name from a quote within Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception:  “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” I thought that strange string of connections between that movie, that song, and that quote should be incorporated into my stories, somehow.

The lead singer of The Doors, Jim Morrison, was one of the most charismatic and iconic figures of the 1960s. In 1967, he did a famous photo shoot titled “The Young Lion.” Here’s one of the photos from that shoot:


As soon as I saw this image, I knew I wanted to base Oroboro’s physical appearance off of Morrison. I really liked the aesthetic of this photo: Jim Morrison isn’t a muscled guy, and in fact looks kind of emaciated and drugged out. He’s not a physically imposing person, but his gaze is very intense. His hair is also long and unkempt, which makes him look sort of like a madman or a serial killer.

I imagined Oroboro as looking similar, but with one distinction: he would have no cheeks or lips. After reading a graphic novel version of The Man Who Laughs, I was fascinated with the grotesque imagery of a death’s-head grin, where someone’s face hinted at the bone and blood underneath.

occult triangle lab the man who laughes wynplaine oroboro

Back in college, I took a course on Critical Theory and became interested in the concept of “the abject,” as described by Julia Kristeva in The Powers of Horror. The heart of the abject is the idea that there exist images and sensations that can destabilize a person’s sense of selfhood. This is where we derive our sense of the uncanny, the disturbing, and the disgusting: everything that evokes these reactions is a facet of the abject, and (according to Kristeva) represents an unconscious threat to our ideas about who we are, mentally and physically. I disagreed with a lot in Kristeva’s essay, but there were parts I resonated with, including one passage on corpses:

“The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.”

As I imagined it, Oroboro’s mutilation wouldn’t come from a sadistic group of kidnappers, like Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs, but rather from screaming so intensely that he dislocated his jaw and split his cheeks, so that all that would remain would be flaps of skin hanging from his upper and lower jaws. After shearing away these loose flaps of skin (and the rest of the skin around his jaws), he would have the appearance of a living corpse, the essence of everything horrible, uncanny, and disturbing.

The first sketch of Oroboro came directly from the reference photo of Morrison–this was Joel’s initial sketch of Oroboro’s unharmed, unaltered face:


Next, Joel created a sketch to visualize the structure of the skull and the weaving of the muscles around the face and mouth:


From there, Joel made the first draft, incorporating Jim Morrison’s face and his anatomical sketches. This first draft had the nose sheared off as well as the lips and cheeks. To Joel and I, this looked less like the aftermath of self-surgery and more like a zombie.


In the second draft, Joel added his nose back in and made some finer touches. The end result is starkly horrifying: everything around the mouth is relatively normal, even attractive, but the mouth dominates Oroboro’s face in something not quite a grin or a grimace. It’s just a maw.


The exposure of the character’s teeth is meant to evoke a lot of different ideas and feelings, but there was one in particular I had in mind when conceiving this character: cannibalism. As I mentioned in the previous post on this character and his helmet, Oroboro’s necromantic modus operandi is eating other people (or their souls/egos). So it’s appropriate that his appearance evokes an abject, monstrous set of teeth. Taken together with his specially made helmet, he resembles something like a Lovecraftian horror:

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