– The Genie’s Guide to the Supernaturally Sublime
Something about October, the dance of glowing leaves in the wind, the shift in mood from the exuberance of spring and the dolce far niente of summer to a tinge of delicious melancholy, the very perfume of the air itself, with its first hints of looming winter and quietude, the mushroom scent of a forest floor after the rain, the sharp tang of fallen apples and the sudden epiphany of wood smoke in the air – all of these combined add up to what is without question one of my favorite times of the year.
If I were to put an epithet that somehow sums up all of October, it would surely be ‘Gothic’.
These days, Gothic conjures up associations of horror, darkness and menace, if not an entire subculture I once upon a storied time did my own small part to define the first time it surfaced in the zeitgeist of the mid-Eighties. While I may have outgrown my predilection for acres of black eyeliner and ditto lipstick, certain elements of that era have stuck with me ever since – a taste for melodramatic literature written at an operatic pitch of intensity, music, and a certain nineteenth-century feel and line in clothing. Although I still own an outsize amount of very black clothes, one indispensible item more than any other brings out that inspired state of being that consists of equal parts preternatural frisson, high drama, twinges of mortality, and the delectable, unbearable, existential darkness of being.
But what in all that chthonic murk constitutes a Gothic… perfume?
It goes without saying that all the happy-go-lucky flirty florals and fruity wonders we adore so much in high summer no longer cut it.
For a perfume to be deemed Gothic requires a few non-negotiable elements. First of all – that all-important question, my own pop-culture criterion:
Would Morticia Addams wear it?
If it is too light, too young, too obvious, too fleeting, the answer is likely a resounding ‘no’. Anything that doesn’t reduce our own resident Gomez Addams (should we have one) to a helpless pile of smoking ectoplasm need not apply. Speaking of ectoplasm…
All Gothic perfumes must by necessity contain an element of the numinous or the supernatural about them. It could be a question of composition, of overall texture, of unusual fragrant elements in mutual tension, but if it doesn’t give you a superstitious shiver down your spine and you can’t even explain why, what’s the point?
Since the Gothic mood and mindset is dark, intense, and brooding, the perfume must somehow convey all of these things. Therefore, Gothic perfumes are often very plush, with a lot of basenotes that may often include frankincense, labdanum, oud, patchouli, sandalwood, oakmoss, castoreum, civet, musk, leather and other wonders of that fertile alchemical undergrowth that provokes all our darkest, most secret, subconscious desires.
Last but never least, if you can answer an affirmative ‘yes!’ to the question…
Would you wear this to a graveside Halloween party?
Then you’ve found your very own Gothic perfume!
What follows below are my own personal decidedly Gothic favorites, arranged from vintage (and therefore, sadly, the current versions are reformulated beyond recognition and merit) to currently available.
This 1978 classic by Gerard Goupy was a harbinger to come of those opulent Eighties orientals. It is also without question one of the witchiest perfumes ever made. I’ve worn it off and on since 1983, and it remains the single most complimented perfume I own, even today. In fact, I’ve never met a man who didn’t tilt backwards for this one, such is the Circe spell it weaves, turning any modern Odysseus into a slavering hog whether they want it or not. Although still in production, it’s not even a wan, pale echo of its former glory.
Sometimes, I wonder at the fragrant bombshells I wore in my wanton youth, wonder I even dared to wear them. This great immortal classic, beloved of both Norma Desmond and Anaïs Nin, more than any other delineated my long-ago Goth days. It slew several wannabe latter-day Baudelaires I knew by taking a perfumery trope – orange blossom – and turning it completely inside out. Orange blossom is usually a joyous, summery, sunshine bloom. Ernest Daltroff’s 1912 classic inverts all those expectations and turns them inside out by being a dark, smoky, slinky animal of midnight and divine delirium. Narcisse Noir is still available, although it has irrevocably changed from its inky, slinky, seductive self to a prim Park Avenue mistress in palest dove gray.
If ever an entire perfume house’s resident aesthetic somehow encapsulates all that is Gothic with a decadent French twist, it would surely be Serge Lutens. I doubt it’s an accident it is one of my all-time favorite perfume houses for precisely that reason. Best of all, Serge Lutens has – aided by resident alchymist Christopher Sheldrake and before him Maurice Roucel – subverted several classic florals into new, unnerving territory by making them eerie, and not just through their inscrutable press copy or their names, but throughout their very souls. Iris Silver Mist will send chills of otherworldly orris down your spine, Tubereuse Criminelle shall disturb you to your depths in all its heady jolie laide beauty, Sarrasins might sink its feral feline jasmine fangs into your nose and De Profundis exude its own cold kiss of mortality down your neck, but you will not forget them – nor will anyone who gets close enough to sniff.
Certain perfumes are more than a little… numinous. Meaning they convey a hint or a whole ruined abbey of emotion, legend, ghosts of stories past and premonitions to come. They range from the transcendental to the uncanny, which is precisely why they’re so beloved.
It may seem a bit of a stretch to call Neela Vermeire’s Trayee and Ashoka ‘gothic’ when perhaps the first word that comes to mind is ‘exotic’, but think again – if we take the word to mean transporting in an emotionally compelling, numinous sense, then they both do precisely that in two different, very complex and nearly supernatural ways. Trayee with its sacred incense, oud and sandalwood, Ashoka with its sudden, shocking shift from deepest dark to luminous light – either is perfect for that lingering trail of sanctity we all aspire to leave behind us – or the samsara we all hope to achieve.
Rouge Avignon, inspired by the Papal palace at Avignon, embodies the very best of Gothic sensibilities in its very DNA. Rose, incense, smoke, dark, deep woods – it is its own unholy witchy brew of blackest red and reddest black, the shade of a drop of blood, of power and of carefully concealed secrets, too.
Mad, Bad and Dangerous To Know or… Les Hommes Fatales
Lady Caroline Lamb may well have had all sorts of personal reasons to describe George Gordon, Lord Byron as all of the above, but certain masculine-tinged perfumes will haunt me to my grave if not devastate me into a swoon, whether they’re worn by short, dark and interesting exemplars of the male gender or by tall, fair, rockstar poets in aviator shades fueled by Friday night and Pinot Grigio.
No fan of the Gothic can avoid a fatal predilection for the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. While I somehow doubt Byredo’s Baudelaire would be worn by its namesake, who did indeed have a great affinity for perfume, there’s no question in my demented mind it does full justice to the spirit of his words…erotic, evocative, subversive, and more than a little perilous to short, busty writers with (oversized) nitroglycerin imaginations. Poets beware!
This thick, heady, delirious leather/spicy/immortelle bombshell of a perfume was inspired by that greatest libertine of them all – or so the notorious Marquis liked to see himself. I say it’s much too good for his ghost, but absolutely grand for modern-day libertines out to slay the unsuspecting with everything they’ve got. So long as they’re careful never to promise more than they’re capable of delivering. I also say 1740 is everything any hopelessly romantic, Gothic-leaning female could wish to inhale, although the consequences of doing just that might be harrowing. My lips are sealed in scarlet ink. To paraphrase Tennessee Williams, things occur in the dark of night that make anything happening in daylight seem… all right.
A Haunted History
Perfume, I heard myself saying some time ago, is every bit as legitimate a way of telling a story as a painting, a sculpture, a film, a novel. Few perfumes tell quite such a timeless story as the most haunting pair I know…
The great thing about Amouage paired perfumes is the way both the feminine and the masculine versions reflect two sides of the same story, and here, it’s that eternal epic love story of a tempestuous heaven and a mutual melodrama heartbreak. Either of them have utterly ruined me for life for other so-called ‘bottled love stories’, since so far as I’m concerned, this one is unbeatable. Certainly, it’s unforgettable. As all the best love stories – and worst heartbreaks! – always are.
Les Femmes Fatales
Ladies – you’ve been waiting for these. These perfumes are the dragon-slayers and pale-faced Succubi of the perfume world, the pearlescent vampires, the Liliths, Ligeias and Morellas and the Annabel Lees, the transgressions, the most ebony of carnal sins and ultimate, bottled evils, the justifications for terrible, heart-rending beauty and bone-chilling emanations. If you think about it – what is Ulalume compared to all of those? Edgar? Anyone?
Gothic literature has been such a mainstay of popular fiction for so long, it’s increasingly hard to imagine anything new could ever be done with it. Unless you happen to be that justly famous Boston treasure, perfumer Neil Morris, who took an unknown writer’s opening chapter and turned it into a upgraded Gothic perfume novella for the twenty-first century without overlooking any single essential: a witching hour, a vulnerable woman, a glass of mulled wine, an empty café and the distinct, supernatural thrill of the definitely dangerous and dangerously erotic Devil himself. It can be classified as a chypre, but this is unlike any chypre you think you know – this is as good as fragrant perdition gets. Take it from me. I know.
Two years ago (and how it could be two years I’m still not sure), I had the great good fortune to participate in the Clarimonde Project, a cross-media collaboration of perfumers and writers to explore in prose and perfume one of the earliest and most unusual vampire stories ever – Thèophile Gautier’s 1836 La Morte Amoureuse. House of Cherry Bomb’s Immortal Mine is one of the superlative finest and supremely Gothic perfumes money can buy. It’s as deep and impenetrable as Nietzsche’s abyss, as black and vast as a winter hour before dawn, as licentious as any celebrated courtesan and as haunting (if not daunting) as Gautier’s story and his creation both.
Hundreds of perfumes claim to be noir. Most of them barely qualify as wannabe noir, if that much. Babylon Noir, created by perfumer Kedra Hart of Opus Oils for the Devilscent Project, is such an audacious, outrageous, luscious feline carnivore of a perfume, it makes vintage Narcisse Noir (no slouch in the darkness department) blanc in comparison. Equally suitable for vampires and aspiring Liliths, it will slay anyone it touches, guaranteed, because darkness gets no blacker nor more alluring. Wear it to any Halloween party and watch the competition turn orange in envy.
Ormonde Woman – Ormonde Jayne London
Some very long time ago, when I was still fairly new to niche perfumery, I won a sample of Ormonde Woman on another perfume blog. That it was a green and witchy creature, I already knew from the review, but I wasn’t at all prepared for my own reaction. It was without question the most terrifying perfume I had ever encountered in my life, so much so, it was the original inspiration for Lilith’s perfume. Not for being repellent (which it wasn’t) nor even poisonous (although there was that hemlock absolute…) but precisely because it was such a feral thing of the forest. It took me a good long time (and very many perfumes) to come around to Ormonde Woman, but now I have another wafting weapon at my disposal to put the capital B in bewitching.
Still with me on this fragrant descent into the heart of October darkness? In which case, you’re in for a very big surprise, because Olympic Orchids’ Lil – also created for the Devilscent Project – is not dark in the slightest. Ellen Covey happily took every Gothic trope and cliché in perfumery and subverted them into an absolutely terrifying – and horribly beautiful – perfume of sharp, piercing, eerie green light, as if she had somehow managed to capture a will-o’-the-wisp in a perfume bottle that will haunt (and taunt) your surroundings for a very long time. Wimps and wannabes need not apply.
The Moody, Magnificent Monster
I’m a bit at a loss to describe Opus VII (although I’ve certainly tried) and its effects, but basically, this is a huge, shape-shifting beast of Faërie that takes oud, black leather, cypriol, fenugreek and galbanum and provides them all with the most delirious fangs – or pangs! – you could never have imagined. You can wear it ten times and encounter ten different stories. You will catch a waft and think you have managed to parse its depths to your satisfaction. Ten minutes later, you’ll catch another and wonder what you were thinking. Then hours later, the only thing you can be sure of is one literal wild ride – or wild hunt through the undergrowth? – that surely explains every Dionysian mystery rite from antiquity to the present. Or does it? Only its sillage knows…
In short, if you seek the unusual, the preternatural thrill, the mysteries and the magic of a most magical time of year, these perfumes will be honored to send eerie shivers down your spine.
Because every day should be Halloween!
At least in October.
Serge Lutens perfumes are available from Luckyscent and for European customers, directly from the Serge Lutens website. Trayee and Ashoka are available at Luckyscent and from Neela Vermeire Crèations. Rouge Avignon is available directly from Phaedon. Baudelaire is available from Luckyscent and First in Fragrance. Histoires de Parfums 1740 is at Luckyscent and First in Fragrance. Amouage Memoir Man & Woman can be found at Luckyscent and First in Fragrance. Neil Morris’ Midnight is available through his Vault collection of perfumes by request. House of Cherry Bomb’s Immortal Mine is available at Indie Scents. Opus Oils’ Babylon Noir is available directly from the Opus Oils website, Ormonde Woman from Ormonde Jayne London, Lil directly from Olympic Orchids. Amouage Opus VII is available from Luckyscent, First in Fragrance and directly from the Amouage website.
With thanks to the reader who inspired the post…;)
Illustrations: Franz von Stuck, Die Sünde, 1893 and Lucifer, 1890.